10 Great Cultural Contributions by “Hipsters”

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At the end of last year, we made a few cultural resolutions for 2011 — including a vow that young, creative types need to be proud of our culture. And as tempting as it is to make fun, we’ve tried to hold ourselves to it, even though a replacement for the word “hipster” doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. So, in that spirit, we think it’s time to celebrate the good things stylish, artsy, often middle-class, young urbanites — from OGs like Patti Smith and John Cassavetes to the Bushwick dwellers of today — have contributed to society. Sure, it’s easy to undermine each and every one of these trends and accomplishments, but we’d rather acknowledge the small and large improvements this much-maligned group has made to our quality of life.

Beards

Trucker hats. Cheap, awful beer. Ironic John Deere T-shirts. The hipster obsession with all things blue collar — a fad that peaked around 2003 — was so grating and disingenuous it bordered on offensive. But one good thing did come with that look: beards. For years, they were just for older guys or dirty hippies. Now, led by such beardo icons as Will Oldham, Zach Galifianakis, and Dan Deacon, guys under 40 can proudly rock adorable facial hair.

Micro-budget movies

It’s hard to say who the first hipster was, but John Cassavetes — an eccentric New Yorker and music fan who started making hyperrealistic movies about crazy, angsty, tortured types in the ’50s — was certainly one of the originals. His impossibly low-cost cinéma vérité masterpieces were DIY nearly 20 years before punk rock. Today’s micro-budget filmmakers, from Lena Dunham of Tiny Furniture fame to the boys of “mumblecore” (Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz, the Duplass brothers) to Baltimore auteur Matt Porterfield ( of the great, recent Putty Hill), certainly owe Cassavetes a debt. But Cassavetes’s economical aesthetic has also impacted the mainstream: big-name directors including Darren Aronofsky, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith all got their start making movies on a shoestring, gaining cult (dare we say “hipster”) followings before breaking through to the multiplex.

The rebirth of rock

Rock has had a rough few years, as pop, hip hop, and country have come to dominate the charts. Fun (but mostly sad) fact: The top-selling rock song of 2010 was Journey’s perennial karaoke favorite “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And that track is a freaking masterpiece next to what passes for mainstream rock these days: Linkin Park, anyone? Kings of Leon? My Chemical Romance? As reluctant as we are to admit it, most of the best mainstream rock of the past decade has come to the masses after debuting via indie channels like Pitchfork — the obvious example being the recent Album of the Year Grammy winners the Arcade Fire. But from Nirvana to Death Cab for Cutie to Gossip, most our favorite popular rock of the past few decades started out in the underground, where their earliest audiences were — yup — hipsters.

The new handmade movement

Listen, we laughed all the way through Portlandia‘s “Put a Bird On It” skit, too. Regretsy is among our favorite blogs. But we’re not going to pretend like we don’t shop at Etsy or any of the many neo-craft fairs that have popped up in cities around the country. While it’s easy to make fun of hipster girls who knit their own cell phone cozies, it’s also great that there are new channels for buying often affordable clothing, housewares, and art while supporting independent artisans.

Artisanal everything

A kissing cousin to the Etsy wave of handmade objects is the artisanal food movement. From bearded Brooklyn brothers who make the most delicious chocolate you’ve ever tasted to home picklers, “nanobrewers,” and folks who make their own soda from scratch, it’s never been easier to find foods made lovingly by hand with high-quality, often local ingredients. Again, this is an easy trend to lampoon, and foodies of all kinds, not just hipsters, have a hand in it. But there’s nothing shameful about wanting to eat food instead of chemicals.

Cocktail culture

As we mentioned above, we can blame hipsters for the $5 PBRs that have become ubiquitous at trendy bars, as well as the inflated cost of microbrewed IPAs at the same joints. But young, cosmopolitan, nostalgia-loving kids also have a lot to do with the vintage cocktail revival. What began as a vogue for speakeasy-themed watering holes and parties has, in the past several years, grown into a full-blown cocktail Renaissance. So, the next time you down a delicious drink with ingredients like bitters, orgeat syrup, or frothy egg white, be sure to raise your glass to the hipsters who (indirectly) made it possible.

Making conservation cool

Remember less than a decade ago, when buying sustainable clothing meant walking around in hemp drawstring pants? When driving a hybrid was just for treehuggers? When your first association with the word “green” was money… or weed? From embracing bikes and other alternative modes of transportation (relevant Portlandia sketch here) to launching environmentally responsible clothing lines you’d actually want to wear, hipsters have helped make conservation cool for a whole new generation.

Live-work spaces

When you hear the word “loft,” what comes to mind? Gentrification? Warehouses transformed into ginormous, overpriced apartments with high ceilings and exposed beams for the benefit of rich yuppies? Fair enough. But the idea of former industrial buildings zoned for artists to live and work, which came about in the mid-20th century, in places like Manhattan and Los Angeles, was pioneered by the hipsters of that era — like Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, who slept, wrote, and painted in the same Chelsea space.

Men’s pants that fit

Think back to the mid-’90s. In fact, imagine that scene in Clueless where Cher is talking about how much she hates high-school boys, with their giant, saggy pants. Now, remember how long that goddamn trend went on. We had to put up with all kinds of young guys — skaters, bros, rappers — rocking oversize pants, belted barely above the knee, with a giant wad of boxers hanging out for all the world to see for over a decade. For a while after the skinny jeans trend took hold among women, hipster dudes who adopted them were the laughingstock of the mainstream. A few years later, Kanye West was wearing them. Today, most guys finally own pants that fit them — good news for anyone who thinks “underwear” is best left, you know, under.

Cultural omnivorousness

Counterculture used to be full of binaries: you were a mod or a rocker. You liked punk or disco. You didn’t hear hip hop and indie pop at the same party. In the 21st century, things have changed and culture — especially music — has benefited from it. Are you a bluegrass band with electronic flourishes? Awesome. A mash-up artist that transforms songs from all genres into something everyone can dance to? Fantastic. While hipsters often get called out for their supposedly ironic embrace of non-indie music, having no enforced cultural allegiances means artists are free to experiment and there’s no limit to what’s out there for fans to enjoy. Technology certainly has its downsides, but the iPod generation’s cultural omnivorousness is something to celebrate.