Hipster on Newbury Street, Boston, USA

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer: I am a skinny-jeans-wearing, Pitchfork-reading, banjo-playing writer for an alt-weekly newspaper. I am 10 years younger than my bicycle. And I am here to tell you that not all hipsters are terrible people.

I’ve known plenty of the ones you are thinking of when I say the word “hipster”: chain-smoking beardos with deeper V-necks than intellects, elitists who use their iPhones to tweet about the virtues of outmoded technology, no-talent fauxhemians playing at poverty on their parents’ dime. They are existentialists without the revolt, responding to an absurd universe by living absurd lives.

The Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers say irony is my generation’s curse. I used to think they were right; I have known students of political science whose only news source was The Colbert Report. But now I think that thesis lacks precision. The real battle we’re fighting is against apathy – and on some fronts, we’re winning.

There is overlap between irony and apathy, of course. An ironic wardrobe is one that feigns apathy about fashion, and a person who is apathetic about religion might speak about it exclusively in ironic terms (“I’m starting a band and calling it Jihadi with a Body”). But irony is only a tool. Apathy eats at our souls with dull quiet teeth.

Few of us are guilty of total apathy — not even the hipsters. Instead, most of us are selective activists. To my generation’s credit, we are not shy in speaking our minds about marriage equality. And thanks to Occupy, we have a cursory (if somewhat utopian) understanding of economic justice and who to blame when it’s absent.

On the other hand, we get tripped up on the big questions, and we have a hard time committing. Studies show we’re not big on picking political parties, and last year, a Public Research Institute paper found that fewer than half of Millennials included a religious affiliation on their Facebook profiles. And we’ve all heard about the 2010 Pew Forum study “Religion Among the Millennials,” fodder for every What’s Going On With Young Adults These Days thinkpiece in the past two years. It famously showed that 25 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were religiously “unaffiliated.” But only 7 percent actually identified themselves as atheist or agnostic.

It was an even split within the remaining 18 percent on Team None of the Above. 9 percent called themselves religious but didn’t care to name the deity they were worshiping, while 9 percent had no religious faith but wouldn’t even commit to calling themselves agnostic.

Back to the hipsters.

I live in what some people would call a hipster neighborhood in North Charleston, South Carolina. (Yes, hipsters live and thrive below the Mason-Dixon line.) The neighborhood, Park Circle, is steadily recovering from a citywide reputation for crime and poverty, and my wife and I moved here during what will probably be remembered as the second wave of gentrification. Our neighbors include bartenders, Montessori school teachers, artists, and hippie parents. There are two households within a block of ours that raise chickens. We like it here.

I had a good talk the other day with one of our neighbors, an out-of-the-closet atheist who’s roughly my age. He told me he wanted to join a fraternal service organization like the Freemasons or Kiwanis, but nearly all of them require members to make a statement of belief in a higher power. This conversation struck me as unusual (and delightful) for two reasons:

  1. We were talking in earnest about religious beliefs, and not in a Reddit-troll-quoting-Leviticus way.
  2. Somebody my age was thinking about joining an Elks lodge.

Conventional wisdom and the Pew poll say that ours is not a generation of joiners. But some of my favorite people my age are the ones who buck the trend, forsaking the old Baby Boomer dream of unbridled individualism in favor of older ideals like communitarianism. On the God-fearing end of the religious spectrum, some Christians – myself included – have given up on our parents’ megachurch anarchy and embraced the old mainline denominations with their hymns, liturgies, and rigid hierarchies. Sufjan Stevens, after all, hangs out with the Presbyterians.

Hipsters have the ability to redeem themselves, ushering in a renaissance of the Greatest Generation’s open belief and single-entendre. They can lead the way down divergent paths: activism or apathy, modesty or haughtiness, emotional honesty or smirking insincerity.

Somehow or another (probably from shopping there), my wife and I ended up on the Urban Outfitters mailing list. Every time we get the store’s seasonal catalog in the mail, I take a peek at the hipster horror show inside. I thumb through the pictures before hurling the catalog in the trash in disgust, turning up my nose at the waifish rubes in their fake Day-Glo dereliction.

But at the same time, I remember that the hipster cares deeply about fashion; his Cosby sweater and track pants were curated to project apathy. Who am I to judge, anyway? A sure sign of a hipster is how harshly he critiques other hipsters.

I have never heard anyone say the phrase “New Sincerity” in conversation before, but I am going to start bringing it up. It’s a useful shorthand for what my generation is capable of, and a reminder to myself to not be the wrong kind of hipster.

As a cultural movement, New Sincerity teaches that it’s possible to use irony as a form of expression while being sincere in our motives. Jesse Thorn, host of Public Radio International’s Bullseye and a big proponent of New Sincerity, explains it like this: “Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power … Something more Hedwig than Rocky Horror; more Princess Bride than Last Unicorn; more Bruce Lee than Chuck Norris.” The way Thorn gets his message across is cheeky and referential, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean he’s insincere. Get it?

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to see former Neutral Milk Hotel frontman Jeff Mangum, the Hipster John the Baptist himself, play a solo set to a sold-out crowd at the Charleston Music Hall. Back in the ‘90s, Mangum was the voice crying out in the post-grunge wilderness, writing folk-tinged songs with weirdly honest and literary lyrics that paved the way for the likes of the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire.

The Music Hall concert was, by all accounts, a Gathering of the Hipsters. I saw the twee peacocks and the ladies in their Etsy finery swilling cheap beer, and I felt like an embedded anthropologist – embedded in the sense that I had more or less adopted their habits of dress and expression. Out on the steps in front of the auditorium, I met Patrick Hill, the Atlanta promoter who’d booked the show for Mangum. Here was a man with a real connection to the still-beating heart of modern indie music, and wearing a brown dress shirt tucked into jeans, he looked almost square next to the throngs of hip young Turks who’d bought tickets. We talked for a while about the sorts of things hipsters talk about – the state of alt-weekly newspapers, the need for more intimate music venues, the reasons why city of Columbia is underrated – before I asked him what I really wanted to know: Why doesn’t Jeff Mangum do interviews? The press release I’d received about this show announced that the artist would maintain his long-standing vow of silence before the press, and to me it sounded aloof, calculated to keep up a false mystique.

“I don’t think he does it because he’s jaded,” Hill replied. “I think he just likes to keep things simple.”

It sounded like a cop-out answer to me until I watched Mangum get onstage alone, grizzly-faced and flannel-bedecked, and encourage the crowd to sing along with him on all three parts of the song “King of Carrot Flowers.” There was no between-songs banter; he was saying all that needed to be said. As we mumbled our way through to the lyrics we could remember, I looked around the room and realized that, for all our ironic affectations, not a single person was experiencing this moment ironically. Especially not the knob-kneed hipster sitting next to me, eyes closed in rapture, rocking wildly in his seat as he mouthed every word.

A word to my generation: It’s fine to make jokes, but know that not everything is a joke. We talk about hipsters on the internet not only because we love to hate them, but also because looking at them is a good way of looking at our own values. Well, I’m here to report that there are good and honest hipsters in our midst. But you’ve probably never heard of them.

About The Author

Paul Bowers

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