The Hipster: Middle Class Show-Offs or Musical Pioneers?


Bohemians, new age travellers, beatniks. They’re all labels that congregate insouciantly under the rebellious umbrella of hipsterism. Since it’s formation in the 1940’s, the movement has undergone a radical change. It’s hard to believe that behind the pork pie hats, hummus chips and artisan coffee shops of today, the subculture once represented those held in veneration.

“If a tree falls in the woods, and nobody hears it, would a hipster buy the soundtrack?”

Like the fake insta-influencers who whore out their unsuspecting relatives for virtual recognition, it’s become a faction almost fashionable to loathe and incredibly easy to vilify. There’s a stockpile of memes and gifs just waiting to be giddily submitted into the musical ether by every keyboard warrior on the web. The contradiction between stark individualism and the desire to belong to a crowd is just too ironic for some satirists to resist the temptation to jest. There is a notion however, albeit a clandestine one, that these pseudo-vintage free spirits are, in fact, societal catalysts.

Think about it. Fashion has always been sustained by the flavour of the day, and in the hipster they’ve found a breed of walking canvases that possess a vehement desire to innovate and transcend. Even the art world undressed it’s subjectivity in favour of something more vogue, most notably in the rise of urban graffiti and kitschy Americana.

But what about music?

Think of the seminal artists that have defined it. Radiohead, The Smiths, The Cure, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. What do they call have in common? For a start they are all stylistically edgy and somewhat angsty. Unafraid to take a step back from the genericism of the mainstream while still keeping a firm grip on the parameters of musical structure. Within their own periods they defined cultural obscurity and never associated themselves with being prevalent. To say they were artistic martyrs would be a step too far, but they definitely all engendered a reaction to the norm.

When analysing the hipster movements influence on music, the most important factor to consider is provenance. Up until the 90’s, shunning neoliberal values was a part of rebelling against the system, rather than establishing a sense of singularity. Yes, the lifeblood of the movement is defined by non-conformity, but in order to analyse the influence, it’s imperative to understand where it all began.

Blooming from a cloud of hash smoke and relaxed sexual norms, hipsterism had its genesis in the Bebop sub-genre of jazz in the early 1940’s. The bustling streets of New York were rife with segregation, and this ethnic divide defined the constructs of daily life. Although swing was the soup du jour in the conventional ‘square’ scene, jazz remained firmly rooted in black culture, even with the faces of prominent artists like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby adorning screens across America. To cross this partition would be to contradict the establishment and everything it represented, but to the hipster, this was their bread and butter.

1940’s Hipsters

Driven by ardent exoticism, the bright-eyed white middle class were propelled by the appeal of a lifestyle offering that relieved them from their bourgeois obligations. Cultural appropriation became the à la mode avenue to escape the institutional expectations bestowed by their elders. The post-war malaise enkindled this doctrine of non- conformity and spread its ideals across the city like a flaming garland. And thus: the hipster manifesto was born. From The Bronx to Staten Island, these kindred spirits were marching ardently to the beat of their own drum, conducted by the pioneering hands of white jazz musicians such as Benny Goodman, Al Cohn, and Gerry Mulligan.

As the first real counter-culture, it broke down the barriers of discrimination in a way that nothing else had done previously, but it also found itself in the ascendancy as a sonic spearhead. The rise of Bebop inspired the inflection of blues, which would go on to influence the creation of rock & roll, and by proxy, folk, pop, soul & funk. Without branching out from its traditional ideals, who knows what jazz might have manifested into. What is certain however is that the presence of the ‘true original hipsters’ allowed it to keep its head above water, even if by the skin of its teeth.

Whilst still in its embryonic stage, the underground scene had superimposed an image of exclusivity on itself, mainly down to the fragility of the American racial environment. It threw down a gauntlet for other generations to pick up and toss even further, but by the 1950’s, society had changed. The once elitist faction that dominated the demographic in the 40’s had been replaced by a migration of working class existentialists with progressive politics on their agenda. As hypocritical as it was, it’s popularity also increased within the very class the movement sought to rebel against, and though hipsters by definition, the beat-generation had contorted its essence.

Instigated by American novelists Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, the literary movement bore a rhetoric of sexual liberation and glamorising the taboo that captured the minds of a new generation of musicians. Among them, Robert Allen Zimmerman, also known as protest singer Bob Dylan. Progressive political commentary absorbed the mawkish diction of rock & roll, melding into a simplistic sonic arrangement that would later form the basis of folk. ‘Exterminate all rational thought’ was Burroughs call to action, and a cry that ultimately worked.

(Right To Left) Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg

As it did in the US, post war immigration transformed Britain into a multi-racial society, and with it, the major import of blues and jazz permeated into the youth of the motherland like an old tune through a dream. This resulted in the evolution of the skiffle band, which embellished every major urban centre in the country, with Manchester, Birmingham, London and most notably Liverpool reaping the rewards of this bricolage credo.

The biggest offshoots were a little known entity named The Quarrymen, headed by a bushy-tailed John Lennon. Now to say that hipsterism unequivocally fostered The Beatles would be a pretty extreme declarative, but the chronicle makes sense. Bebop gave rise to blues, blues delivered rock and roll, and thus the global cynosure of the fab four were born, you feel me? They even altered their moniker as a homage to the beat movement.

As it did in the states, the culture brought youth together. Mainstream society labelled them as nihilists, but this army of unconventionalists, against a backdrop of abstract expressionism, marched fervently towards the 1960’s with a libertarian spring in their step.

From then on, the hipster rationale veiled itself under the antiestablishment milieu, and an ambiguous cloud of non-conformity camouflaged its visibility. In the English capital, new left bohemians brushed shoulders with the working class clothes-conscious Mods. Ronnie Scotts became a mecca for the self-proclaimed jazz and folk aficionado as Bill Haley & His Comets were forcibly removed from the stratosphere. French surrealism hit the big screen and the adolescent apparel of slim-fit suits led a hue of silver-spooned juveniles through the streets of London.

The likes of Chuck Berry and the amiable Fats Dominos were replaced with an invasion of rock and roll stars as kitchen sink realism pervaded into popularity. Inspired by the turtleneck-sporting customs of beatnik austerity, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals and The Hollies all eschewed the conspicuous cascade of baroque, sunshine and bubblegum pop that intoxicated the teenyboppers of the moment.

Across the pond, the Paisley bandana wearing hippies of America’s psychedelic revolution began to increase in numbers as the post war baby boom sparked a social and generational gap, which the youth tenaciously exploited. Against a tableau of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights Movement, eco-consumerism melded with recreational drug use as the summer of love blossomed with flower children. Woodstock & Altamont in 1969 injected an hallucinogenic bombora of intoxicating political commentary that washed its hands with the over romanticised mainstream. Whilst psychedelic music was still in its rudimentary stages, much of its substance was cutting edge, innovative, and even dangerous. The likes of The Doors, Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix led an army of exploited working class rebels in a mutiny against their superiors; hipsterism could never compete with this unifying directive.

Woodstock 1969

Though they shared a prefix, the hippie and hipster movements were antithetical. Whereas the former were largely from poorer backgrounds, the latter paradoxically spent money to look poor, and lacked any interest in the “make love, not war” attitude; for that reason any influence the hippie front had on music development cannot be accredited to the hipster.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the swinging 60’s pronouncement of impulse and dissidence laid the foundations for political opposition to go cheek by jowl with the music scene. This melange of new genres was as bountiful as any decade, and though each subculture differed in ideology, the salient sentiment of rebellion remained throughout. All had a love of music that shunned the conventional ideals of the masses and swerved away from social norms, and the polaroid aesthetic of the following decade was no different.

In the UK, the emergence of punk rock in the 1970’s provided a voice for the disenfranchised youth to zealously use as ammunition for political protest. This anarchic and fierce reaction to the economic crisis in Britain sought to shake things up a bit. It’s ethos was pretty much anti anything. Anti-authoritarianism, anti-fascism, anti-corporatism and anti-corporate greed. It did what it wanted, and was fervently unapologetic about it.

It should be noted however, that Hipsters are, and were, never representative of angry youth; this is where it gets interesting. The rise of punk and all that it inspired was contingent on its disdain for hipster culture. The likes of The Clash, The Ramones, Buzzcocks and Dead Kennedy’s were so dead against this ‘emperor’s new clothes’ dogma that they decided to create a lifestyle that contradicted it. Ironically, their ideals of negating genericism were shared with their folk-embroidered Hungarian blouse wearing hipster adversaries, but that didn’t matter, to them anyway.

In Uncle Sam’s world, disco and soul slowly began to overtake Bob Dylan’s bureaucratic strain of political folk as the voice of social awareness, and the hipster remained as hidden as a buried star. As it did a decade before, the smorgasbord of 70’s counter-cultures dampened the potency of the fauxhemian lifestyle; until the launch of MTV in 1981 threw a straw at the camel’s back of cultural ambivalence. As the arrival of mixing desks, synthesisers, samplers and sequencers digitised the musical spectrum, the pop revolution erupted from an effervescent crucible of glitzy flamboyance. Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, Prince, Whitney Houston, the list is endless and esteemed.

MTV Launched In 1981

New Wave swept across the world in a tempestuous sea of quirky electronica, and the insurgence of androgynous superstars Boy George, David Bowie and Annie Lennox coincided with the inception of newly discovered genres like Shoegaze and Thrash Metal. This created a seismic black and white cavity between the mainstream and the underground. Anyone who hinted at any affection for orthodox culture was duly ostracised, allowing for the hipster to conceal themselves under the independent allure of alternative rock.

Not only did it fetishise upsetting the status quo, but it represented a sharp break from the futurist, hyper-rationality of post punk and the gaudiness of pop. Under the dissentient guidance of peripheral figures Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr and Pixies, the meliorist faction were offered an escape from the hoi polloi of commercial music, and though similar bands like R.E.M and Janes Addiction went on to critical acclaim, they still bellowed out a desire to alienate the masses.

Concurrently, the Hugo Boss wearing Patrick Bateman’s of the Yuppie movement threatened to redefine the shabby-chicness that made hipsterism so sardonic, but it’s safe to say it didn’t work, with the hipsters true zenith commencing in the 90’s.

As it has done for the past 20 years, the frail construct of hipsterism couldn’t see the wood for the trees. Gentrification slowly ravaged the working class districts of Williamsburg in New York, and Shoreditch in London, sending an onslaught of artsy craft beer drinkers to impregnate the once blue-collar strongholds. Brit-pop went head to head with Grunge in a transatlantic battle of edginess. In the end, nobody won. I tend to think the media hyperbolised the whole fiasco as a way of spreading propaganda, but that’s for another time.

Amidst this artificial contest, the likes of Nirvana’s Cobain and Soundgarden’s Cornell made it possible for a niche movement, no matter how radical, to achieve commercial success, much to their abhorrence. On the other side of the coin, the disciples of Oasis, Blur and Suede were pushing it even closer to popularity in the UK, far away from the appeal of the contemporary millennial.

The whimsical notion is that, unbeknownst to them, they both sang from similar hymn sheets. In both Brit-pop and grunge, the ambience of 1950’s beatnik DIY delivered a sly rejoinder, but beyond this, hipsters weren’t interested. Indie was cool, but it became so popular that it contravened what it meant to be an individualist, and thus rendering it as superficial. Beyond the golden age of Hip Hop and the drug-fuelled sub-bass drive of rave culture, everything stabilised. The pigeon holes were full and niche became transparent.

At the turn of the millennium, the ostentation of mainstream media culture distracted itself, and never really regained full concentration. Reality TV had us glued to our televisions like a cobblers wax. For the next 20 years hipsterism became deeper and more cynical whilst still struggling to avoid its own vagueness.

Vintage became fashionable, and therefore anything bygone was deemed vogue. Bands like The Smiths, Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine seethed themselves back into idiosyncratic library of the post-modern yuppie.

Meanwhile the asymmetrical haircuts and sad music of the early noughties created another clique for hipsters to disassociate themselves to. The faux frondeur followers of Green Day and Death Cab For Cutie clashed with the acid-wash jean wearing top 40 chart listeners. All the while our rare vinyl collecting tobacco pipe smoking hipster clasped to the outskirts and continued to bask in the glory of their self professed eccentricity.

Augmented by the invention of the iPod, the digital age warped any remaining diction left of the hipster ideology, hiding it in plain sight within the superfluity of new genres that would go on to become dominant mainstays. Trap, Mumble Rap, K-Pop, EDM, and the portmanteau of Hipster Hop all benefited from the expeditious demand of the new music consumer, and the hipster benefited from its popularity.

Though each decade juxtaposed the next, hipsterism has always maintained a shared claim to authenticity, uniqueness and individuality. There is no denying that without these vessels of existentialism, we wouldn’t have such a dependence on progression, and music is a telling example. The punks rebelled, the beatniks scribed, the hippies raised two fingers to the cold-blooded and beastly figure of war. All the while the role of the hipster was to appropriate new ideas and purvey the abstract, even if their anti-consumer ideals played an essential part in the sustenance of the capitalist society they sought to rebel against.

Modern Day Hipsters

Irony is a word nuanced a lot in this article, mainly because the movement personified it. Let’s be honest, hating the man but being 100% defined by him is a mindset that reeks of affectation, but to give it the cold-shoulder treatment is a little barbarous if you ask me. There’s more to it than just rolling your jeans up another inch. However, the accessibility of the hipster label has became so distorted that it contradicted its own values. Honestly, trying to spot one now is harder than playing ping pong with raw eggs. Which brings us to the present day.

Historically, the beat, hippie, punk, even grunge movements were all on the fringe of the true essence of hipsterism, but that’s not to say they didn’t have their toes dipped in the water. As an exclusionary religion, it moved everything steadily forward, whilst each blooming subculture sampled a scent of their ideology. It may be a little skin deep, but it never claimed to be anything else.

I’d go as far as to say that we owe them one. Their steadfastness in pursuit of innovation triggered the emergence of Bob Dylan, and later on down the line, The Beatles. Without that, we would’ve never heard Joni Mitchell’s angelic cadence or Neil Young’s veracious brand of rock. Chillwave and Digital Punk would just be two semi-oxymorons.

The ripple effect ensues.

Though hipsterism has no unifying purpose, their traits of cosmetic prejudice and emblematic distinction have to be duly noted as genuine, but that’s not to say we can’t poke fun at them sometimes, here, I’ll go first.

How do you drown a hipster? In the mainstream. But joking aside, we need them for our equilibrium to stay afloat, for now anyway.

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