By ANGELIN YEOH and IAN YEE
WE all know that someone who says things like “I used to like This Band before they become a staple on the Top 40 charts” or “Lady Gaga was so much more gaga when she was just Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. Now she’s just too mainstream”. Most likely, we’d call this certain someone a hipster.
That someone then would further elevate his level of hipster-ness by opting to wear a plaid shirt over skinny jeans. He will also sport a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses or thick-rimmed glasses (now known simply as “hipster glasses”) and have an interesting-looking Lomo camera around his neck. Lomo, you ask? Well, it’s only an analogue camera that goes with other vintage items that a hipster would have like a typewriter or a vinyl player.
They would also have a dishevelled, gruffy, I-couldn’t-care-less look – topped off with a beard for the guys or the more stylish “ironic moustache” (don’t ask… just google) – that was most likely carefully-crafted early in the morning, such is the sense of irony among hipsters, whether they realise it or not.
So we all kind of know what a hipster looks like. We know what they’re in to, and we know a lot of people find it pretentious and annoying.
But does anyone – even the hipsters themselves – know what hipsterism is about?
The term “hipster” has actually been around since the 30s and 40s. Back then, hipsters were mostly middle-class white kids who were into the largely African-American jazz scene of the time.
American novelist Norman Mailer later published an essay on the subculture titled The White Negro, positing that hipsters started adopting African-American culture – and the roaring rebelliousness and non-conformity of 30s jazz – as a response to their disillusion over the two world wars.
Some, like Time writer Dan Fletcher in his summary of hipsterism, believe this then gave way to another rather more large-scale movement – the hippies.
But now, a full seven decades later, there’s another group of people who’re now being labelled “hipsters”, and they’re essentially the same, ideologically. The only difference is this time, they’re disillusioned by consumerism and mainstream conformity, and there’s no awesome jazz music to be heard.
If you had to break it down to one line, the modern hipster is someone who shuns anything that’s mainstream.
That’s why they listen to obscure artistes, harp on about little-known cult films, and are fascinated by old stuff from bygone eras where nothing was “mainstream” because that was the only “stream” there was. For example? Fixed-gear bicycles, or “fixies” as they’re now known, which became popular among hipsters in New York because it allowed them to break free of the modern constrictions of traffic. There has been a sizeable fixie community in Malaysia for a few years now. More on that later.
The irony of it all, of course, is that as the subculture and its underlying philosophy became more popular (and let’s face it, which young person wouldn’t want to emulate their super cool I-don’t-give-a-hoot look?), hipsters started to become uniform in their non-conformity.
Therein lies the ultimate existentialist chicken-and-egg conundrum for most hipsters – did they become hipsters after learning about the culture, or did they “organically” (oh, hipsters are into organic food, by the way) adopt it while they were already deriding One Direction in their skinny jeans without ever being aware of hipsterism in the first place, because such labels are SO mainstream?
Editorial assistant Grace Wong, 23, has been called a hipster, something she believes is down to the way she dresses. And rather predictably, she doesn’t appreciate it.
“I just shrug it off whenever someone calls me a hipster because I don’t like labels,” she said, like a true hipster, actually.
She explains: “The way I see it, a hipster is anyone who is different, specifically someone who is young and lives in the city, and who subscribes to a certain type of music or fashion.”
That’s more or less how many people, Malaysians especially, are now viewing hipsterism – as purely a fashion trend, a superficial ape-ing of the cultural movement.
Because of that, when people label someone or something as “hipster” these days, it’s often in a derisory tone.
Graphic designer Azam Saad, 30, was called a hipster when he started dressing differently from his skateboarder friends.
“To hardcore skateboarders, the look you should go for is baggy clothes. But I changed the way I look and to them, I’ve become a poser,” he said. And that’s when they started calling him a hipster.
Even Ben Liew, an editor for a local magazine that focuses on street culture and urban nightlife, believes that most hipsters are just copycats. For him, all they do is take superficial elements from other subcultures, and infuse it into their personal style. Instead of truly living the philosophies of punks and skinheads, hipsters just wear it.
“The word hipster did not exist when I was growing up. I always thought of other subcultures like skinheads and punks as the original cool kids who were doing things that no one else is doing.
“And for that, hipsters are known as followers of fashion. That’s the problem with being known as hipsters.”
Dr. Julian CH Lee, a global studies lecturer at RMIT University, Australia, agrees with this assessment of the hipster subculture.
“There doesn’t seem to be any underlying philosophy to hipsterism, except to signal the fact that one is hip and up-to-date with hipster styles and that you probably like a certain genre of so-called ‘independent’ music, most of which emanates from Britain,” said Lee.
“Hipsterism doesn’t have a philosophy in the same way that punks and goths often do. Punks for example are frequently ‘counterculture’, critical of authoritarianism and many are against all forms of alcohol and drug consumption. Goths are often pacifist, despite their appearance which can seem threatening to some.”
While the debate rages on about the authenticity of hipsters and their philosophies, there are those who are content just doing some of the stuff hipsters do without thinking too much about it.
Halyza Halim is one of the founders of Grafa Cafe in Subang Jaya, Selangor, a hipster haunt that caters specifically for fans of fixies, which are about as hipster as they get.
Everything about the place screams “hipster”. The walls are adorned with lomography, and the music they play there, well… Let’s just say you won’t hear them on the radio much.
And then there are the fixie riders. Fixies are fixed-gear bicycles, which means the wheels move exactly how you pedal. There are no brakes, because to stop, you simply stop pedalling. They have become a favourite among hipsters not only because they allow you to break free from traffic, but also because of their simplicity, and how they are completely non-consumerist.
“A fixie makes it easier for someone to ride around the city. When my husband and I started riding our fixies, we called ourselves urban cyclists,” said Halyza.
The group of urban cyclists started out with just seven people, but has now grown into a small community.
“We organize rides on Thursday or Friday nights. People found out about these events through social mediums and new people keep coming up. We do videos as well to document our activities.”
Personally, Halyza doesn’t get what the big fuss is over hipsterism.
“Some people might say it like ‘ooh, you’re a hipster’ and it’s got a bit of animosity attached to it. Some might get offended when they are being labelled as a hipster. To me in Malaysia, nobody wants to be a ‘lamester’ right? It’s just a pop culture thing where people are just doing things that are in trend.”
Halyza added that the hipster scene in Malaysia is also different simply because the whole concept is not as well defined here.
“Unlike in the United States where there is a definite way or guideline on how to be a hipster, in Malaysia the interpretation of hipsters is still pretty much very open to how you see it.”
No harm in it
Despite all the animosity surrounding hipsters, they are actually completely harmless.
In fact, Halyza thinks it’s great that there’s a hipster scene in Malaysia because it has the potential to develop our interest in pop culture.
“It’s okay to just be doing things that are in trend or cool now. We do need hipster kids. If someone doesn’t start something, then nobody is going to be a part of anything,” she said.
Liew also acknowledged that hipsters do have a part in helping to us see a wider picture beyond what is usually on the mainstream radar.
“Well, hipsters don’t want to be mainstream. We can learn that there is a whole lot of other things pop culture can offer us apart from your standard Top 40 stuff.
“The arts has always empowered people and it’s the youth that really needs these forms of empowerment because really, who listens to the youth? So youth often just find different ways to express themselves.”
And at the end of the day, Azam believes hipsters pretty much represent what every young person goes through.
He said: “Everyone wants to feel unique in their own way and they would do things that, say, mainstream society won’t do. The problem with that is, things don’t usually stay under the radar for long. People would eventually pick up what you do and what is once strange, becomes accepted by everyone else.”