Hipsters versus Slackers

An image from Linklater's film


Recently I asked myself what makes hipsters different than slackers, at least as slackers are depicted in Richard Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker.

Initially I noticed differences that aren’t unique to slackers and hipsters, but to gen x and Millennials generally:


  1. Hipsters are from a generational cohort, Millennials, that is much much larger than gen x slackers.
  2. Consequently hipsters have been marketed to much more intently. Thanks to “cool hunting” their trends are codified, commodified, and distributed much more quickly.
  3. The Internet has (mostly) decoupled knowledge about aesthetics and lifestyle choices from geography. You don’t have to live in a hip place to follow hip trends.
  4. In the words of Rem Koolhaas, the city is now “everywhere.” The layout and aesthetics of Mudhouse Coffee in Springfield, Missouri (the hometown of John Ashcroft and where Jerry Falwell went to Baptist Bible College) have a look and feel similar to  Stumptown in Portland, Oregon. Push (or taste) a little deeper, and there are significant differences, but the the coffee shops are in the same aesthetic ballpark, or rather, engaged in a similar discussion.

Next I thought about what differences are distinctive not to Millennials and gen xers, but specifically to hipsters and slackers. I think the key difference here is what the lifestyles and aesthetics are (or were) a response to.

  1. Gen xers, famously, were defined as fuck-ups before we were out of the gate. That we were defined as such by the much larger and more culturally influential Boomers gives us our unique mix of independence, creativity, and endurance. Slackerdom, in this sense, can be understood as a kind of appropriation of the bad things that were said about us: “you want fuck-ups and losers, okay, we will turn that into something cool and even life sustaining.” As I remember telling a Boomer friend, “the problem with your generation is you don’t know how to enjoy anything bad.”
  2. Hipsters, it seems to me, start from a radically different cultural position. Culturally, at least, Millennials are commonly presented in hyperbolic terms, as “the next greatest generation.” As a generation who will, in fact, correct the errors of their self-indulgent and inconsistent parents, Millennials’ mission (as defined by adults) is to marry the self-sacrificing discipline of the GI Generation to the ideals that Boomers espoused but failed to live up to. In short, even more than past generations, they are portrayed in almost Messianic terms, and their job is to redeem their parents’ sins, to repair or erase their failures.

No pressure, kids! I think at least one thread of hipsterdom is a response to just these inflated expectations, a breezy refusal of the role the larger, older culture has tried to define for young people. So instead of saviors of fallen Boomers, hipsters have appropriated the imagery of two historical groups from whom nothing was expected:

  1. The white working class of the 1970s (trucker hats, porn mustaches, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Polaroids & panelling). A cheerful, catchall “irony” has opened these styles up to appropriation, but it is irony devoid of political content. The only thing being combatted is the messianic role the larger culture has in mind for the Millennial generation. Hipsters’ material culture is composed almost entirely from the detritus of previous periods. It is the perfect embodiment of the “blank irony” that Fredric Jameson claims characterizes postmodern pastiche.
  2. The clothing, haunts, and lifestyles of gen x Slackers. But, given the speed at which new aesthetics are recognized, commodified, and redistributed (cool hunting, the Internet, etc,), subtle distinctions have increased in importance. For example, not just having a hip antiquated bicycle, but precisely the right brand, time period, and shifting system. I think this is also an example of a traditional element of youth culture: exercising aesthetic control over issues that are otherwise beyond young people’s control. (Or, to frame that in its traditional, sociological terms, substituting a symbolic, cultural resolution for economic contradictions that can’t be resolved. I think this may be especially pertinent given the way the economy has tanked. Given the dim economic prospects for gen xers, it was exactly this kind of cultural or symbolic resolution that made slackerdom a viable cultural response to economic conditions beyond our control. We had no realistic hope of resolving the economic contradictions we found ourselves within, but we could embrace symbolic resolutions that sustained us enough to ward off despair. Thrift store clothing was not only affordable, we also decided it was cool.)

Hipster clothing in what I call the "little Portland" section of my hometown of Springfield, MO.

For Slackers of my generation, largely ridiculed and certainly not emulated or repackaged and marketed to in any significant, successful way, I think one of the major challenges was simply not to give way to despair or conformity. For hipsters, at least the early adopters, I think one of challenges is how to deal with the fact that anything they come up with that is life sustaining–anything worthy of emulation–will swiftly be appropriated and repackaged for douchebags. In an attenuated sense, the dilemma for hipsters is akin to that for hip hop: how to survive when the best parts of your culture are appropriated by people who don’t understand it or the experiences out of which your culture arose.

Yet there is this final twist: since hipster culture–like slacker culture before it– is almost entirely appropriated from previous culture, how does one protest when hipster culture is itself appropriated in turn? With hipster culture, “authenticity” is (paradoxically) a function of irony. The only thing separating hipster appropriation from corporate appropriation is this ironic sensibility or taste. How do you copyright that?

PS. This post was helped significantly by teaching the fine N+1 collection of essays and discussions, What Was the Hipster?

3 thoughts on “Hipsters versus Slackers

  1. Man, Warren, this was such fun to read–even the third time. Great work. I sent it to one of my buddies who often accompanies me to a local hipster den. We mostly go for the $1 cans of Lost Lake Lager after the 6$ beers from more upscale places lose their taste (about $30 in), but it’s also a fun exercise to watch, listen, and analyze. You’ve given us much to discuss.

    Also: I once got into a heated argument with a sociologist/purported culture expert about whether I was a member of Gen X. This guy insisted that no, my 1964 birthyear placed me on the cusp of Boomers. Is there a final authority on this?

  2. Dave, I think that since we are on the cusp (in terms of demographics) that makes the category MORE, not less important to us, because we couldn’t unreflectively inhabit either category. The people who would support us as being gen x argue that cultural issues are more important than strictly demographic ones. I put it this way: Woodstock or Lollapalooza? Even though I was (I think) 26 when I saw Lollapalooza, it still spoke to me more than Woodstock, which happened when I was seven. I will email you a handout with a chart of the generations and a bibliography of sources.

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