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Russell Smith

They've got plaid shirts and guitars. But don't call them hipsters any more Add to ...

My somewhat gritty Toronto neighbourhood, a place of many dollar stores and two strip clubs, has seen a recent influx of young men with beards and plaid shirts. They carry guitars on very austere racing bikes. They have taken to opening art galleries in storefronts and leaving the faded name of the original business instead of a sign. There are many new bars, which is great, but conversation in them sometimes feels as if they have all been watching Portlandia – the TV comedy about sensitive downtowners in Oregon – very, very intently. I wanted to buy some coffee in a new organic food shop and I heard quite a serious pitch for a fair-trade bean that was delivered to retailers by bicycle only.

I was describing this population to a friend who said, “Have you noticed that no one uses the word “hipster” any more? It sounds so 2010.”

Yes, I had noticed, and that’s why I am careful now in describing these people without resorting to any dismissive shorthand – for one thing, they themselves get so upset. You’d think very fashionable people would want to hear themselves described as fashionable, but the idea of fashionability is highly suspect among the fashionable themselves. That is to say, no respectable hipster would admit to being a hipster, even though he may adhere to an extremely strict and recognizable dress code. So walking my streets is like being at a convention of Salafist Muslims who are forbidden to use the word Islam. (I mean, it’s what I imagine that would be like.) All right then: mum’s the word!

But I understand too that the word “hipster” is no longer valid because it has become marketers’ and media code for a certain set of brand names rather than for an artistic subculture. The vegan, bearded indie-rock guy with the perpetual hat, and the word hipster, became a cliché of comedy a couple of years ago: first on the Internet, with short funny videos such as the Hipster Olympics and How To Be A Dickhead. Those satires, like Portlandia, were at least about cultural values rather than about expensive purchases.

Compare a more recent parody: the “hipster lorem ipsum” text that has circulated among designers. (Lorem ipsum is the Latin placeholder text used in graphic-design mockups.) A guy called Jason Cosper created a popular online generator of “artisanal” lorem ipsum – that is, it spews words like “chambray butcher biodiesel sustainable Tumblr” for you to use as nonsense text, in your presumably hipster-targeted website. Most of the words he has chosen as truly “hipster” are actually objects and brand names, which shows that the idea is now fully diluted. Say what you will about the artistic culture of the plaid-shirted from 2000 to 2010 (and I said lots, none of it nice), at least it was a genuinely odd aesthetic, a genuine subculture, with an unselfconscious love of childish pop culture and a curious mixing of the emotional and the archly ironic. It was new. It was not simply a certain buying pattern.

Recall the wisdom of Danny, the drug dealer in Withnail And I, set in 1969: “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworth’s, man.” His point was: It’s over.

I remember when “hippie” was a powerful term, referring to a scary person, or at least the kind of person my dad actually felt threatened by. I, like many other children, was quite afraid of the hippies camping in the park; they were dirty and very strange. It wasn’t till around 1980 that the word became a lazy descriptor of anything vaguely soft.

The same thing happened with “yuppie” around 1990. Yuppie lifestyle magazines banned the word from their pages. No one was a yuppie any more because everybody was. And to use it was to show how out-of-date and old-fashioned you were – it was like saying pinko for left-wing or women’s lib for feminism.

The most recent one of these is “metrosexual” – remember that? When was the last time you read it in a magazine? And wasn’t it in every single article just five years ago? Suddenly there are no more metrosexuals, as there are no more hipsters, just as the sidewalks are finally full of them.

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