It’s a Game Day in late September, and hoards of maize and blue-tinged students are streaming down State Street to the sounds of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” But just as the University cements its place on Playboy’s annual list of top party schools, it’s equally the stomping grounds of the hipster — so much so that the town garnered the dubious distinction of being the 15th most hipster city in America.
So where is the hipster in Ann Arbor? Probably in a restaurant. Nothing better encapsulates taste, that elusive hipster currency, better than Ann Arbor restaurants. Freed from its functional properties, the cuisine of a trendy small-plates spot is a formalistic delight for the hipster. At once appealing to sensual faculties, restaurants, which Ann Arbor is abundant in (as well as cocktail bars, cafes and gourmet grocery stores) also fulfill the intellectual desire to know how the ingredients work, to observe ingredients perform as they should, stripped from the corporate magic of chemicals and preservatives. Restaurants are where the Ann Arbor hipsters are.
Transparency is the name of the game in Ann Arbor’s foodie culture. In Ann Arbor, you can buy juice from Babo with just six or seven ingredients, all of which are organic fruits and vegetables. At the farmer’s market, sellers move their local, pesticide-free goods straight into the reusable cotton totes of local Ann Arborites. On the menu at Mani Osteria, a popular Italian small plates restaurant, the dishes are named by ingredient, followed by a small description of further ingredients. “Cauliflower Fritti: shallots, pickled chile, bacon jam” is the antithesis of “Big Mac,” which reveals nothing of its origins or its parts. In Ann Arbor, you can eat ice cream that was made in front of you at Blank Slate or check Lab’s tumblr to see where their cold brew coffee is from.
Of course, transparency comes with a hefty price tag, and seems marketed to its own (predominantly white) demographic. And more so, authenticity and transparency can become their own fetishes: Whole Foods sold Asparagus Water‘ (ingredients: asparagus, water) for $6 at a store in Brentwood, California and a small bowl of bone broth (ingredients: bones, water) can be purchased at Brodo in Manhattan for $9. But this story of authenticity and transparency dates back to times well before most of Ann Arbor’s present day hipsters were born.
Where is the hipster from?
The term “hipster” first bubbled to the cultural surface in the late 1930s, when jazz gained popularity in Harlem. Musicians, artists and followers alike were dubbed “hepcat” and their identity accrued the effortless aura of cool. In 1939, the language of this identity was transcribed in the satirical book, “The Hepster’s Dictionary of Jive” by Cab Calloway (who, incidentally, became the first African-American to publish a dictionary). The book is full of jazz world jargon, conversational entries about munchies, women and music: “peppermint candy (n): sweets following a reefer session (use of weed creates a craving for sugar)”; “v-8 (n): a chick who spurns company, is independent, is not amenable”; and “armstrongs (n): musical notes in the upper register, high trumpet notes.”
Much like “The Hipster Handbook” published in 2003, Calloway’s guide does the curious job of thickening simple slang into argot, withholding even as it discloses. Because the crux of the book, its uninscribed entry, is that only a real “square” would read a book to understand “jive” — how to be a real one is the aporia of the text.
All Calloway will write is that a hepcat is “a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.”
How the hipster became white
This dictionary encapsulated the contradictions of being a hepcat. After all, the hepcat was necessarily on the uncodified fringes of the world, rejecting the old style of swing for the bold new genre of jazz. Yet a nihilistic set of postwar politics and literary intellectuals, who included Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, would soon create conditions amenable to canonizing this subculture, and culling it from its racial roots. But in order for this term to reach a new level of prominence, the aesthetic hold of the hepcat-cum-hipster needed to be expanded, transforming the Black musician into a mythic figure who had taste for not only jazz and chicks, but all of culture.
This strategy is most famously articulated by Norman Mailer’s 1957 article “The White Negro.” In it, Mailer argues that the political threat of death — its paranoid clamp on the Black psyche — inspired the violent and visceral experience of jazz, an art that short-circuited the “sophisticated inhibitions of civilization” for the “obligatory pleasures of the body,” writing that “in (the Black man’s) music he gave voice to the character and quality of his existence, to his rage and the infinite variations of joy, lust, languor, growl, cramp, pinch, scream, and despair of his orgasm.”
In 2015, it’s impossible to overstate the discomfort of reading an article like this, of watching Mailer organize the aesthetics of jazz by his racist assumptions of Black psychology, of seeing him brand the stereotype of primitive Blackness under a guise of progressiveness. Yet it remains important because it spells out how a section of Whites co-opted the moral paradigm of the Black hepcat to navigate their own postwar existentialist nightmare: “The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.” Within this moral paradigm, the hipster is an individualist warrior: “Hip morality is to do what one feels whenever and wherever it is possible, and — this is how the war of the Hip and the Square begins.”
Even Ann Arbor registered this breaking down of mores. As Alan Glenn notes in an essay about the history of counterculture in Ann Arbor, a School of Public Health professor wrote to The Michigan Daily in 1960 to complain about the “‘bearded, long-haired, sloppy, unsanitary-looking students, who appear to be a refugees from some beatnik cave.’ He wondered “just what kind of future citizens they will make if they are unwilling or too lazy to present a clean appearance at this early stage of their lives.” A few years later the Daily’s fashion supplement announced (with more than a little sarcasm) that ‘the rigid tradition that had girls wearing dresses and boys wearing pants has been broken.’”
The hipster today
This all set the stage for our current hipster stock, behind whose music preferences lurk certain philosophical stakes, a reflexive cynicism for the mainstream, and a bottomless appetite for authenticity. This authenticity is of a taste let loose on a whole new swath of cultural material.
In this current conception, mainstream art has effectively been plumbed of its merits, its spiritual and intellectual flesh picked off the bones by a capitalist machine. The “mainstream” product is designed to assuage our sensitivities and pleasure centers with unrelenting precision. In the age of algorithms and predictive analytics, hipsters instinctively know that the cultural goods floating down the mainstream have been sent down the river by a corporation and their business plan.
Think of Nathaniel Rich, writing in this October issue of The Atlantic about the handful of songwriters behind a disproportionate number of Top 40 hits, “Ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing…have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.” Or think of the 2005 screenwriting book by Blake Snyder that breaks down the blockbuster into a 15-beat structure and whose reverberations still echo in summer mega-hits, or maybe the patent Amazon filed for “anticipatory shipping,” a method to deliver packages before shoppers even purchase it.
Together, these revelations confirm what hipsters always felt in their bones: that cultural popularity is not a form of American meritocracy so much as it is the result of an aggressive business strategy. This is why the hipster is attracted to the elusive substance of authenticity as an acid to cut through the gunk of consumer waste.
Authenticity is a way of showing things for how they really are. No longer caught in the morass of consumerism, but also without the moral compass of mainstream, hipsters find a new way of determining value, and that way is taste. Taste is written into the secret language Calloway transcribed, taste is the dog whistle that only the enlightened can sense, taste is the result of a finely developed palate, a palate that registers not in moral terms of good and evil, but well or poorly executed. Taste cares about form, not function.
But against this optimistic reading of taste as pure choice, Colin Gunckel, assistant professor of american culture and screen arts and cultures, sees taste as a mode of class distinction — much like what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu elaborated on in “Distinction: A Social Critique in the Judgement of Taste.” Like Bourdieu, Gunkel believes these preferences are generated arbitrarily, and are empty signifiers of status. He noted in an e-mail, “The category (of hipster) is associated with having a superficial relationship to consumption. Going to the ‘hot’ new restaurant or bar that everyone is talking about, going to the art show you read about on the cover of the weekly, listening to whatever they read about on whatever website, dressing like your friends, living in the right neighborhood — people are suddenly into paying $20 for the privilege of eating artisanal toast, because that’s what’s trending. In other words, people associate hipsters with having no kind of original, meaningful or personal relationship to culture.”
Indeed, to Gunckel, as well as a set of left-leaning intellectuals, the mythic aura of authenticity surrounding the hipster masks the real damage: “I think the close association of the hipster with the creative economy obscures the detrimental economic shifts that gentrification is having in certain cities. Equating this demographic with ‘hipness’ is a way of foregrounding that supposed dimension of the category, without owning up to their privilege and the role many of us — hipster or otherwise — may have in gentrification.”
Abandoning the territory of mainstream consumerism, hipsters are free to wander wherever they please, led only by a cultivated taste, a deep wallet, and, yes, the rigid norms of a class structure. Perhaps our Ann Arbor hipster is really just our existentialist tastemaker, choosing to choose in the daunting face of late-capitalist society. Sartre condemned man to freedom, but for the hipster set loose in the culinary garden of Ann Arbor, this is a delightful possibility.