Drawing of a person with a question mark over their face, wearing a hat, scarf, and suit jacketBy Greg Cohan

Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013

Here’s a thought experiment for you: Two people are standing side by side, each wearing non-prescription glasses, drinking from mason jars, and listening to music you’ve never heard of. You ask each of them the same question: “Would you consider yourself a hipster?” One says yes, the other says no. My question for you: Who is telling the truth?

To try to answer that question, I went to the heart of Amherst’s hipster community (sorry Marsh, I’m talking about the Zü) and asked its residents if they thought of themselves as hipsters. The results: Of the 12 people I asked, I got one “yes,” one “if you pushed me on it, I’d say probably,” and one “hipster? I thought you said hamster! I’d say I’m hamster first, hipster second.” Everyone else said “no” or “I can’t answer that.” But my hipster spidey sense tells me that most Amherst students wouldn’t buy that only a quarter of the Zü’s residents are hipsters. So who’s right—the Zübies, or the rest of the campus? Without naming names, I don’t think it’s the kids from the place that rhymes with “zoo.”

Of course, some people who say they aren’t hipsters clearly aren’t—I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney. At the same time, my very unscientific survey suggests that part of hipsterdom might be disavowing it. This has all sorts of implications for what it means to be a hipster. Primary among them is that hipsters have pulled off a feat that many other subcultures can only dream of: They’ve made it impossible to infiltrate their ranks. The second you think you’ve found the key to being a hipster, you’ve failed—clearly it wasn’t obscure enough. “Hipster” is defined by its inability to be defined—which, of course, is a definition.

I don’t want to philosophize about hipsters too much—people smarter than I have done so more insightfully than I can. But I do want to talk about hipsters on a personal level, because I really think this (non)definition has a profound effect on everyday life. Finding one’s identity is hard enough—it’s even harder when that identity is by definition is impossible to find. So what’s a person to do when faced with this impossible task? Easy: Don’t do it.
Which brings me, finally, to why I’m not a hipster. My identity may be in flux, but it’s still there. I’m thoughtful. I’m nervous. I’m short. I’m argumentative. Oh, and I dress sort of like a hipster, live in the Zü, and play the ukulele. But I’m here. And in a way, that sucks. Now that you have me, you can start taking shots at me. He’s not really that thoughtful. He sure is short, though. I wish he would listen more and talk less. Really? He likes Taylor Swift? Non-ironically?

And I’m with you on those (except for the T-Swift thing)—there are a ton of things that I want to do better. I know that it’s not fun to be told you’re not good at things, or to be made fun of, or to be judged. So maybe hipsters are on to something after all. You can’t make fun of them—they’ll beat you to it. Who cares if they’re not good at something—they didn’t even try in the first place.

But I want to argue that there are some things I can do that hipsters can’t. I can make myself vulnerable, because I really am trying my hardest. I can connect with people, because there is a “me” there to connect with. And I can say things that I mean. Because I want to be understood. And understand. But mainly, be understood.

I really don’t mean to demonize hipsters (especially since I’m throwing myself under the bus if you don’t believe that I’m not one). My excuse is that,  as I’ve defined it, nobody is a true hipster. Though we might participate more or less in it, none of us can really completely disavow our [respective] identities.

But I also don’t want to excuse them or their offspring. I think it’s ridiculous that hipsters stop liking things on Facebook when too many other people like them (true story, there’s a study on it). And I think it’s a real problem that people are so fucking desperate to not put any of themselves on the line. Instead we hide behind all of the gifts that hipsters have offered us: irony, disaffection, and those non-prescription glasses (who knew they’d be useful after all?). But when we do that, we give up the chance to know how good it feels to just say yes and go for it. And how fucking incredible it is to have someone there to do it with.

At this point you’re probably thinking about how romantic I sound. And you’d be right, to an extent. But I want to challenge you not to stop there (I’m talking to everyone now, not just hipsters). We love stopping there. We think it gets us off the hook, that if we’re the first person to call something naive, then we don’t have to think anymore. But this should be where the conversation starts, not where it ends.

And when I say we, I do mean we. I don’t want to exclude myself from this critique. I’m pretty (er, very) sarcastic and can seem about as aloof as it gets (not to mention my mason jars). So please, please believe me when I tell you that that is not me. Really—try me. Next time you see me, ask me to say something I mean, or to stand up for something I believe in, or just to make myself vulnerable. There’s a chance I won’t be able to. But then again, I just might.