During the last 18 months, the word “hipster” has taken on a new, sinister meaning. Not too long ago, we loved hipsters—we mimicked their mannerisms and adopted their fashions; but that’s all changed. In the blink of an eye, the hipster has turned into a catch-all scapegoat, guilty for everything from expensive beer to bad music. Hipsters cause unemployment, and undermine businesses. Cities have lost billions of dollars in federal funds because of hipsters.
In a famous rant, Spike Lee blamed hipsters for the gentrication of his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. But Lee only scratched the surface of a global threat. Hipsters have already ruined Paris. In Britain, hipster hate blogs are multiplying online. In Germany, hipsters are allegedly instigating a neo-Nazi movement—in fact, the combination of ‘Nazi’ and ‘hipster’ has resulted in the new term “nipster.”
No one has yet blamed hipsters for global warming or the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time.
What’s going on with all this hipster blaming and shaming?
The sociological phenomenon at play here exhibits all the historical tendencies of “scapegoating.” Scapegoats may seem like random victims, because they are (by definition) not responsible for the evils attributed to them. But the choice of a scapegoat is never really arbitrary, as scholar René Girard has shown in his classic study of the phenomenon. The scapegoat is invariably an outsider, existing at the margins of a community, and resisting its core values.
In an uncanny way, that describes the precise definition of the hipster, when the term first appeared in the American vocabulary. Back in the ’40s, hipsters were associated with fringe music and alternative lifestyles—and blamed for loose morals and narcotics use. When Harry “The Hipster” Gibson released his recording “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine” in 1946, he got banned from the radio, but stirred up Mom and Dad’s fear that their babies might grow up to be hipsters.
And many of them did just that. The hipsters of the ’40s set the tone for the beatniks of the ’50s and the hippies (a term with the same etymological roots as ‘hipster’) of the ’60s. At almost every stage in its evolution, the counterculture movement of the second half of the 20th century drew on the legacy of hipsterdom.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the current hipster backlash—after all, every new generation rebels against its parents’ and grandparents’ values. And hipsters and hippies now reek of old-school, kneejerk attitudes. But how strange that the original rebels, the hip cats themselves, should find themselves in the crosshairs of today’s discontented and dispossessed. Hipsters wrote the rulebook on generational discontent, but, to reverse Huey Lewis’s axiom, it’s now square to be hip.
When examined with any rigor, the stereotypes circulating about current-day hipsters make no sense whatsoever. Buzzfeed assures me that deadbeats camped out on the pavement in big cities are hipsters. But how can these homeless people be the same folks who are buying up property in trendy neighborhoods? I’m told that hipsters are driving artists out of cities, but the very definition of hipster is a person who supports fringe and emerging artistic movements. At their birth, hipsters came out of the black community and the movement flourished among whites who supported the Civil Rights movement, but now I am supposed to believe that hipsters are racists and Nazis. None of this adds up.
But here’s the strangest part of the story. I can’t find anyone who admits to being a hipster. Not one single soul. Cagey, aren’t they? I’m sure they hold secret meetings in hidden places, or communicate via dark and furtive web forums. That must be where they share tips on running up beer prices and ensuring that Brooklyn rents are too damn high. But my attempts to interview actual hipsters always come up short. I search and search, but can never find the hipster cabal.
I can’t say I blame the hipsters for hiding from view. I’d keep a low profile, too, if I were hatching all these nefarious schemes.
Then again, there’s another explanation for all this. Perhaps the word “hipster” has now lost all referential meaning. Like the ghouls and goblins of fairy tales, the hipster doesn’t exist in reality, but only gives people a catchphrase to personify their fears and anxieties. There are no hipsters anymore—at least none that live up to the crazy, incoherent stereotypes in circulation.
But I’m not complaining about this. A non-existent scapegoat may be the best scapegoat of them all. Everyone gets to vent, and no one gets hurt. So keep on blaming hipsters for all your woes. Just don’t expect them to respond—because they are merely a figment of your imagination.