What was the hipster? Who, where, why? We know when – a mid- to late-2000’s phenomenon, now surging back into the mainstream (albeit in a rather more nihilistic way – read this), riding the wave of the usual 20-year trend cycle. I recall it all horrifyingly well: Cory Kennedy, The Cobrasnake, Hipster Runoff, Calvin Harris pre-EDM, Canon AE-1’s, Animal Collective, alt-lit, American Apparel, Pitchfork, big chunky nerd glasses, guys on the street writing free poetry on typewriters, Blogspot, Vice, thigh gaps, tangled long hair, Tektonik, “Cross” by Justice (pronounced zhoo-stice if, like me, you wanted to show your deep knowledge of the culture.)
I started high school in 2006 and graduated in 2010, a prime candidate for being sunk into this “culture” as a highly depressed and dissociated teenager. I did not fit in at all at my school: that much was clear. I had an in, though – a middle school friend who went to a school in San Francisco proper and knew more than me about what was cool, what all the city kids were watching and reading and doing. They all had Flickr accounts, knew where to go thrifting for clothes that they’d alter and photograph for Lookbook.nu. They hung out at Dolores Park, spending their afternoons smoking shitty weed and listening to whatever album was “in” on a massive 80’s-style boombox. The jealousy made me sick with envy and, perhaps midway through my sophomore year, I plunged into their world in an attempt to construct myself a personality.
This was around the beginning of Web 2.0 – Myspace was phasing out, and everyone was tiptoeing hesitantly onto Facebook. Flickr was its own little sub-community; Blogspot blogs, especially fashion-focussed ones, proliferated, as did cloistered message boards. The internet, though solidly no longer Web 1.0, was still focussed on content that was meant to be responded to, not shared; discussion and critique abounded, and popularity was often gained by making and responding to individual work rather than sharing and reposting. In fact, I don’t recall it being referred to as “content” at all. You made a post.
Hipster Runoff was, of course, one of the blogs to read if you knew what was in, or, like me, were desperate to find out. Written in a deeply ironic tone often verging on mockery by the then-anonymous Carles, the blog was a deep dive into how and why people wanted to be considered “relevant,” as was the word then, and how “alt” culture could oftentimes eat its own tail. Were Animal Collective fans just trend-hoppers? Were decimal-rated Pitchfork reviews full of shit? Yeah, said Carles, and so was everyone else, and so was he. I’d spend hours at a time scouring every post, analyzing what was actually cool, how to be ironic without appending a “post-” to it, how to comport myself and make sure people knew that I was in, relevant, knowledgeable about what the kids at my high school would be into way after me, way after it got mainstream – the ultimate condemnation.
To wit, this meant I had to buy stuff from American Apparel (I couldn’t afford a $40 t-shirt, so stuck to my gold lamé headband), use the word “deck” to describe my friend’s new shoes, read Tao Lin, listen to entire discographies of Washed Out, Toro Y Moi, Neko Case (often I’d score albums for free on a private LiveJournal group called The Indie Exchange, uploading one album in exchange for a few others). I grew my hair out and let it tangle, stole brogues from Urban Outfitters after I saw Cory Kennedy wearing a pair. I eschewed a Jansport backpack for a fringed leather bag and carried my textbooks to class – to do otherwise was mainstream. I was, constantly, desperate to reach peak “alt,” to be at the absolute forefront of what was cool, to be, please God, considered relevant.
It was all based around consumption, of course – the aesthetic of bitter irony I’d carefully cultivated after dozens of blog posts was only a shell for what, I felt, was a complete lack of a personality. In social situations I was painfully shy; hangouts at Dolores Park often saw me getting far too stoned and clamming up, afraid to say something weird. Days in school were isolating, but so was hanging out with the cool kids on the weekends – sure, we all liked the new Justice album, admired each other’s thrifted jean jackets, but was there anything else to say? We’d parrot Carles (of course we’d all read his latest post) and shit-talk anyone who wasn’t like us. But those were not the years of earnestness. Shit was fucked and we all felt it: what else could you do but be ironic about it all?
At parties I was the designated Cobrasnake, the party photographer, due to a successful film-heavy Flickr account. I’d lug my friend’s heavy DSLR into the kitchen and snap drunken photos of us in snipped-off t-shirts and moccasins playing rounds of beer pong, grinding messily, making out. We’d “fade in” five dollars or so for a forty-rack or a handle of vodka provided by an older sibling and go wild – desperate to be like the Cobrasnake party kids, but the Bay Area wasn’t LA. (Years later I would learn that these LA parties were carefully photographed to make the whole thing look messier, that drugs were provided to fuck everyone up enough to do the crazy shit we admired. It made sense, in retrospect. No one wants pictures of people just standing around.)
The parties, though, began to unearth for me something deeper-rooted, something I could no longer ignore: I was dealing with depression so heavy that my grades were plummeting, that I often felt myself drawn to the Golden Gate Bridge. A few shots of whatever would wrench open the floodgates and I’d cry hysterically in front of everyone, wailing that no one loved me, that I wanted to die. One party saw me having a full-blown panic attack in the bathroom, one which many people wrote off as me being upset that a guy I thought I had a crush on made out with my friend. It wasn’t tenable. Mornings after were full of mortification and guilt.
And who were the people at these parties? Boys grabbed my tits, girls sneered at me across the room. High school behavior, of course, but it felt especially brutal, made me angry that no one could ever pry themselves out of their self-instated states of extreme blaséness to offer a hand. Perhaps I’m being too harsh: I was a handful, and sixteen-year-olds don’t know how to managed a full-fledged breakdown at what should be something fun. But in retrospect, the horror and anger I felt was real, ran so deep that I could feel it well up as anger in my throat. I began to show up to things just because I had to if I wanted to still be relevant. I couldn’t get ousted from the group – it was all I had.
By my senior year I was the “weird, pretentious hipster girl” of my high school, voted “most unique,” to nobody’s surprise. I didn’t care much for Uggs or Hollister but publicly wrote them off as mainstream and boring; refused to interact with anyone who was even remotely popular or socially integrated. I hated myself but was still cooler than everyone else. People pushed back, called me annoying and pretentious, sub-posted on Facebook about “hipsters who think they’re soooo cool with their film cameras and feather headdresses.” I was aware of it, hurt by it, but couldn’t stop. What else was there for me to hold onto? What else was I going to shape my personality around?
And funnily enough, this story has a resolution: I was, eventually, booted out of the cool city kids’ group. Or perhaps I booted myself out. One night, over a group video chat (I recall the website being called Tokbox, though a Google search returns nothing), I overheard someone I considered a good friend insisting I not be invited to Saturday’s party. “She’s so fucking awkward and annoying.” “Dude, that’s hella cold,” someone said, before I closed out of the chat and turned to stare at the wall. There it was: they didn’t like me after all. I’d tried so hard to be like them, but my thick layer of irony was seen right through. I was, ultimately, a loser, collection of shoplifted lamé headbands or not.
I stopped posting on my Blogspot and ignored people’s requests to come chill in the Mission. My outfits suddenly felt stupid, try-hard, and I resorted to a pair of skinny jeans and a vintage t-shirt on school days. What was the fucking point? The music was still good, Hipster Runoff still made me laugh, but it was brutally, rapidly clear to me that I couldn’t make up for an empty hole of a soul with a bunch of trendy shit. This isn’t to say that I abandoned the culture entirely – there were certainly things I genuinely enjoyed. But the brittleness of it, the cruelty hidden by what was supposed to be irony, left a bitter taste in my mouth. How much of it had actually been fun?
I did not escape these people entirely; many of them faded in and out of my life for the next several years. And not all of them were bad: age and time brought some softness into how we treated one another. But things were becoming contrived – Portlandia was getting big, poking holes in the flatness of how we’d comported ourselves; Obama’s election inspired genuine excitement (back then, anyways); college jettisoned us all into a world beyond Dolores Park. You couldn’t be a bitch when you were trying to make new friends. It didn’t work that way.
I spent years after high school making fun of my younger self, calling her a wannabe and a hanger-on. But as I’ve gotten older I feel much more tenderness towards her, sometimes veering on pity: poor thing, she just wanted to fit in. I won’t deny that diving into the “hipster” world taught me to pursue things I genuinely find interesting, to not be afraid to stand out somewhat, but it also showed me – quite harshly – that you can’t plug a hole with a bunch of stuff that other people deem cool. I still try to live by that. But sometimes I wonder if I am doing a good job.