Once in a while, a popular word will snowball into a state of such broad explanatory use that thoughtful people must either whittle it down to a more definite size or call for its utter dissolution. This is the present state of hipster, a term wielded with equal frequency as a fashion, a movement, a demographic, and even an insult.
In 2008, Adbusters ran an article with a title that is, to date, still the only title to successfully convince me to read Adbusters. It was called “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization.” This article came at just the right time with just the right dose of acid to make it one of the most important pieces of social journalism of our time. In it Douglas Haddow defined “hipsterdom” as an ugly and regrettable mutation of Western counterculture. Its chameleonic quality–wearing the symbols of countercultural movements the world over without taking any stake in any of them–is rivaled only by its rituals of narcissism practiced by young scenesters who attend nightly parties in hopes of being photographed, then wake up the next afternoon and check the blogs hoping to catch a glimpse of themselves. All of it, Haddow argues, revolves around consumption. Hipsterdom is in fact consumerism that has successfully passed itself off as counterculture. Hipsters are nothing but young yuppies.
Those who rallied to defend the hipster came, perhaps predictably, from the offices of the very magazines and blogs Haddow blamed for creating the hipster monster. Vice magazine’s Gavin McInnes–quoted in Haddow’s piece–famously blamed the term hipster on “chubby bloggers who aren’t getting laid any more and are bored.” Dan Hancox of The Guardian joined in to tell Adbusters to “lighten up” and stop worrying about the lives of “fashion people” because they aren’t doing any harm to anyone. On their count, the hipster does not exist outside of a word invented by jealous, yuppie has-beens to describe youth movements that they, due to age or unattractiveness, are no longer capable of taking part in. That the term is used to describe such disparate social phenomena as home beer-brewing and european house music is proof of its generalizing, indefinite quality. It is a derogatory term deployed only by those on the outside looking in.
Yet what are we to think when we see waxed mustaches, thick-rimmed glasses, mid-century haircuts, cutoff jeans, and bright yellow leggings all striding down the sidewalk in the same posse? If there is no epidemic of irony gripping our nation’s youth, then why do we laugh when we see a gallery of hipster Disney princesses: stills of Ariel, Jasmine, and Belle caught in unimpressed ho-hum expressions with big glasses superimposed onto them via photoshop? If fashion is not evolving at the breakneck speed of market appetite, then where have all the keffiyehs gone? Why is everybody now drinking Shiner Bock instead of Pabst Blue Ribbon? How can we dismiss the word hipster when its explanatory power still seems so intact, but how can we continue to use it when it seems to apply to almost any current craze?
I think the only satisfactory course is to retire the word “hipster” and replace it instead with “Portlandia.” As you may notice, this entails more than a change in semantics. Indeed, it is a complete change of concept. The genius of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s IFC sketch-comedy is that it’s not interested in defining one or another particular type of people, rather it is trying to define a place. No one stereotype dominates the show’s cast. By the third season, their cast of regular characters (almost all of them are different pairs played by Armisen and Brownstein–among them the feminist bookstore owners, the grungy punks, the bar-hopping scenesters, the thirtysomething married couple, the fortysomething rich couple, the mechanic-and-wife couple, and the outdoorsy couple) has swelled to Dickensian levels. Like Dickens, the duo are not content with satire. Satirical comedy–that one can see Armisen perform weekly on SNL–visits a supposed social type or specific person, skewers them thoroughly, then leaves them to curl up and die. Armisen and Brownstein on the other hand, double back to revisit their characters over and over, never closing the book on them. The final episode of season two joins them all together in a multiple blocks-long line for a hot new brunch place. Portlandia broadens our gaze beyond defining (and roasting) whatever a hipster is, and instead denotes the broader social space that all 21st Century middle-class Americans live in. “What’s going on with those hipsters?” is not the correct question according to Portlandia. Instead it’s, “what’s going on with all of us?”
Portlandia makes the radical claim that hipsters, yuppies, granolas, punks, parents, and hippies are all of a type, all in the same socio-cultural-psychological-or-whatever-metaphysical-structure-you-like state, all carried along by the same social currents. Whether it is a debilitating addiction to Battlestar Galactica or a mad impulse to sew birds onto everything, it all comes down to the same sort of obsessive-consumptive behavior. Regardless of whether or not you think this is an unfortunate predicament gripping America or just another way of life, acting out these unnamable and peculiar drives–rather than simply attributing them through two-dimensional parody to the actions and agendas of one or another type of people–makes these oddities and absurdities come alive as nameable sensations that most every middle-class American can relate to. Portlandia is a place, both in time and physical space, and if you live there you can’t help but be part of the cast.
I should take a brief moment to say that Portlandia is not really about Portland, Oregon. It is important to note that the “-dia” suffix suggests a broader social space than the city limits of the Rose City. Portlandia exists in equal measure in Austin, Asheville, Nashville, San Francisco, St. Louis, Chicago, Madison, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, and of course Seattle. Our word for 21st Century middle-classness must express itself as a specific place–Portland, Oregon in this case–to properly describe one of the features of our present bourgeoisie, a proud or perhaps artificial identification with locality. If it is not marionberry pancakes in Portland, then it is fried avocados in Austin. But perhaps Portland is the best place to represent our nation’s many enclaves of this particular strain of bourgeois bohemia. Portland, Oregon is a city with a proud history of middle-classness. Anti-capitalism, local politics, and petit-bourgeois populism run deep in Portlanders’ veins, (check out Robert D. Johnston’s The Radical Middle Class for more on that) but what once may have been locally distinct traditions has, in the age of internet, gone national through the interstate avenues of style, consumption, and “cool.” We certainly cannot be sure that the present mood originated in Portland. Portlanders’ historically rooted desire for self government and a wariness of corporate monopolies may still be a live instinct in certain sectors of middle-class America, but there are also newer cultural forces to explain and contend with–like why we would rather wait in a three-hour line to taste the marionberry pancakes at the newest “local” brunch place instead of spending considerably less money on the “cup o’ joe side of dough” special at the (also locally-owned) diner-slash-gift shop down the street.
Obsession is the most central theme of Portlandia (the show.) Everyone is into something so intently that it’s like they have blinders on and can’t see the rest of the world around them. No character is well-rounded (perhaps that’s a prerequisite for good comedy, but anyway, the point is clear.) In one rapidly-edited sketch, Armisen madly tweets, facebooks, blogs, and checks his email until Brownstein snaps him out of it. In another, the two try to one-up each other in newspaper, magazine, and blog articles they have read. In another, a goateed Armisen goes around to all of his favorite spots, and in each one sees an annoyingly straight-laced man, clearly an out-of-town poser. He takes such pains to avoid him that when the man grows his own goatee, Armisen shaves his and makes himself over to look like the man originally did. In the end, they’ve switched places entirely. Each sketch plays off an obsession with one idea, a single isolated impulse that we are so invested in that we cannot get the lay of the land around us. The obsessive impulse is evident in the show’s style. In the vein of Michael Ian Black, David Wain, and Michael Showalter’s magnificent Stella, each situation and impulse is taken to its furthest extreme, and so becomes absurd. Portlandia’s genius lies in its portrayal of so many social types in this same mood.
I should draw attention to my focus on the middle-class. I do this for two reasons. One is that I think of myself as middle-class and cannot pretend to comment on ways of life too far outside my realm of life experience. The other is that “middle-class” is a term that, while vague in itself, is usually deployed to mean a way of life that is reasonably moneyed. It is a fact that having a decent amount of money and living at a certain level of comfort are sufficient conditions for regular outings at brunch, the frequent purchase of clothes, and a shelf full of DVDs. It is possible that whatever Portlandia is, it is a space that can only be generated given a reasonably moneyed way of life. But it does not follow that Portlandia and middle-classness is the same thing. As you will find out if you read The Radical Middle Class, middle-class folks have not always been about the same business as they are today. Anyway, even if the social and cultural, (or dare I say it…spiritual?) forces that make up Portlandia are in fact more universal than the economic enablers of a reasonably moneyed lifestyle, I can’t really speak to how they might manifest themselves in the poorer sections of our country nor those of the super-wealthy.
Fred Armisen does not believe there is any such thing as a hipster. If he was any other old uncreative blogger, I would have dismissed such an idea altogether. But instead, whether he knows it or not, he has added tremendously to the conversation. If the “hipster” is dead, it is not because he has been deconstructed into oblivion or finally defeated by a new cultural movement, nor has it been adequately defined, but because Armisen and Brownstein have given us a better word to describe what’s going on with the present middle-class. In Portlandia we might just have a word that is capable of describing whatever it is that’s going on with us, precisely because it describes a place, not one or another kind of–to use the horrid word–subculture. Though I can’t pretend it’s a thorough definition, I do think it’s better than hipster. Where do our present consumptive maladies, obsessions, and other general peculiarities come from? It wasn’t the hipsters, nor the bloggers.
“Forget about it Jake, it’s Portlandia.”