Hippie vs. Hipster

Quick, who do you hate more, hipsters or hippies?  What about this: who matters more?  While hippies are still derided for their idealism, they are also romanticized as cultural pioneers.  Hipsters certainly have not attained this cache, but I wonder, what will people say of hipsters in 40 years?

Woodstock Music Festival, photo by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

The Museum at Bethel Woods commemorates the 1969 Woodstock music festival, and more broadly, the major cultural changes of the 1960s.  While the museum studiously avoids being a “museum of the hippies” it is the closest thing to a museum presentation of that subculture, and hard not to think of it as such.  It is taken as a given that the youth culture of the time, for all its faults, was indeed a cultural vanguard.  They may or may not have been the driving force of cultural change in the 1960s, but they were clearly reflective of their times.  Hippies heralded a society that, for better or worse, would be less conservative and more libertine and individualistic.  Therefore, their story is worth putting in a museum exhibit, as it helps to illustrate the changes occurring in society at the time.[1]

Today, the most common criticism leveled against hipsters is that they are apathetic and revel in meaningless consumption, which is exemplified in this Adbusters article.  They appropriate cultural signifiers from various groups and combine them in a way that strips them of meaning or context.  Cultural consumption and display becomes an end in and of itself.  We are all aware of theories that say that consumption and display do not have any inherent meaning; that they serve primarily as signifiers of class.[2]  However, it is uncomfortable to have this truth so brazenly displayed and embraced by hipsters.  By rejecting the pretense that clothes, music, and beer have any inherent meaning beyond just being fashion, they give in to the worst aspects of consumerist culture, while pretending to flout them.

So how should we treat hipsters as historical artifacts?  According to Veblen, cultural attitudes, fashion, and institutions are

A hipster. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

merely the reflection of external, material circumstances. [3] If we take this as true then it follows that hipsters are not an organic, spontaneous cultural phenomenon.  Instead, they expose some deeper truth about our society.  Considering that nobody willingly embraces the term “hipster”, we can assume that few really like what they see.  However, this fact does make the hipster a valid subject for historical study.

Youth culture is easy to hate.  Would we hate hipsters less if, instead of adopting an attitude of apathy and detached irony, they pretended that by drinking PBR and dressing foolishly that they are somehow sticking it to the man? I doubt it.  Young people tend to be self absorbed, oblivious to worldviews other than their own, and convinced of their uniqueness.  Has there ever been a youth subculture in the post-WWII United States who did not see themselves as unique cultural pioneers?  Ultimately however, youth culture is often at the vanguard of our national culture.  Hippies were reflective of our society as a whole, and today’s hipsters probably are too.  Fortunately, the worst fears regarding youth culture movements are rarely realized, but it does shape the direction of our national culture.

[1] http://www.bethelwoodscenter.org/museum.aspx

[2] Mark Grief, “The Hipster in the Mirror,” The New York Times, November 12, 2010, accessed March 6, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=the%20hipster%20in%20the%20mirror&st=cse&scp=1

[3] Thorstein Veblen, “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In The American Intellectual Tradition, Vol. II, ed. David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997),  128-129

One thought on “Hippie vs. Hipster

  1. I must be misinformed about hipsters. I always thought it was about sticking it to the man. Somehow you are telling off the establishment by not caring about what they think. Like when you go to hipster bar and people are dancing in a non-dancing way on purpose to show how mainstream dancing really is.

    Reading your post has helped me see some of the connections between hipsters and hippies. However, I think unlike punk or hippies or even b-boy and b-girls hipsters adapt an anti-culture instead of creating an opposition culture. It will be really interesting to see how this movement is analyzed in the future.

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