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Wednesday, September 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 40.0° F  A Few Clouds
The Daily
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What is a hipster?
An academic study looks to Madison for answers
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Credit:Daniel Fishel

"The funny thing about the word is I have no idea what it means," says Joey Tucci, shop manager at Context, the King Street menswear store that's been featured in GQ and The New York Times. The store is one of Madison's fashion shrines, and I've come to learn about hipsters.

A clear definition is hard to come by. Tucci remembers first hearing the word in 2003 in high school. It sounded complimentary then, but times changed. "Now it's like, don't call me a hipster," he says.

Tucci is fashionably dressed, wearing a neatly fitting vest, rolled up jeans and ready-for-anything black boots. So is William Howe, another employee, who graduated last year from UW with a history major and also works downtown as a server. "It's so broad now. It's not just dudes in brightly colored shorts and goofy mustaches anymore," Howe says.

Hipster signifiers are wide-ranging: working at coffee shops, getting soused at art parties, riding fixed-gear bikes, going vegan, collecting tattoos and wearing vintage band T-shirts, or maybe just a simple black T-shirt marred by a few holes. If there's a soundtrack to hipsterdom, it's indie rock, but don't forget the synth.

As interesting as all this sounds, "Nobody wants to be the hipster guy," according to Howe, who discloses he's a frequent target of such labeling.

From an oft-referenced piece in Adbusters magazine: "The hipster represents the end of Western artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras...a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning." Yeah, don't call me that.

Leave it to academia to try to pin down the definition of the hipster. Zeynep Arsel, a former UW student who's now an assistant professor of marketing at Concordia University in Montreal, is identified by her Twitter account as a "hipsterologist." Arsel is influential in the debate over who hipsters are and what the term says about the society that produced it.

According to Arsel, the term originated in the 1940s, when it referred to beatniks, jazz bums and other counterculture types who represented the first rebellions against postwar normalcy. It fell into disuse and was replaced by a kaleidoscope of competing labels and movements that consumed most of the 20th century: hippie, disco, mod, punk, steampunk, new wave, no wave, alternative, grunge.

But in the mid-'90s, mirroring the rise of the indie marketplace for clothing, locally grown food and music, "hipster" emerged from hibernation. Arsel suggests that the old bear was dragged out of its cave by conventional middle-class consumers "insecure about their place in the world" and the threat of indie consumerism.

Hipster, to her, "is an old mythology of this urban, white middle-class person who is trying to subvert middle-class culture." Usage of the term exploded in 2003 with the publication of The Hipster Handbook and other parodies of all things hipster. "Suddenly," Arsel says, "everybody believed this species of hipster exists."

For a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Arsel interviewed 21 indie consumers in Madison, most in their 20s or early 30s, many of them attending college. In all but one of the interviews, the subjects veered into the hipster debate without prompting within the first five minutes.

Many said they had been called hipsters, but the term was a "trivialization of their aesthetic interests," so they sought to disassociate themselves from the label. "The hipster myth is akin to a funhouse mirror that distorts and potentially devalues their cultural interests, aesthetic predilections and social milieu," says the study, which was coauthored by UW marketing department chair Craig Thompson.

The researchers parsed the interviews and came up with a list of three defense mechanisms commonly used to shuck the "hipster" label. "It has become a ridiculous stigma," says Arsel.

In one defense, the consumers declare their "sovereignty." I wear what I like, they say. I don't follow a trend. I bought these horn-rimmed eyeglasses or this multicolored vest as a personal statement.

In the second defense, consumers claim to "really get it." They truly appreciate the designers who made their clothes or the historical context of said eyeglasses. The others, the posers, don't get it.

In the third defense, those dodging the hipster label defer the negative aspects to another group, such as the "scenester." (Tucci defines the scenester as a hipster in training.)

One of Arsel's interview subjects, Chris, declares consumer sovereignty: "I don't try to keep up with it. If I was sitting here right now, and I had girls' jeans on and a funky haircut and was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon all the time and getting import copies of Swedish psychobilly folk noise pop, whatever the hell, and reading David Sedaris and watching obscure Samurai-trash-cult movies...I wouldn't even feel like a real person anymore."

So does "this species of hipster exist," as Arsel puts it?

With Tucci and Howe rejecting the label at Context, they suggest I check out the bike hipsters. I visit State Street's Yellow Jersey, where I find a fierce critic of hipsterdom and a user of the term, mechanic Tim Bouche. "I see it as kids who are entirely wrapped up in their own interests, have no perspective on what's actually going on in the world and don't really have a grander view of bigger issues," he says.

A fellow mechanic, Henry Parker, a UW student wearing a pair of the aforementioned horn-rimmed glasses, declares sovereignty. "I thought bikes were a good way to get around town, and I just thought these glasses looked cool," he says. But later, he adds, "It is kind of weird how much these independent decisions have in common."

Bouche suggests there are hipsters, or at least people who resemble the myth, at Context, the very place where I was directed to seek out the bike-loving variety. Fearing I've fallen into a cultural house of mirrors, I remember a joke repeated by Arsel: "The people who hate hipsters are the hipsters themselves."

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