What Comes After the Hipster? We Ask the Experts


With Lana Del Rey’s meteoric, blog hype-fueled rise and rapid, SNL-catalyzed descent, the mere existence of MTV’s I Just Want My Pants Back and the trendy intellectual publication n+1 already taking a wishful backward glance at the subculture, hipsterdom appears to be on the wane. Have we reached a tipping point? If so, what’s next for American youth-based movements? While aware that the ability to predict the future is a rare trait, we asked several intrepid thinkers, writers, and academic types to hazard a guess. Specifically, we asked: 1. Keeping in mind the crude progression of subcultures from Beatnik to Hippie to Punk to Grunge to Hipster, what kind of prominent group will emerge next? 2. Or is the Hipster some form of the last widespread, cohesive subculture in this post-war lineage, since the Internet and other changes to American life are making this a nation of fragmented cultural tribes? Here’s what they said…

Robert Sloane, Instructor of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (with Alex Champlin):

It’s difficult to talk about these groups as a “lineage,” because besides being groups that were associated with young Americans, they all had different levels of cohesion, formed in response to different social conditions, and produced different results. It seems to me that the beatniks and hippies were reacting more to society-level characteristics (conformity, political and cultural conservatism), whereas I associate the punks and “grunge” folks (slackers? Generation X?) with a cultural rebellion, reacting against a certain ossification in corporate culture (and especially music, although not exclusively). Interestingly, hip hop is missing from this list, and it seems to be doing both and neither at once, creating something new out of very limited opportunities. Hipsters seem to be a more general taste culture, embodying a number of different critiques of modern society in a more holistic, but I think less defined, way.

Is the Internet “making this a nation of fragmented cultural tribes”? Yes and no. The Internet is definitely the most elaborate and far-reaching site using the niche and target marketing techniques that have attacked the mass-media “mainstream’ forged in the middle of the 20th century. However, the US has always been a nation of “fragmented cultural tribes,” and even when there appeared to be unity, it mostly papered over, ignored, or erased differences among smaller groups. But I don’t think the Internet means the end of subcultures, because I don’t see hipsters as particularly cohesive, in a national sense. In each of these subcultural examples, people have experiences primarily at the local level, and then they are joined together in a network, to a greater or lesser extent, that connects these localities across the nation.

For example, after the first flurry of punk rose up in the mid-’70s, and then seemingly “died” with the Sex Pistols tour of the US, like-minded individuals in cities all over the country began to play in bands, make their own records, etc. Through touring, exchanging records and zines, college radio, and other interpersonal experiences (all done pre-Internet), a national network was created that could truly be called an “American underground.” (This is the topic of Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life .) Thus, when Nirvana broke in 1991, it was somewhat less surprising to those who knew about this fan base that grew over the 1980s; the emergence of “grunge,” and “alternative” music more generally, was just the coming to fruition of the original punk movement that had been nurtured underground for over a decade.

The Internet can, of course, facilitate such connections, but subcultures generally need physical spaces to grow in, because they involve a way of life, not just a set of tastes shared over a communication device. Otherwise, they are more accurately described as “taste cultures,” which may be a better term for the hipster.

Unlike some earlier subcultures, hipsters generally don’t claim that title. It’s more commonly used as a pejorative, that nevertheless ends up describing a fair number of young educated urbanites living all over the US. (This is why I can laugh at the endless parade of hipster representations on Portlandia, because, while never having been to Portland, I recognize those characters in other people I see and know from around the country — including myself, whom I would never call a “hipster”!)

Predicting what comes after the hipster is almost as impossible as predicting the hippies would have been in 1959, or predicting the punks in 1967 (unless you knew that the Velvet Underground’s mostly-unheard debut album would give rise to a whole scene of like-minded folks a decade later). Subcultures usually form in response to some sort of perceived cultural conformity or hegemony. For me, today, that’s technology and the Internet, and in a way, some of today’s hipsters participate in some activities that try to eschew modernity (craft food and spirits, knitting, canning, etc.). However, I can’t see a youth subculture forming to react against modern technology, since it has become so intertwined with modern life. Since subculture members are almost always associated with cities and higher levels of education, it is possible that future subcultures may respond to an increasing sense of the global and become more multicultural in makeup and focus, especially if the US sees more of a nativist backlash against these changes.

William Deresiewicz, contributing writer for The Nation and contributing editor for The New Republic and The American Scholar:

I’m not sure that anything is going to emerge after the hipster, but not because we won’t have any widespread, cohesive youth cultures anymore. I think it’s possible that the hipster is just going to stay around indefinitely. As I said in my article “Generation Sell,” the hipster has been around as the dominant youth culture for way longer than anything that’s come before, and it occupies a place relative to mainstream culture that’s completely different. It’s not counter-cultural; it fits perfectly within the values of a large part of the mainstream, the so-called Bobos or bourgeois bohemians, which is what most members of the liberal upper-middle-class are. Hipsters are usually seen as consumers — “self-curators” who painstakingly select the music, movies, clothing and so on through which they construct their identities. More useful is to understand them as producers and distributors. Hipsters create Bobo culture. They make or sell or serve, or simply pioneer, what Bobos buy. (This is hardly surprising, given that the bohemianization of the bourgeoisie was largely about the pretense of staying young in the first place.) So it seems that hipsters have achieved a stable position within our socio-cultural configuration.

Of course, I could be wrong. The best bet for the next thing would be for something to emerge from the Occupy movement: less concerned about music and clothing, more concerned about politics; less concerned about differentiating yourself from the people around you, more concerned about working with them; less concerned about status, more concerned about social change; less ironic, more earnest; less polished, more grungy. The one thing I don’t think will happen is that youth culture will fragment into cultural tribes. Youth culture is all about emulation, being hip however hip happens to be defined at the moment, and far from fragmenting the culture, technology provides a means to unify it, by disseminating it, more efficiently than ever.

On the other hand, what the hell do I know?

Zeynep Arsel, Assistant Professor of Marketing at John Molson School of Business, Concordia University:

Hipster is not just the pop culture caricature that we are probably all very familiar with. It is also a mythical byproduct of the popular discourse motivated by various interests and prejudices. Ranging from barely substantiated hate speech to a series of mainstream articles that discuss them as the best opinion leaders of the century, various institutions and individuals have been (mis)construing what a hipster is. Most of these definitions lean on subjective personal opinions, prejudices, and straw man assumptions. What is ironic is that these portrayals crystallize what the public sees and knows as the hipster.

I think seeing hipster as a narrative, rather than a distinct group of people, is a great way to understand how urban middle class identities are constructed and how postmodern class distinctions are established. The mythology of hipster is an extremely fragmented, occasionally contradictory, frequently derogatory narrative about a subculture that may or may not exist. But it doesn’t matter, because regardless, we are using this narrative to make sense (and express) our identities. By frequently othering hipsters as superficial trend-seekers that seem to do things “for the wrong reasons,” we are also authenticating our own acts that might actually mirror those of this group. Thus, a seemingly autoimmune reaction to our own consumption acts serves us to mark the boundaries of our more authentic identities from the other groups that we deem as more consumerist, superficial and inauthentic.

J. Patrick Williams, sociologist and author of Subcultural Theory: Traditions and Concepts:

It’s hard to say what subcultural phenomenon will take center stage next in American life for a couple of reasons. First, we need to recognize that subcultures emerge as a result of people getting together in the face of something that they collectively define as problematic and for which they share some ideas about how to solve it. With that in mind, the next subculture will depend on what kinds of problems emerge in society and what kinds of solutions are considered (un)acceptable by the mainstream.

Second is the “center stage” part. In a media-saturated world where profit-oriented industries are always desperate for something new to sell to people, those industries themselves will be partly, perhaps largely, responsible for making the next subculture coherent.

I don’t know whether the hipster was ever a cohesive subculture. It seemed more of a media creation than anything else, and as such it appeared coherent primarily from an outsider’s perspective. How many people do you know that actually call themselves hipsters? I don’t know any, or should I say the people I know that I consider hipsters only acknowledge that identity with sarcasm or irony.

So on the one hand, there appears to be this subculture called Hipster to the extent that we’ve learned to label certain clothing styles or mannerisms or values that way. On the other hand, many of the so-called hipsters I know are more concerned with being unique than they are being a part of something coherent.

I live in Singapore, where opposition subcultures are not allowed (and I mean that in a very real, legal sense). Here, people consume many things they consider to be subcultural, but the ideals of those cultures seem largely absent. So we have local kids who call themselves Skinheads or Mods or Rudies. There are also a lot of kids who just dress in unconventional ways and who are generically known here as hipsters. When you sit down and talk to most of these kids, you don’t find much that is actively political in their identities. Instead, these identities were premade, made available in catalogues and bought by people searching for a way to stand out in a culturally stifling environment. This is akin to what Theodor Adorno called “pseudo individualization” in his critique of popular music. This is not true in all cases to be sure, and I think there is freshness and uniqueness to be found in youth cultures today. So maybe that’s not being fair to many of the kids out there, but my point is that a lot of young people in the US as well as here in Southeast Asia buy into what they believe to be individuality (and being subcultural is often defined by insiders as a way of being free from mainstream constraints), when it fact what they’re buying are mass-produced commodities targeted at them. Understanding who is doing the targeting and why will be important in making sense of what comes next.

Michael Z. Newman, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Advertising & Media Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and author of Indie: An American Film Culture:

Subcultures are generational because they are a way for young people to distinguish themselves, their taste and style, their outlook on life, and their place in society against prevailing cultural norms. Subcultures are defined against parent cultures. So the hipsters of the 2000s are a Millennial generation subculture (actually, a small, affluent niche of Millennials with enough cultural capital to discern hipness from a lack of hipness). Whatever comes after Millennials will find its own awesome or annoying forms of expression, and we just don’t know what it will look like because it hasn’t happened yet. But it’s probably safe to assume that like hipsters — whether of the 1940s and ’50s or of more recent days — the next waves of youth subculture will reject many aspects of square society, pick and choose elements of earlier styles or appropriate the styles of other cultures, define itself especially by its music and dress, and reject whatever label is given to it.

Cindy Chan, Doctoral Candidate in Marketing at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

I predict that the hipster craze will pass, but the hipster will endure. Many subcultures exist in the side streets and alleys of mainstream society at any given time. These subcultures have their own distinct identities, and seek to differentiate themselves within the broader cultural landscape. Sometimes, a subculture will garner mainstream attention, as we’re currently seeing happen with the hipster, and the subculture may resent its newfound popularity. As the hipster subculture gains mass appeal, new adopters can diffuse or alter the hipster identity, causing the identity to become less distinct. Original hipsters may view these poseurs with disdain, and find subtle ways to signal their authenticity to those who they consider to be true members of their in-group. Eventually, the masses will get bored and the hipster subculture will reclaim a unique identity — perhaps an evolved and more extreme version of its original identity. And inevitably, another subculture that is currently lurking in the shadows will catch the eye of cultural trendsetters and emerge for its moment in the spotlight.

Jonah Berger, James G. Campbell, Jr. Memorial Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

It’s hard to say. What is interesting about the idea of hipsters is that it is almost more of a general label than an actual subculture. People tend to use the term to refer to others that are more in the know than them, but it actually encompasses many different groups. The hipsters in San Francisco are not the same as the hipsters in NYC. Further, unlike punks or hippies, no one really refers to themselves as hipsters. So it is more of label for a general type of person than a subculture per se. The Internet has definitely made culture more fragmented and tribes are more fragmented and cross cutting. They also now form more around preferences than broad ideologies.

Bruce Michael Conforth, PhD, Professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan:

There’s really no way of knowing what will emerge after the hipster for several reasons. The first is that the hipster really isn’t a movement at all but rather an affectation that has been perceived as being a movement by a consumer culture desperately in needs of trends. Norman Mailer, in his seminal essay The White Negro, seemed to see the hipster as a combination of the nonconformist, the bohemian, the antisocial delinquent, and the Negro; all of whom were either marginalized or self-marginalized in order to be “Hip” as opposed to being “Square” or “Mainstream.”

Today’s hipster really has very little to non-conform against. In the 1950s when Mailer was describing the term and the Beats were living it, mainstream American society was awash with norms, and hence being a nonconformist was relatively easy (at least definitionally): eschew the rewards and/or status of mainstream society; engage in sex that was either non-monogamous or that went against the idea of the nuclear family; live a lifestyle that leans toward communistic ideals (small C – not the political idea); exist apart from the dominant culture and develop your own mores and folkways; etc. These were all radical ideas at the time. They aren’t anymore. And so the “hipster” of today, at least as defined by my own observations and those of my students who are “in” that scene, is not one who is as much concerned with breaking or bending norms as he/she is with appearing to be different just for the sake of being different. It has become a superficiality of fashion and culture. The “hipster” of today doesn’t represent any kind of movement in the way that the Beats, Hippies, or Punks did. And, since so many of our taboos have been at least decriminalized, if not outright abandoned, what is there really to non-conform against? Not very much.

That said, the other reason why it’s impossible to tell what’s coming next is because the “next thing” is always the product of a unique conflation of sociocultural, economic, technological, and political forces. Look at all that had to transpire and coalesce to give birth to the Hippies for instance: the Baby Boom (more kids than ever before), a rising economy (which meant those kids didn’t have to go to work to help their parents but could engage in leisure time and go to college for reasons of “finding themselves” rather than in preparation for a job); they were the first generation raised with television, the first generation to come of age with the Pill and LSD, the former changing a woman’s place in society and the very structure of the family and the latter changing everything else; the election of the first president born in the 20th century and then his assassination; the “Coming” of the Beatles only three months later, Civil Rights, the war in Vietnam and the draft; space exploration… think of the astonishing things that came together all at the same time… how could a sub/countercultural movement NOT spring out of all that?

So the creation of the next movement will depend on to what degree various forces come together to create another moment ripe for the subcultural picking. Perhaps those forces are already in action…

With regard to your second question… as I said earlier, I really don’t believe the hipster is in any way a “widespread, cohesive subculture in this post-war lineage.” I think he/she is merely a product of consumer superficial fashion commodified as lifestyle.

Now as to whether the Internet and other changes to American life are making this a nation of fragmented cultural tribes the answer is a solid YES!!!! The sociologist Robert Jay Lifton has written about the “Protean Man” who is more comfortable with images than with words and with fragmentation than with wholes. This, of course, is nothing more than the fruition of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” It is our mediums that have become the driving forces in our culture and society, not the ideas they transmit. The Internet is reshaping not just the way we communicate but reprogramming our neurological makeup in ways we can’t even yet imagine. We want, indeed NEED, tiny instantaneous fragments of information: sound bytes, word bytes, info bytes, image bites… the instantaneously and ever changing visual imagery ushered in by things like MTV, computer screens, split screens, virtual reality, etc. And the speed by which things appear, go viral, and then are gone almost precludes the possibility of there being a subculture that lasts anywhere nearly as long as ones in the past have.

And do you know what made the Beats, Hippies, and Punks possible more than anything else? There were no distractions. There were three television networks, no cable or satellite. There were only a few radio stations, and they still featured live, local djs. There were no video games, nothing digital, no iPods or mp3 players… there weren’t even cassette players for most of those times. There were no VHS tapes or DVDs or CDs… you wanted to see a movie you had to go to the theater. No Internet of course. No computers of any kind. There were no ATMs or credit cards… no cell phones… there weren’t even xerox machines until the 1970s. The only things we had were each other. The only things we could do was hang out together, talk, have sex, do drugs, and make our own music and art. Yes, there were all the cultural influences I mentioned earlier but the only way to share them all was face to face real human interaction. There unquestionable will be subcultures in the future… but their form and longevity will probably be very, very different than anything that preceded them (unless of course they are revivalist movements). The subculture is dead. Long live the subculture!