Hipsters are the friends who sneer when you cop to liking Coldplay. They're the people who wear t-shirts silkscreened with quotes from movies you've never heard of and are the only ones in America who still think Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good beer. They sport cowboy hats and berets and think Kanye West stole their sunglasses. Everything about them is exactingly constructed to give off the vibe that they just don't care.
Annoying, yes, but harmless, right? Not to hear their critics tell it. Hipsters manage to attract a loathing unique in its intensity. Critics have described the loosely-defined movement as smug, full of contradictions, and, ultimately, "the death of Western civilization."
Though the subcultural is met with derision in wider society, hipsters have been able to eke out enclaves across the country, chief among them the Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood of Williamsburg. But now even that is threatened. The hip have been hit with a double whammy of economic reality — more are struggling to pay the rent as parental support dries up, and their carefully gentrified neighborhood is gradually being infiltrated by squatters inhabiting Williamsburg's stalled building projects. Hipsterdom's largest natural habitat, it seems, is under threat. (See pictures of Steve Jobs on the job.)
Though the irony-sporting, status quo-abhorring, plaid-clad denizens of Williamsburg are a distinctly modern species, the hipster as a genus has its roots in the 1930s and 40s. The word itself was coined after the Jazz Age, when the word "hip" arose up to describe aficionados of the growing scene. The word's origins are disputed — some say it was a derivative of "hop," a slang term for opium, while others think it comes from the West African word "hipi," meaning to open one's eyes. But gradually it morphed into a noun, and the "hipster" was born.
Hipsters were usually middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely-black jazz musicians they followed. But the subculture grew, and after World War II, a burgeoning literary scene attached itself to the movement: Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg were early hipsters, but it would be Norman Mailer who would try and give the movement definition. In an essay titled "The White Negro", Mailer painted hipsters as American existentialists, living a life surrounded by death — annihiliated by atomic war or strangled by social confirmity — and electing instead to "to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self." As the first hipster generation aged, they were replaced by the eytmologically diminutive hippies, who appropriated their fears about the Cold War but embraced the community over the individual.
The word would fade for years until it was reborn in the early 90s, used again to describe a new generation of middle-class youths interested in an alternative art and music scene. But instead of creating a culture of their own, hipsters proved content to borrow from trends long past. Take your grandmother's sweater and Bob Dylan's Wayfarers, add jean shorts, Converse All-Stars and a can of Pabst and bam — hipster.
Such cultural mishmash is ripe for parodying. In 2003, author Robert Lanham wrote The Hipster Handbook, trying to codify the rules to hipsterdom, like "You graduated from a liberal arts school whose football team hasn't won a game since the Reagan administration" and "You have one Republican friend who you always describe as being your 'one Republican friend.'" There's also Hipster Bingo and, of course, Look at This F___ing Hipster (link, obviously, contains strong language). Chronicling hipsterdom's extremes, the LATFH photo blog was a viral sensation, netting its founder, Joe Mande, a book deal in the process. (See the 25 best blogs of 2009.)
Some of this ridicule is a bit unfair. As stores like Urban Outfitters have mass-produced hipster chic, hipsterdom has become a part of mainstream culture, overshadowing its originators' still-strong alternative art and music scene. Those people, of course, no longer identify as hipsters, but they're not the problem. The hipsters that will be the "death of Western Civilization" are the ones who add nothing new or original and simply recycle and reduce old trends into a meaningless meme. It's for that reason that when Williamsburg's hipster playland is in crisis, there aren't many who are concerned.