It turns out America still makes something.
That would be: hipsters. And the numbers say the world can’t get enough of ‘em.
According to Google search data examined by the Los Angeles Times, global searches for “hipster” and “hipster”-related topics are soaring toward an all-time high in 2012. Worldwide, searches have tripled in the last three years with no signs of slowing.
This despite the fact that barely anybody knows what a “hipster” is. Hipsters started out as a mostly white, mostly urban, mostly obscure-music-listening, vintage-clothes-wearing youth subculture. Now they seem to be something else. (More on that later.)
Nonetheless, we can safely say, using math, that the vague concept of “hipsters” has officially become a rock-solid item of mainstream fixation.
Google Trends data isn’t exactly scientific — hipster searches don’t necessarily equal hipsterdom. But because the U.S. Census doesn’t seem to count youths who drink Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and ride vintage bikes as a distinct type of person, stats from the popular search giant don’t seem a bad place to start.
And what those stats suggest is that the top five American hipster-infatuated cities over the last year — adjusted for population — have been Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, San Francisco and San Diego.
These figures also suggest that the United States is no longer the hipster capital of the world. “Hipster” searches are steadily and rapidly increasing month by month all over the globe, with Mexico surpassing the United States over the last 12 months and with Chile in a close third place.
But perhaps most revealingly, what these stats suggest is that American interest in hipsters has stopped growing. For the first time since 2009, domestic interest has leveled out, leaving us to ask: Has America finally reached peak hipster?
A lot of people hope so. Even four years ago, informed cultural observers were calling hipsters “the dead end of Western Civilization.”
Have hipsters ended Western Civilization? They have not. Not yet, anyway.
What is a ‘hipster’?
“The Lower East Side and Williamsburg in New York, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Silver Lake in L.A., the Inner Mission in San Francisco: This is where the contemporary hipster first flourished,” wrote n+1 editor Mark Greif in New York magazine, explaining the phenomenon’s origins in the late ‘90s. “Over the years, there developed such a thing as a hipster style and range of art and finally, by extension, something like a characteristic attitude and Weltanschauung,” or worldview.
The common thinking among people who study “hipsters” is that the term tends to say less than people think; one of the notable things about hipsters has been their historical reluctance to self-identify.
“I like doing a lot of the things that are the hipster thing to do, but I do them because I like to do them, not because they’re the cool thing to do,” a young woman told sociologists during a recent study on hipsters. “And because I am immersed in the social scene where there are a lot of hipsters, people mistake me for being one of them.”
Clarity-wise, the term hasn’t been helped by its mainstream hijacking by popular media. The New York Times’ resident grammarian, Philip Corbett, chided the paper for using the term more than 250 times in 2010, apparently willy-nilly.
The Los Angeles Times too has done its part, writing about Amish hipsters, hipster fedoras, hipster thermostats, hipster Jesus, hipster existentialism, hipster racism, the “hipster primitive look” and the hipster apocalypse (figurative).
But New York magazine’s Greif was insistent that hipsterdom is a very real thing and not just another buzzword. It described “an air of knowing about exclusive things before anyone else” when hipsters popped up in 1999, Greif wrote. “The new young strangers acted, as people said then, ‘hipper than thou.’ ”
They did this by buying old clothes and listening to weird bands nobody else had heard of, but which served as a kind of secret password among their friends to signify that they were members of an exclusive club.
It was, in short, another form of “keeping up with the Joneses” — social competition by way of consumerism, with ironic old sunglasses in place of the big new Cadillac, ironic pink jeans in place of the 72-inch TV, urban kids instead of suburban families.
Outsiders might see Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Logan Square in Chicago or the Mission in San Francisco as nightmare hives of skinny-jeaned conformity. But once you looked closer, Greif said, you could see layers of kids jostling against and attacking each other over very different levels of status or money or privilege — from “liberal arts college grads with too much time on their hands” who hated “trust fund hipsters” who hated “couch-surfing hipsters” without stable families or other social nets — all just to prove themselves better than somebody else.
It turns out “hipster” is a big word that describes a deceptively complex group of people. But if the word gets much more popular, people probably won’t know what, exactly, they mean when they “hipster” at all — if they even do now.
Hipsters then and now
Judging from Google search data, hipsters’ lasting mainstream impact likely will be most visible on fashion. The top hipster-related search? “Hipster look.” The biggest-rising search? “Hipster glasses.”
LeBron James has hipster glasses. The NYPD has a hipster cop. And when GQ interviewed the hipster cop to talk about his retro look, it turned out that he was wearing stuff made by Ralph Lauren, Burberry, and J.Crew.
Not exactly subversive.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who specialized in writing about how taste is just another form of social competition, once wrote that “returns to past styles have never been more frequent than in these times of frenetic pursuit of originality.”
He was talking about French painters stealing from other French painters and making sly, obscure references in the heady days of modernism in the early 20th century. But the thought could also explain today’s ironic thefts of Dad’s 1980s wardrobe by a generation that, as polls have shown, prides itself on being more special than anybody.
But a lot of that self-importance seemed to come with heavy doses of irony and cynicism; Bertrand Russell, examining a similar trend of youthful cynicism in 1930, described it as a product of “comfort without power.” In those days, large numbers of talented, smart young people — produced by newfound levels of mass education — found themselves unable to get jobs commensurate with their skills, so they became cynics. (Sound familiar?)
And those qualities of self-importance and cynicism have become reviled by both the political right and the left today.
In July 2008, counterculture magazine Adbusters called hipsters “the dead end of Western Civilization” — just a bunch of self-absorbed, self-indulgent kids with no aspirations for the future who were getting manipulated by advertisers and marketers who were more than happy to sell them skinny jeans and trucker hats if they thought it made them look cool.
Instead of getting politically active or professionally ambitious, hipsters were sitting around sniping at everything and not really contributing anything. In the best-case scenario, they were consumerists no better than the older generation they were mocking.
“Western civilization’s well has run dry,” Adbusters’ George Atherton cried then. “The only way to avoid hitting the colossus of societal failure that looms over the horizon is for the kids to abandon this vain existence and start over.”
The kids did not abandon this vain existence and start over. If the numbers mean anything, they say that the kids have only just begun.