Hipsterism: Same as it ever was

I had an interesting conversation the other night with my friend Ted over at Rockitecture about “hipsterism” and only today realized it has resonance with what I’ve been reading lately, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the first nonfiction collection by American culture fanatic Tom Wolfe, author of such gems as The Right Stuff and the novel Bonfire of the Vanities. Kandy-Kolored is a non-fiction account of life on the fringes in the early sixties, before any of that Vietnam stuff happened, before the summer of love, after Jack but before Bobby and Martin.

The most interesting of his pieces in this collection (“The Peppermint Lounge Revisited,” “The Kandy-Kolored…”) concern youth culture, something a Ph.D in American Studies could only pretend to fully understand. Wolfe writes that the New Jersey teenagers who frequented the Peppermint Lounge and those California boys who built custom cars had one thing in common: they were absolutely obsessed by form. In Wolfe’s words, “They were all wonderful slaves to form. They have created their own style of life, and they are much more authoritarian about enforcing it than are adults.” (79) Couldn’t the same be said of today’s hipsters? 

Teenage Male Hairdos, drawings by Tom Wolfe. From left: The ducktail tease, The flat top, The basic ducktail, The "Chicago Boxcar

Teenage Male Hairdos, drawings by Tom Wolfe: ducktail tease, flat top, basic ducktail, "Chicago Boxcar" From The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)

It’s a bit melodramatic to refer to hipsterism as “The Dead End of Western Civilization” — as a supposed counter-culture magazine wrote last year — having read Wolfe’s account of teenage dandies dancing their respective asses off at the Peppermint Lounge without smiling or looking at each other, and retreating to the bathroom regularly to check on their elaborate coiffes; and this from the generation to whom we credit the transformation of world culture! Self-referentiality and aesthetic obsession don’t differentiate today’s counterculture kids.

In my conversation with the aforementioned Ted, we bashed those of a particular previous generation known for its lack of motivation and its slackerism, along with the cultural virus known as “grunge,” but it seems that almost everyone, hipsters included, are bashing hipsterism. The trouble is, many say, that we don’t stand for anything. But things aren’t just black-and-white anymore. This younger generation, weaned on The Daily Show and the newfangled interweb, has a more nuanced understanding of the world than was ever before possible. Our response to this situation hasn’t always been desirable or even propitious, but we’re working it out as we go along, just like every generation has in the past and every generation will in the future.

Like the sixties dandies Wolfe describes, we’ve got more to think about than our parents, so we’ll take our time figuring out what to stand for. But as much as Fox News and Glenn Beck want people to believe, maybe it’s not us versus them anymore. Instead of constructing dialectics and diatribes against country music or conservatism, we’d rather act in the affirmative, projecting our own lifestyle as desirable by our actions, not our words. We prefer “acting out” to “acting up.” Your shrill words will never hurt us… we’re too busy.