With Lana Del Rey’s meteoric, blog hype-fueled rise and rapid, SNL-catalyzed descent, the mere existence of MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back and the trendy intellectual publication n+1 already taking a wishful backward glance at the subculture, hipsterdom appears to be on the wane. Have we reached a tipping point? If so, what’s next for American youth-based movements? While aware that the ability to predict the future is a rare trait, we asked several intrepid thinkers, writers, and academic types to hazard a guess. Specifically, we asked: 1. Keeping in mind the crude progression of subcultures from Beatnik to Hippie to Punk to Grunge to Hipster, what kind of prominent group will emerge next? 2. Or is the Hipster some form of the last widespread, cohesive subculture in this post-war lineage, since the Internet and other changes to American life are making this a nation of fragmented cultural tribes? Here’s what they said…
Robert Sloane, Instructor of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (with Alex Champlin):
It’s difficult to talk about these groups as a “lineage,” because besides being groups that were associated with young Americans, they all had different levels of cohesion, formed in response to different social conditions, and produced different results. It seems to me that the beatniks and hippies were reacting more to society-level characteristics (conformity, political and cultural conservatism), whereas I associate the punks and “grunge” folks (slackers? Generation X?) with a cultural rebellion, reacting against a certain ossification in corporate culture (and especially music, although not exclusively). Interestingly, hip hop is missing from this list, and it seems to be doing both and neither at once, creating something new out of very limited opportunities. Hipsters seem to be a more general taste culture, embodying a number of different critiques of modern society in a more holistic, but I think less defined, way.
Is the Internet “making this a nation of fragmented cultural tribes”? Yes and no. The Internet is definitely the most elaborate and far-reaching site using the niche and target marketing techniques that have attacked the mass-media “mainstream’ forged in the middle of the 20th century. However, the US has always been a nation of “fragmented cultural tribes,” and even when there appeared to be unity, it mostly papered over, ignored, or erased differences among smaller groups. But I don’t think the Internet means the end of subcultures, because I don’t see hipsters as particularly cohesive, in a national sense. In each of these subcultural examples, people have experiences primarily at the local level, and then they are joined together in a network, to a greater or lesser extent, that connects these localities across the nation.
For example, after the first flurry of punk rose up in the mid-’70s, and then seemingly “died” with the Sex Pistols tour of the US, like-minded individuals in cities all over the country began to play in bands, make their own records, etc. Through touring, exchanging records and zines, college radio, and other interpersonal experiences (all done pre-Internet), a national network was created that could truly be called an “American underground.” (This is the topic of Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life.) Thus, when Nirvana broke in 1991, it was somewhat less surprising to those who knew about this fan base that grew over the 1980s; the emergence of “grunge,” and “alternative” music more generally, was just the coming to fruition of the original punk movement that had been nurtured underground for over a decade.
The Internet can, of course, facilitate such connections, but subcultures generally need physical spaces to grow in, because they involve a way of life, not just a set of tastes shared over a communication device. Otherwise, they are more accurately described as “taste cultures,” which may be a better term for the hipster.
Unlike some earlier subcultures, hipsters generally don’t claim that title. It’s more commonly used as a pejorative, that nevertheless ends up describing a fair number of young educated urbanites living all over the US. (This is why I can laugh at the endless parade of hipster representations on Portlandia, because, while never having been to Portland, I recognize those characters in other people I see and know from around the country — including myself, whom I would never call a “hipster”!)
Predicting what comes after the hipster is almost as impossible as predicting the hippies would have been in 1959, or predicting the punks in 1967 (unless you knew that the Velvet Underground’s mostly-unheard debut album would give rise to a whole scene of like-minded folks a decade later). Subcultures usually form in response to some sort of perceived cultural conformity or hegemony. For me, today, that’s technology and the Internet, and in a way, some of today’s hipsters participate in some activities that try to eschew modernity (craft food and spirits, knitting, canning, etc.). However, I can’t see a youth subculture forming to react against modern technology, since it has become so intertwined with modern life. Since subculture members are almost always associated with cities and higher levels of education, it is possible that future subcultures may respond to an increasing sense of the global and become more multicultural in makeup and focus, especially if the US sees more of a nativist backlash against these changes.