Essays

The Hipsterati

By posted at 6:29 am on May 14, 2010 15

Many people love to hate them, and pundits have repeatedly exaggerated their demise.  But two things are certain about hipsters.  They’re still very much with us, and they’ve become the unlikely subject of a mini feeding frenzy among mainstream book publishers.

Say hello to a new breed of literary animal: the hipsterati, writers who are turning satirical blogs about hipsters into satirical books about hipsters.

The first hipsterati was sighted way back in 2003, when Robert Lanham, founder of a website called Free Williamsburg, published The Hipster Handbook, a clever spin-off on the best-selling 1980 spoof, The Preppy Handbook.  Lanham laid out the hipster style, lingo, fashion and cultural ethos so deftly that the book is still in print and has sold a robust 70,000 copies.

coverThe latest hipsterati production is Look at This F*cking Hipster, a book that grew out of a Tumblr blog of the same name (with a “u” in place of the “*”) by a professional comedian named Joe Mande.  Following the blog’s template, the book is a series of outrageous photographs of hipsters with witty essays and captions written by Mande, who has won the New Yorker magazine’s caption-writing contest three times.  The book is very much in the let’s-laugh-at-the-Clampetts vein.

Mande’s metamorphosis from anonymous blogger to published author happened so fast that he still can’t quite believe it.

“The blog started out, literally, as a joke for my dad and a few friends,” Mande said recently as he sipped an iced coffee on a bench outside Atlas cafe, where he wrote the blog posts that launched his career as an author.  The Atlas is located a few blocks from Mande’s apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, a world-famous hipster hot spot.  All but one of the Atlas’s 13 patrons on this spring afternoon were gazing at the screens of Mac laptops.  The place was as quiet as a church.  You expected to see signs outside the door: Quiet, please!  Artistic types at work! And: Don’t even THINK about coming in here with a Dell!

“My mom and dad were visiting from suburban Philadelphia,” Mande continued.  “It was my dad’s 60th birthday.  We went out to dinner in Brooklyn and he looked around and said, ‘Who are these people?’  I told him they were hipsters.  He asked if that was like hippies.  No, I told him, the short answer is that they’re grown-up babies.”

The longer answer is that the word “hipster,” like so much of today’s youth culture, is an appropriation.  Jazz-loving hepcats in the ’30s begat bebop-loving hipsters in the ’40s, and the term was dusted off when hordes of twentysomethings flooded Williamsburg in the late ’90s, seeking relief from insane Manhattan rents.  Soon the neighborhood was clogged with people wearing the uniform of non-conformity — sprayed-on jeans and weird eyeglasses and Yasser Arafat scarves, asymmetrical haircuts and regrettable tattoos, guys with ironic facial hair, girls in American Apparel leggings.

“So one day I was sitting in my apartment and I decided to set up a Tumblr blog,” Mande went on, “and I posted a photo of a hipster guy in a grocery store staring at an avocado.  Within two weeks I started getting submissions, and within a month it blew up.  People sent pictures of themselves posing.  It got less and less secretive.”

The pictures poured in from the world’s hipster havens–Williamsburg, of course; Silver Lake in Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon and Melbourne, Australia.  And soon literary agents and publishers were trying to make contact with Mande, who ignored their overtures, preferring to remain anonymous.  But when a friend alerted him that someone else was approaching publishers and claiming to be the creator of the “Look at This Fucking Hipster” blog, Mande decided he had to act.  He contacted his comedy manager, who helped him find a literary agent, who sold the book to St. Martin’s Press in a pre-empt for an advance Mande declines to disclose.

coverMande, who is 27 years old, dresses aggressively un-hipsterishly — dishwater-gray hoodie, loose bluejeans and running shoes.  His hair is cropped short and symmetrical.  As he patted his half-pit bull, half-Lab puppy Blanche, he pondered the question that won’t go away: Why do so many people harbor foam-at-the-mouth hatred for hipsters?

“I honestly don’t know,” Mande said.  “But it’s hard not to laugh at people who dress like clowns and take themselves so seriously.  It’s all about people trying so hard to look like they’re not trying hard.  That’s what I make fun of.  I keep the blog good-natured and light-hearted.  I don’t hate them.  But there are people who hate me because they think I hate hipsters.  I’ve been called a neo-conservative, the leader of a vast hate movement, even a homophobe.”  He shrugged.  “Every generation has its idiotic phase.”

So does Mande have any regrettable tattoos?

“Nah.  I’m Jewish.  My mom would kill herself.”

If Mande’s mission is to gently mock hipsters, Andrea Bartz and Brenna Ehrlich are on a crusade to mockingly celebrate them by pointing out the things that get under their thin, tattooed skin.  According to their Tumblr blog, “Stuff Hipsters Hate,” these things include, but are not limited to, camouflage clothing, bras, blondes, sports bars, SUVs, athletic clubs, Bob Dylan, religion, the winter Olympics and enormous flat-screen TVs.  The blog also trumpets some of the things hipsters love, including, but not limited to, iPhones, Moleskin notebooks, fixed-gear bicycles, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Nathanael West novels.  The blog has honed its own brand of wicked mockery, such as a recent post of “vomitacious” hipster tattoos, including a woman who had a shark’s gaping mouth inked into her left armpit.

coverThe co-authors, who met at journalism grad school and now work office jobs in New York, are putting the finishing touches on a blog-inspired book, also titled Stuff Hipsters Hate, due out in the fall.  The book will include “anthropological” takes on such things as overheard hipster conversations, pages ripped from hipster notebooks, and annotated illustrations of magazine racks and hipster apartments.

“The Tumblr blog is a great opportunity to get your writing out there,” says Ehrlich, 25.  “It can be an avenue for people to break into the writing business.  It’s a unique way to communicate, almost like performance art.”

“It’s a dialog,” adds Bartz, 24.  “A conversation between the character of the blog and the readers of the blog.”

coverThe duo’s literary agent, Jason Allen Ashlock of Movable Type Literary Group, says indie publisher Ulysses Press paid a “respectable” advance in the low five figures.  “What drew me to them at the beginning was their voice,” Ashlock says.  “The pictures they use are stock photos.  For me, it’s not about the images, it’s about their voice.  Unfortunately, a lot of books born of blogs have not had a high level of writing.  A lot of it is gimmicky — gags, joke telling.  To me, that’s not interesting as a book.”

Understandably, two young women who work full-time jobs by day and blog by night take a dim view of the legendary hipster work ethic.  They know that hipsters are usually unemployed (that is, living off a trust fund and/or a stack of credit cards with a parent’s name on them), or they’re interning at some indie music magazine.  “To a hipster,” they write, “a job folding clothes or frothing cappuccinos is merely a pit stop, a romantic interlude on the way to indie rock stardom / a Pulitzer / a tragically hip death in a Williamsburg loft that occurs amidst a sea of coke and avant-garde artwork.”

The co-authors also know how every self-respecting hipster would answer the question: Are you a hipster?  “We maintain that is not a question anyone would ever answer in the affirmative.”

So back to the burning question: Why all this hatred for hipsters?

“People hated hippies,” Ehrlich says.  “They hated the Beats, the Lost Generation, punks, the grunge kids.  Hipsters are driving tastes in music, fashion.  The bigger you are, the harder you fall.  Hipsters hate mainstream society, and mainstream society hates hipsters.”

“It’s a Mobius strip of mockery,” Bartz adds.  “Hipsters are purposely making their life out to be so hard.  That’s what we’re mocking, and that’s what people hate.”

“This group was ripe for satirization,” says Lanham, the Hipster Handbook author who, at 39, is easily the granddaddy of the hipsterati.  “When my book came out, hipsters shopped at the Salvation Army for trucker hats so they could look the part of someone without much money.  But it’s upper middle class kids living in expensive apartments with all these expensive accouterments.  They’re defined by what they wear, what they listen to, how they decorate their apartments.  There’s nothing hip or bohemian about owning things.  I think it’s this insincerity and irony — that’s where a lot of the venom comes from.”

Ehrlich thinks that she and her fellow hipsterati, like so many spawn of our digital age, may be in for a very short run.

“I think this peaked maybe back in July,” she says of the blogs-to-books mania that has been raging in the publishing industry for several years.  “There’s only so long a trend can sustain itself.”

Don’t be so sure.  A Tumblr blogger named Christopher Weingarten has just landed a book deal from NAL/Penguin based on his blog, “Hipster Puppies.”  The book, like the blog, will show cute pictures of puppies wearing — you guessed it — wild eyeglasses, mustaches and Yasser Arafat scarves.

[Image credits: Bill Morris]





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15 Responses to “The Hipsterati”

  1. Lydia Kiesling
    at 7:10 am on May 14, 2010

    Maybe I’m bitter because The Millions has not signed its own lucrative book deal, but it astonishes me that look at this fucking hipster has a book. Hipster outfits are obviously ripe for mockery, and I thought the premise was funny, but commentary is often so non-funny, mean-spirited, sometimes even racist (the picture of the black hipster with the caption “the least liked of all the Crips” comes to mind) that I don’t get why the site is so popular. I mean, the pictures are funny by themselves. The captions ruin it for me.

    Maybe the site is changed and has much more elevated captions now. I dunno. I didn’t look at it for very long, for the reasons listed above.

  2. Skip
    at 10:40 am on May 14, 2010

    I think the hipster backlash stems from America’s resistance to identities that seem constructed, rather than natural or authentic, as problematic as those categories might be.

    Being a hipster or a Beat or a Hippe seems like an affectation, like “pretend.” The narrative of America is a story of being free to be who you are, not who you think you want to be. Not saying this is right, but definitely think it contributes to disdain for non-ethnic or racial subcultures.

  3. Ryan
    at 10:42 am on May 14, 2010

    In case there are any sociologists interested, many hipsters in Orlando have switched from drinking PBR to drinking Narragansett.

  4. Kallen
    at 1:03 pm on May 14, 2010

    FYI, Christopher Weingarten is not just a Tumblr blogger, he’s a music writer who’s written for a number of well-known magazines.

  5. Jack
    at 4:49 pm on May 14, 2010

    In response to Lydia Kiesling:

    I’m not sure I’d count the photo you’re referring to (“the least liked of all the Crips”) as racist, considering the person in the photo is wearing a ton of blue. I think we need to collectively turn our political correctness meter down to 5-6 rather than blasting it at 12.5.

  6. Lydia Kiesling
    at 8:30 pm on May 14, 2010

    OK, if you look at every entry around, say, the June and July time period (which was when I was looking at the site last), literally every entry featuring a person of color had a caption that mentioned their race (e.g., “Gandalf Ghandi,” “Beans is colorblind”). If you want me to link to every instance, I’m happy to do it.

    Whereas I didn’t notice every funny-dressed white person in red and black captioned “White Power Bill is At the Drive-In.” Or every white person, wearing anything, captioned “White fellow looks like an asshole.”

    Just an observation.

  7. Evan
    at 1:36 am on May 17, 2010

    Mande is obviously a self-loathing hipster, as was the guy who started this nonsense with the Hipster Handbook in 2003, which even then seemed crusty. The term is completely devoid of meaning at this point. People I imagine use the word to mean poseur now, or maybe someone they perceive as upper middle class and therefore somehow inauthentic? More often than not it just seems cruel.

    Anytime I’m walking through Brooklyn and feel the urge to smirk at some over-the-top kid, it’ll turn out to be the lead singer of Freelance Whales or Zach Galifianakis or someone and I feel an idiot for judging.

    I had a look at Mande’s site when it was buzzing around the web, and it struck me as aggressively status quo, bullying frat humor, and I think was on the heels of Last Night’s Party or whatever–the site that made fun of club kids from the same thuggish POV.

    Freaks rule.

  8. M. R. Otto
    at 5:41 pm on May 17, 2010

    What about BikeSnobNYC’s new book, the eponymous Bike Snob, put out by Chronicle? Certainly, bike snobbery is a spin-off of hipster culture.

  9. Jay
    at 12:41 pm on May 18, 2010

    There’s something a bit vile about the ridicule, and that would apply to ridicule of beats, hippies, etc. as well. What is it about us that we have this endless need to find people to feel superior towards? These people are easy targets, since “hipsters” are not directly threatening, and that gives the judgements a cowardly quality as well.
    Another example of how tiresome mainstream society is.

    (and I have never bought the idea that these subcultural groups are rigidly “conformist” in their own ways. That’s simply a reactionary position I’ve heard for years based on mainstream defensiveness, and the desire to keep on ridiculing.)

  10. rt
    at 1:49 pm on May 18, 2010

    If there is a blog that continues to update new content, what is the use of buying a book? Anyways this whole hipster phenomena is very typical in our culture. It happens a few time every decade from grunge to emo etc.

  11. Emily Colette Wilkinson
    at 10:58 am on May 19, 2010

    I think your phrase “the uniform of non-comformity ” is right on the money: the source of fun with the hipster movement is that their non-conformist ethos (like other non-conformist personal style/life philo genres of the past: hippie-dom, punk-dom, grunginess), so quickly became laughably conformist. The idea is to be original, alternative, a rebel, but what you, the hipster, are actually doing/wearing/thinking is totally conformist. And the hipster uniform–the Am Apparel/vintage/thick-framed-glasses/ironic mustaches and political campaign t-shirt–is the most obvious symbol of this very foolish hypocrisy.

    When you’re, say, preppy, conformism is part of the idea and the ideal so it’s less hypocritical and therefore less funny–or at least less fun/easy to make fun of. Though, obviously, it can be done–remember the YouTube video “Tea Partay” from a few years back? I’m still pretty entertained by this hybrid of gangsta and preppy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTU2He2BIc0

  12. Jay
    at 2:16 pm on May 19, 2010

    Emily, I don’t understand your thinking. “Preppy” is the only thing that isn’t hypocritical?
    I completely disagree with “the conformity of the non-conformist”. There simply aren’t enough “hipsters” or their equivalents around to make the conformist word truly apply. Anyone I know who would be perceived as a “hipster” certainly didn’t apply for a membership with a dress code. And even so, since when is it hypocritical to wear things that say something about your political views, or your general attitudes, even if faddish, even if ephemeral or transitory. I’m really not sure what critics of the hipsters, or any other group even marginally outside of the mainstream would like the world to look like.
    If you’re feeling amused and superior to people wearing styles of glasses ironically, or growing a moustache, I think you might consider what that might mean.

  13. Tom B.
    at 2:13 pm on May 21, 2010

    All youth-related social movements (and I’m not sure hipsterism even rises to that level) have fashion-related components that get turned into pure fashion (deleting the political content) by the mainstream. It’s just fashion. Nothing to get exercised about.

  14. Beni M.
    at 4:32 pm on June 10, 2010

    good stuff. Actually, a Columbia student just wrote an article on the stuff hipsters hate girls:

    http://www.linkmag2010.com/?p=226

  15. daretoeatapeach
    at 5:35 pm on September 7, 2010

    Kudos to the commenters of this post for being the first I’ve seen NOT to embrace the hipster hatred that has been used as of late as way to mock anyone who sports a counter-culture look. While the women of Stuff Hipsters Hate are indeed fantastic writers, I agree that the content at LatFH is not only cruel but often clearly off-base—mocking those who are easily more “goth” or “raver” than hipster.

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