For Melinda Wilferd, nightlife in Los Angeles was a lot like high school. The 35-year-old ran with a crowd that often went to parties in downtown lofts, “where all the faces turn around and look at you, assessing whether or not you’re going to fit in the hipster club.” Where if you enjoy watching TV, you’re held beneath contempt. And where “they talk about music like it’s some revelation.”
The pretension and callowness finally got to her, and one night “I told my friends I can’t do this anymore.” She began exploring wine bars and jazz clubs in search of more fulfilling nightlife -- and to get away from hipsters. “Now I’m more interested in what pleases me,” says the employee of a major cable network. “I just want my little place in this mad, mad world.”
The hypnosis of hipsterism is entrenched among many of L.A.'s urban sophisticates, especially those who work in the trend-driven industries of media, music and fashion. But for many twenty-, thirty- and fortysomethings, the appeal of being cool and edgy is rapidly deteriorating. “The last identity you would want to claim now is a hipster,” says John Leland, author of “Hip: The History.” “It’s the worst of insults.”
Just what is hip has become nebulous in a digital age of microtrends, when a cultural blip goes from underground to overexposed in one season. Likewise, the original concept of hip as something outside the purview of the mainstream has been replaced by the hipstream: mainstream cool packaged by corporate marketing departments.
The inevitable backlash -- not against the bohemian veritas but the sycophantic consumer of cool -- is well underway.
“The whole point of being hip in the pure sense of the word is to essentially be oblivious to it,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Now the only thing you can describe a hipster as being is a ‘hipster’ in quotation marks. Almost by definition a hipster is a wannabe.”
If hipness is losing its appeal, it may have to do with how difficult it is to stay ahead of the curve.
In a recent issue of his JC Report, a global fashion and lifestyle trend report, Jason Campbell prophesized “the downfall of the hipster.” Staying cool, says the fashion trend forecaster, “has become a bit of a joke at this point. It’s a rat race that’s really difficult to keep up with, and a lot of people are bowing out.”
A fashion-designer friend of Campbell’s recently confessed that he was so overwhelmed by the endless barrage of new designer denim brands that he vowed to wear only classic Levi’s 501s as a form of protest. “People aren’t feeling they need to run out and pick up the latest thing that whatever celebrity of the moment has,” Campbell says. “They’re returning to things that resonate with them and are part of their personal style.”
“I think people are exhausted by trends that have the half-life of a millisecond,” Leland says. “You live in a state of perpetual whiplash, in which the minute you’re up on one trend it’s gone and you should be on to another.”
Unlike the beatnik ‘50s, when discovering some gem of cultural arcana involved real detective work, today getting hip to the latest blog or indie rock band is as easy as logging on to the Internet. “We’re in a post-hip era, which means everybody’s hip,” says Leland. “I can’t tell you how many churches I’ve been in where the pastor has a goatee, tattoos and earrings.”
So if everybody’s hip, then let’s be unhip, and indeed, what a very hip idea. Some people are just fed up with the whole enterprise.
Jane Fontana writes “hard, electronic music” for the entertainment industry and spent 10 years living in Hollywood before turning her back on hipster-infested urban life. Last year she bought a cabin in the Angeles National Forest near Tujunga. Though it’s only 35 miles from Hollywood, in an industry where people judge your prestige by your area code, she might as well have moved to Idaho.
“If you connect in the hipster scene, you’ll make it in [show] business,” she says, “because all the people on the business side never think they’re cool enough. The hipster scene avoids the search for oneself in a big way. It’s not about finding your voice; it’s all about conformity.”
Fontana, 42, says that leaving L.A. has brought her peace of mind, boosted her creativity and helped her live more authentically. She recently threw a party at her cabin, where the appeal of getting back to nature -- and away from Hollywood -- was not lost on the hipster guests. The writers, artists and filmmakers in attendance checked their networking compulsion at the door and engaged in genuine conversation, Fontana says. “They felt like they’d gotten away from what they have to be and could be what they are.”
Erica Timmerman realized she didn’t care about trying to be hip anymore when, at age 30, her doctor told her she had thyroid cancer. The diagnosis annihilated her ambitions to be a walking pop culture encyclopedia or to cultivate a pose of ironic detachment. Cancer, after all, doesn’t respond to wisecracks.
“When you think you might die, you look at your life and realize what’s important to you,” says Timmerman.
The now 40-year-old Silver Lake resident has felt pressure since adolescence to be considered cool. That pressure, along with her cancer, is now in remission. “And I’m not going to let anyone dictate how I’m supposed to look or act, and stop trying to be something I’m not,” says Timmerman.
Like Silver Lake, its L.A. equivalent, New York’s Williamsburg neighborhood has watched itself go from hipster epicenter to hipster punch line.
Twenty-six-year-old “office slave” and aspiring novelist Brian Bernbaum founded the blog hipstersareannoying.com, under the pseudonym Aimee Plumley, while living in Williamsburg. Based on the outcry against his mockery, “you would’ve thought there was a revolution going on,” he says.
Bernbaum was inspired by what he viewed as a pose adopted by hipsters to deliberately obfuscate human interaction. “I felt people wouldn’t level with you, that they were giving you their resume of cool. You could never really get anything out of people that seemed like normal social interaction.” Conversations at clubs and parties became “a one-upmanship of pop culture encyclopedias.”
Any hip community eventually becomes a parody of itself, says Robert Lanham, author of “The Hipster Handbook” (2002), which many perceived as a marketing gimmick put out by corporate media but which was, in fact, a skewering of Williamsburg hipsters by the 34-year-old humorist and co-founder of freewilliamsburg.com, a neighborhood blog and culture guide.
Lanham’s follow-up, last year’s “Food Court Druids, Cherohonkees, and Other Creatures Unique to the Republic,” takes the parody a step further and includes a chapter on “cryptsters,” or aging hipsters. “There’s also this new breed of pseudo-bohemians or fauxhemians,” says the author, “a facade of hipsters trying to play the bohemian role, but their parents are paying their rent.”
Dropping out of the hipster scene has made Bernbaum use his time in more personally fulfilling ways, he says. “And it’s a lot cheaper.” The downside is that he’s floating in social limbo. “The youth of New York is geared toward hipster things. I’ve just withdrawn from the people I didn’t feel it was worth my time hanging out with. But I haven’t really found an alternate world of people.”
Adrienne Crew stops short of using a term such as “new sincerity” but says she’s noticed a growing interest among young urbanites to simplify their lives. Crew, a 40-year-old attorney and “brainiac” writing a novel on African American geeks, is the founder of labrainterrain.com, a blog and calendar listing of intellectual events around L.A.
“I’m seeing these youngsters who are really looking for expressions of unmediated experience, fun that’s not created by consumer culture,” she says. A growing trend she sees as a reaction to hipsterism is “granny chic,” or social groups centered around archaic hobbies. Stitch and Bitch and The Church of Craft are two Los Angeles-based examples of groups that gather to work on quilting, needlework, paper craft and lace making -- in unabashed earnestness.
Crew also cites the Machine Project, a group that combines performance art with science, hosting workshops on such topics as how to build a radio. Says Crew, “Every two days I get these e-mails that go, ‘Hey, kids, we’ve got this goofy thing we’re going to be doing, so bring anything you want demagnetized!’ ”
For Leland, cultivating one’s inner garden is the perfect antidote to the overexposure of hip. He suggests nourishing “secrets” or “private knowledge” one keeps to oneself, like a diary locked with a key, rather than a blog for the whole world to see.
Bernbaum wonders if conservatism from the heartland may be infiltrating hipster-heavy metropolises, “making people seek out something more meaningful” in their lives.
In hipster and media-driven Los Angeles, it’s easy to forget that most Angelenos ages 25 to 40 don’t wear checkered Vans with distressed blazers or go to downtown gallery openings or Echo Park dive bars.
Craigslist.org, once an underground website for hipsters seeking jobs and apartments, now boasts an activities section packed with people seeking irony-free social connections in such humdrum activities as chess, badminton, lacrosse, foreign language study, outrigger canoeing and the Hermosa Beach Lawn Bowling Club.
Best get involved now, before they become hip.