Examining Subcultures: The Hipster

The field of study on subcultures is a rich and complicated one. Born with the purpose of separating themselves from the larger culture and resisting the mainstream of the time, subcultures can seem strange, mysterious and even dangerous to outsiders. The most common questions people ask about subcultures are: How do they emerge? Why do people participate? How does society react? Subcultures can be analyzed by their belief systems, values and practices such as dress, appearance, language, ritual occasions, political views, and musical tastes. In this paper I intend to analyze the subculture known as “hipster”, examining when and where it first appeared, for what reason, who was involved, and how it was connected to a specific form of popular music. I will also attempt to compare the original hipster subculture with the postmodern hipster subculture that exists today.

The terms “hep cat” and “hipster” first appeared in the context of the history of jazz in the United States. In the 1930s “hep” was used to describe someone “in the know” with regard to the world of jazz. The jazz musicians and their fans were known as hep cats. In 1939 Cab Calloway published the “Hepster’s Dictionary” which defined a hep cat as “a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive” (“Hepster’s Dictionary”). The term hipster appeared during the 1940s, replacing hep cat as hip replaced hep.

Jazz is a genre that has undergone great transformations throughout the years. Originating in African American communities during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz emerged in the United States in the form of various styles. Dixieland music, or New Orleans jazz, developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century and spread to northern cities such as Chicago and New York City in the 1910s, later becoming the musical backdrop of city life during the Roaring Twenties, also known as the Jazz Age. The New Orleans style was characterized by its collective improvisation.

White musicians dominated the 1930s jazz scene due to racial exclusivity in the recording industry. This distorted the public perception of jazz, “Early appropriations of jazz created the impression among the mainstream audience that jazz was actually the product of polite society white dance bands” (Garofalo, 25). This was the beginning of the swing era, or the big band era, in which jazz became a cornerstone of popular culture. Swing jazz was embraced and celebrated much more widely than any other style had been in the previous decades because it was radically different. Based on larger ensembles the interaction between instruments was much more guided and arranged than the free-flowing improvisation of the previous styles. Much closer to the sweet dance music of white orchestras than the improvised hot jazz of the African American musicians, it had a livelier tempo and was made for dancing. It was ultimately meant to lift the spirits and raise the morale of a country at war. Swing dominated the popular music sphere until the end of World War II.

Jazz had been created by African Americans, a people who expected little to nothing from the white majority in America. Then, it had been adopted and nurtured by the marketplace and became the music of the mainstream nation. Next, jazz underwent another dramatic change, driven by the determination to free it from the tyranny of popular taste. In the 1940s a new, innovative style of jazz emerged in the music sphere that came to be known as bebop, a style characterized by a fast tempo, instrumental mastery and improvisation that was meant to counter the mainstream, danceable swing style. The bebop sound depended on the energy and ideas of the improvisers alone, producing relentless musical complexity with no regard for danceability. Identifiable bebop musicians include Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk: all African Americans. A few white American youths were attracted to this type of music that was being rejected by the mainstream, and bebop became a symbol of rebellion. Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records, wrote,

Bebop is music of revolt; revolt against big bands, arrangers, vertical harmonies, soggy rhythms, non-playing orchestra leader, Tin Pan Alley — against commercialized music in general. It reasserts the individuality of the jazz musicians as a creative artist, playing spontaneous and melodic music within the framework of jazz, but with new tools, sounds, and concepts (Lopes, 209).


Bebop musicians attempted to bring jazz back to its roots so that the performer became the artist again, rather than the entertainer he had become during the swing era. Improvisation distinguished bebop from other kinds of jazz that are tied more overtly to the culture industry, such as the standardized, regulated world of swing. It was a music that broke the metronomic regularity of the drummer’s rhythmic, danceable pulse, appearing to be the music of chaos.

It is interesting to take into account Theodore Adorno’s perspective on jazz music, and on bebop in particular. In total, Adorno wrote seven essays on jazz, none of which are flattering and all of which have been subsequently challenged. In his article entitled “Perennial Fashion”, Adorno reiterated previous arguments against jazz that he had developed since the 1930s, describing the genre as a simplistic, standardized music. He asserts that any spontaneity or improvisational features were merely frills, carefully planned out, shallow, repeated compositional techniques, pseudo-individualism promoted by the music industry. He concludes that jazz is a mass art that could never attain the status of ‘serious music’. What Adorno failed to see was that “jazz, the epitome for him of popular music, was in the process of transforming itself and, in the uncompromising mode of bebop, becoming the face of musical avant-garde” (Miklitsch, 66). The 1940s were a time of musical innovation and philosophical redefinition for jazz in America and bebop was seen as the progressive movement that opened a gap between authenticity and the repressive commercialism of the music industry. The style was a reaction to the staleness and racism that had come with the popularization of swing, “…bebop was a ‘manifesto of rebellious black musicians unwilling to submit to further exploitation’ and ‘was a deliberate attempt to avoid playing the role of the flamboyant black entertainer, which whites had come to expect’ (Kofsky Nationalism 57;Collier Making 360)” (Harding, 110). It is helpful to acknowledge that Adorno himself claimed that works of art represented the last traces of resistance to social repression.

Bebop values were anti-commercial and deeply rooted in the uncomfortable realities of race in America, forming a racially and aesthetically exclusive subculture. The interest of young white Americans in bebop and the African American musicians’ way of life lead to a fusion of races within the hipster subculture.

Norman Mailer, an American novelist, journalist, essayist, film-maker, actor and political activist, wrote an essay entitled “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” that appeared in Dissent magazine in 1957. Mailer refers to hipsters as “the American existentialist”, being those who, in the period after World War II, truly understood the possibility of “instant death by atomic war, relatively quick death by the States… or with a slow death by conformity with every creative and rebellious instinct stifled.” He continues,

If the fate of the twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self (Mailer, 584).


Bebop provided the way for white youth to cross into African American culture. The white hipsters held respect for the genre as an anti-establishment art form, drawn in by its associations with a promiscuous lifestyle and liberal thoughts. They wanted to embrace the same disenfranchisement of the culture that had been so beaten down by American politics and policy, the culture that truly represented a struggle for voice. Bud Freeman, a member of young white jazz musicians known as the Austin High School Gang, said “It was not just their music that moved me but the whole picture of an oppressed people who appeared to be much happier than we whites who had everything” (Ward & Burns, 91). Mailer referred to the white hipsters as “white negros” because they were the white youth that diverged from the mainstream, desiring to adopt what they believed to be the cool, carefree and spontaneous lifestyle of the African American hipsters. Mailer attributes the source of “hip” within the African Americans due to their centuries of “living on the margin between totalitarianism and democracy”, but the presence of hip for the whites “is probably due to jazz” and its influence on the post-war generation who had consumed the “lessons of disillusionment and disgust of the Twenties, the Depression, and the War” (Mailer, 585).

The American society was thus divided into two types of people: hip people and square people. As Dick Hedbige points out in his book on subcultures, “The communication of a significant difference, then… is the ‘point’ behind the style of all spectacular subcultures” (Hebdige, 102). The hip ones were those who were “in the know”, emulating the style of the laid back jazz musician including dress, language, use of drugs, a relaxed attitude, sarcastic humor, and relaxed sexuality. Hipsters held a disdain for popular audiences and commercial music, seeing jazz as an unappreciated art. They aspired to a philosophy of freedom, something far from the rigid rules of America regarding education, racial views and sexuality. Further defined, “In his book Jazz, Yale Professor of Music History Frank Tirro described the former hipster as an “underground man:”

The hipster is an underground man. He is to the Second World War what the dadaist was to the first. He is amoral, anarchistic, gentle, and over-civilized to the point of decadence. He is always ten steps ahead of the game because of his awareness, an example of which might be meeting a girl and rejecting her, because he knows they will date, hold hands, kiss, neck, pet, fornicate, perhaps marry, divorce—so why start the whole thing? He knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, the hatred implicit in religions—so what values are left for him?—except to go through life avoiding pain, keep his emotions in check, and after that, “be cool,” and look for kicks. He is looking for something that transcends all this bullshit and finds it in jazz (Zott).


The squares, on the other hand, were those who failed to appreciate jazz, those who were out of date or out of touch with what was “cool” hence the saying “be there or be square”. In counterculture movements square meant someone who thought in a repressive, stereotypical, one-sided way. In the Hepster’s Dictionary the entry for square reads “see icky” and the icky entry reads “one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive” (“Hepster’s Dictionary”).

The African American hipster was most fully analyzed by Anatole Boyard, author of a 1948 essay entitled “Portrait of a Hipster”. He defines the term “jive” as the hipster’s “philosophy of somewhereness” that, by expressing dissatisfaction and aggression symbolically, the hipster “harmonized or reconciled himself with his society” (Broyard, 43). During a time of war, racial divide, and overall uncertainty in America, hipsters rejected social norms and sought anything that was obscure, artistic, or generally not embraced by society. Broyard argues that “jive music and tea [marijuana] were the most important components of the hipster’s life… where “waking” life is compensated for by trance ecstasy” (Broyard, 45). The desire of getting high was for the dissociation of the hipster from his exceedingly pressured life resisting the norm by stimulating dreamy, sentimental values.

Another important part of the hipster subculture was language. Broyard describes the “language of jive” as aggressive, full of sexual metaphors and highly ironic. Each word in the jive language was meant to evaluate and designate something absolutely. Words such as solid, gone, out of this world, were used for those things positive, while words such as no where, sad, beat, a drag, were used negatively. Broyard asserts that the hipsters’ use of metonymy and metonymous gestures, such as brushing palms in replace of a handshake, extending a finger to greet someone rather than raising the arm, were typical and symbolized prior understanding and no need to elaborate. This is consistent with the previously stated definition of hipsters as being “in the know”. The hipster, in essence, had been about superior knowledge, what Broyard called “a priorism”. They were minimal in their language and gestures, yet at the same time absolute in what they desired to convey.

Today, the term hipster has a widely negative connotation. It is used as a derogatory term in society mainly because no one is willing to affiliate themselves with that label, for at the moment the hipster is labeled as such all authenticity would be lost, and authenticity is held important above all else. Hipsters are this era’s most visible nonconformist subculture, those who immerse themselves in alternative culture of almost every kind including film, art, music, literature, fashion, food and more. Being a hipster means knowing about exclusive things before anyone else and striving to incorporate irony into every aspect of their lives. It is a group which associates itself with progressiveness, individuality and the counterculture, yet at the same time presents a posturing image that lacks any true originality. The modern hipster is a bricolage of cultural influences, a melting pot made by remixed, sampled, or outright stolen artifacts from previous subcultures that have been mashed together in an attempt to make their lives a unique “work of art”. The hipster culture is symbolized by objects or styles appropriated from past eras, meant to seem ironic and original. Fashion examples include vintage and thrift store clothing, horn-rimmed glasses, 1970s-style facial hair for men, a-line haircuts for women, and old school sneakers. “The hipster’s hopeless search for authenticity results in a replicated individualism that makes it part of a community” (Kozak, 1). A modern day hipster is not one who creates but rather consumes. Rather like Mailer’s “white negro”, hipsters mimic a person or group of people that they perceive to be cool, but these modern day hipsters are very different from the participants in the original subculture.

The 1940s hipsters sought to be a part of a group that shared appreciation of a musical genre and rejection of a racially divided and repressive culture. Modern hipsters rarely, if ever, claim to be a part of the group, remaining instead elitist and exclusive, shunning those who do not conform to the hipster nonconformity. No longer is the subculture known as one connected to jazz and race relations, but rather focused solely on proving each individual’s authenticity, which ironically gets lost in translation. As Dick Hebdige points out, “the distinction between originals and hangers-on is always a significant one in subculture” (Hebdige, 122). An interesting definition comes from an article entitled “Death of the Hipster”, asserting that the hipster might be the “embodiment of postmodernism as a spent force, revealing what happens when pastiche and irony exhaust themselves in aesthetics” (Horning). As we have seen through the co-optation of the counterculture, the culture industry is able to diffuse rebellious sentiment when it becomes a commercially viable proposition by promoting the same ideas and themes, even when they so deeply contradicted capitalism, until these ideas end up lacking all original meaning. Ultimately, putting aside the idea of a co-opted style, today’s hipsters’ lack of identity and individuality is what truly distinguishes the new hipsters from the old.


Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.


“The Hepster’s Dictionary.” Hepster’s Dictionary. Dinosaurgardens.com, 25 Dec. 2007. Web.        25 Apr. 2015. <http://www.dinosaurgardens.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/                  hepsters.html>.


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Kozak, Anna. “Hipsterception: A Critique of Popular Criticism of the Postmodern Hipster.”           Hipsterception: A Critique of Popular Criticism of the Postmodern Hipster.                      Academia.edu, n.d. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.

<https://www.academia.edu/6226829/                                                                                    Hipsterception_A_Critique_of_Popular_Criticism_of_the_Postmodern_Hipster>.


Lopes, Paul Douglas. The Rise of a Jazz Art World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.                   Google Books. Google. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.


Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster.” Dissent (1957):          582-88. English and Comparative Literary Studies. University of Warwick. Web. 22        Apr. 2015. <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/english/currentstudents/                             undergraduate/modules/fulllist/special/en304/module_info_2012-13/norman_mailer_-          _the_white_negro.pdf>.


Miklitsch, Robert. Roll over Adorno: Critical Theory, Popular Culture, Audiovisual Media.            Albany: State U of New York, 2006. Google Books. Google. Web. 26 Apr. 2015.


Sparta, Allegra. “What Is the Origin of the Hipster Subculture? | The Classroom | Synonym.”          The Classroom. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2015.


Ward, Geoffrey C., and Ken Burns. Jazz: A History of America’s Music. New York: Alfred A.     Knopf, 2000. Print.


Zott, Courtney. “So You’re A Hipster.” The New Student Union. N.p., 12 Aug. 2011. Web. 24      Apr. 2015. <https://newstudentunion.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/so-youre-a-hipster/>.