POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 18, 2013:
Hunting The Hipster
Not so easily defined or bred in captivity
Justice Potter Stewart, in a 1964 Supreme Court case, said that he probably couldn't define pornography, but, "I know it when I see it." When hunting the hipster, that elusive yet ubiquitous creature that sifts through vinyl record bins with the alacrity of a cheetah, we run into the same problem. Ask 20 people what a hipster is, and you're likely to get 20 different answers. However, all 20 of those people will likely say they can tell a hipster when he shows up. But what is a hipster, and what can we learn from him? Perhaps more importantly, where can we find him? And is there anything inherently wrong with him?
Tonight on Tulsa Geographic Explorer, we search for answers.
Q: How do you drown a hipster?
A: In the mainstream.
Walk into any coffee bar at nearly any time of day, and you'll find a hipster. While they often travel in packs, it is not unusual to find a solo hipster, iPad or laptop in hand, oversized headphones, and ridiculous facial hair.
And anyone stalking the urban environment -- the habitat of the hipster -- can see them at play. But the anthropological questions the hipster raises are not so easily answered.
I'm Sir Bradley Morris, and in tonight's episode of Explorer, we will seek these answers.
Our first stop is in Tulsa's Brady District, once named for a man named Brady, and now named for a different man named Brady. It is unclear as to whether either Brady met a lovely lady.
This area is rife with hipsters, as they congregate for mating rituals in bars like the Valkyrie or Classic Cigars. Today, we find a hipster strolling to the bar to order an expensive, hand-crafted cocktail, which will be prepared by a bartender who looks disconcertingly like Wyatt Earp.
While the hipsters are everywhere, they have no desire, in general, to speak to us. Perhaps they are shy, perhaps we are too mainstream with our television cameras and our name-brand safari jackets. No matter, though. When we are able to approach one, he denies being a hipster, almost acting insulted.
"'Hipster' is a mainstream term for people who don't understand," the hipster said, refusing to divulge his identity. His vest, messenger bag, and neckbeard revealed him, in fact, to be a part of the group.
He sauntered away listening to a band no one has ever heard of.
Q: How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: I'd tell you, but it's a number you've never heard of.
They are generally in their 20s and 30s. When they have college degrees, they are usually in the liberal arts fields. And when they are not drinking craft cocktails, they are drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, a low-quality beer that the hipsters have rediscovered. It does not taste any better for being rediscovered, but with the blessing of the hipster, it is a cool thing to drink now.
Tulsa Geographic Explorer went into another hipster habitat to look for them -- the coffee shop. Upon entering Shades of Brown on S. Peoria Avenue, however, we found only two young mothers, their toddlers playing with pieces of a board game.
Luckily, we were able to speak to a pair of baristas, universally recognized experts on the subject of hipsters.
Megan Fleishacker has worked at Shades of Brown for only a short while, but spent a great deal of time in a similar hipster habitat in Stillwater.
"There were a lot of hipsters there," she said.
Again, we run into our central issue, and that is what a hipster is. Fleishacker has her answer.
"They're trying too hard," she said of her scientific method of hipster identification. "You can tell right off the bat. Wearing everything at once, so like if you're wearing glasses, you can't be wearing a hat and a messenger bag. You have to choose one accessory."
"What is that Dr. Seuss book?" asked fellow worker Heather Upson. "The one where they have the stars, and then the other ones get stars on their bellies, and then the ones who had stars get them removed?"
Upson's comparison of the hipster to the star-bellied sneetches is an apropos one, and one upon which Fleishacker expanded.
"Did you ever read The Tipping Point?" she asked. "Remember when he talked about Hush Puppies? And a certain group started wearing them? Everyone else then sort of followed. So some guy had a handlebar mustache and it looked cool, and then everyone else is trying to do that."
To hear her tell it, the hipster is a follower.
"Maybe just cool people are hipsters, and those other people are trying so hard to be cool like them," Fleishacker said, adding that perhaps the crux of the matter is that hipsters are trend followers, not trend setters.
There is, to be sure, a certain I-want-to-be-different-just-like-everyone-else quality to a great many hipsters we have discovered through our environmental observations. And if hipsters are not mainstream, why in the name of all that's holy are there so many of them?
Whatever the answer, there is a certain quest for identity that cries out from the hipster -- and from all of us, really.
Upson believes that's where the trouble begins.
"There's a big problem with there being a separate sense of self in the United States and wanting to be different and independent," she said. "If we were to look at things how we really are, we're very similar. We get into trouble when we try and be separate."
Q: How do you know if someone is a hipster?
A: Wait until he tells you he isn't one.
One hipster we did actually get to speak to our program, however, takes a different approach, although he himself did actually deny being a hipster.
"Maybe in a past life," said Jon Schroeder, who does forensic audio work for private investigators and lawyers and also runs sound for Lifechurch. "Maybe not anymore. I don't know. I don't know really what that term means, particularly, and I feel like I'm too old to be called a hipster."
At 31 years of age, he is in the prime of his hipsterdom, but he does not appear to know it.
But he does have ideas about what a hipster is, and what a hipster should be, and the concepts are far from what hipsterkeepers like Fleishacker and Upson might think.
"It's funny because I feel like defining 'hipster' makes real hipsters mad," he said, almost as if he had accompanied us on our forays into the hipster dwellings.
"I'm not sure why that is, but the original term was a very positive thing," he continued.
He is perhaps referring to Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro," which spoke of young white Americans wanting to disassociate themselves with being white, since things like corporations and the atomic bomb were largely white creations that were bad.
The negative connotations remain, however.
"They live off their parents' money a lot of the time," Fleishacker said. "When I was working in Stillwater, I was surrounded by hip kids that were, like, 'Oh, I just rode my bike.' But it's like, 'You have a BMW in your driveway and you're 19 years old.'"
To be sure, that might prove to be a little off-putting, but it's because -- at least to Fleishacker -- of too much effort. Too much obvious effort.
"The handlebar mustache is too much," she said. "I think if it takes a lot of maintenance, then you're maybe trying too hard."
As to those called hipsters getting upset by being called such, Schroeder has his thoughts on the issue, and eventually goes so far as to try and define what the hipster is.
"I think it's just that being classified as something feels weird to someone who wants to be progressive or feels like they're progressive," he said.
"If you were going with the idea that a hipster is someone who is progressive, the hipster that I have in my mind is not a hipster," he continued. "The hipster in my mind hangs out at SoundPony and knows the bands that no one's ever heard of. But even that is something that might be offensive to hipsters -- 'Hey, I'm not that.' 'Really? Let me see your list of music,' and it's full of music that no one has ever heard of."
And so we continue our trek into finding the hipster, still unable to articulate fully just exactly what it is for which we are searching.
After all, when a hipster says he's not a hipster, is he still a hipster? Does that make him more of a hipster? Or do his denials force us to reevaluate what a hipster is?
Q: How did the hipster burn his tongue?
A: He drank his coffee before it was cool.
Eventually, Schroeder's musings led him to address something near and dear to his heart, and something that probably really does make him a hipster: urban farming.
"There is something in the food movement, if we're defining hipsters as progressive and cutting-edge," he said. Schroeder is one of those people who grows his own food. He doesn't like that food is labeled "organic" when it's been sprayed with chemicals. And he knows what he's talking about.
"A lot of the food movement stuff is based on old stuff in the '70s -- guys in the New Alchemy. They were doing stuff off the grid and aquaponics years ago," he said.
But then he veered into health and nutrition and the environment -- things we don't always associate with hipsters, and here is where lines and definitions start blurring further.
"There's a growing food movement with everything from people wanting to know where their beef came from and how the animals were treated all the way to learning about the fact that our kids are being fed crap in the schools and the rise in ADHD due to the food we're giving them," Schroeder said in one breath. "I don't know why now there's a lot of people catching on and saying something's got to change."
But they are, apparently, and maybe this is the actual hipster we're looking for: the hipster who is a hipster not because of what he wears or how obscure his musical tastes are or how preposterous his facial hair configuration is, but the hipster who is eschewing the mainstream because he believes the mainstream is unhealthy, not because it's uncool. And he's trying to make a healthy alternative into the new mainstream.
I am suddenly seized by a nearly uncontrollable urge to watch Inception.
"I've been studying a lot of different farming techniques, one of which is aquaponics, and saying, 'Can we do this? Can we take aquaponics and actually grow some vegetables?'" Schroeder said. "In 5,000 square feet, you can produce 1,000 heads of lettuce in a week. Even on just aquaponics, why are we spending all this money on oil to transport vegetables from Mexico or California when it can be grown year-round here?"
Q: Why is a deaf hipster the best kind of hipster?
A: He likes bands even he hasn't heard.
Our quest is at an end, and we may know nothing more than we did at the start. The hipster is elusive. When we have, in the past, trekked after the bonobo monkey or the lilac-breasted roller, when we find our targets, they don't deny what they are. We at Tulsa Geographic Explorer have never had a feral city bunny stand up on its adorable legs and say, "You're looking for wild bunnies that live in people's yards? That's not what I am, man. Piss off." But our hipster search was stymied at every turn by this very occurrence.
Perhaps we will never truly define the hipster. Perhaps the fact that we've heard of hipsters makes hipsters too mainstream. Perhaps we will never know.
As we move forward in the world, we must be aware of the hipster as best we can be.
Wherever there's an obscure band, they'll be there. Wherever there's an ironic t-shirt getting worn, they'll be there. They'll be in the way people look down their pierced noses at the general public. They'll be in the way people wear glasses without any medical need to do so, and when people are parking their penny-farthing bikes outside an Apple store, and when the people are eating food, but not until after they've posted a picture of it on Instagram, they'll be there, too.
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