What do hipsters and pornography have in common? As the saying goes, you know 'em when you see 'em. That was the joke moderator Christian Lorentzen used to kick off the eight-person discussion "Look at This F*ing Panel: A Sociological Investigation of the Hipster" Monday night at UCLA.
The panel, inpsired by one held last year at NYU by n+1 magazine, imported many of its panelists from New York. A notable exception was L.A.'s Mark Hunter, the photographer also known as the Cobrasnake. Wearing tattered denim shorts and an American-flag shirt, Hunter spoke up idealistically for hipsters as people who were inspired and creative, getting some of the night's warmest applause.
But that came later. First, the panel struggled to agree on a definition of today's hipster. As Lortentzen joked, a hipster is easier to recognize than to define -- and the eight panelists never came to a consensus.
Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice magazine, maintained that hipster was just the latest youth movement in the tradition of greasers, rappers, mods, hippies, punks -- all focused on music, fashion and fornication. He left the rest of the panel a little stunned -- in part because his riff on fornication seemed hard to argue with (who, apart from Christine O'Donnell, is against fornication?) and in part because he had strutted onto the stage shirtless and took his place at the panel wearing nothing more than pants and tattoos.
Is a hipster any different from a yuppie? If so, what separates them? Alexi Wasser of the blog imboycrazy.com gave a ringing endorsement of what she called the hipster aesthetic -- "I see a dude wearing dark denim and white tennis shoes, that's great! He's a babe!" -- while decrying a negative hipster attitude. Andrea Bartz and Brenna Ehrlich of the tumbler-to-book "Stuff Hipsters Hate" (not to be confused with "Stuff White People Like" or the popular blog-to-book from which the panel name was taken) also criticized negativity and apathy within hipster culture.
Chrisopher Glazek, an assistant editor at n+1, noted that last year's panel made connections between hipsters and gentrification -- an issue perhaps more pressing in Williamsburg and other areas of Brooklyn than in Los Angeles, and one that may have been a bit lost on the young students in Westwood. Glazek tied gentrification to the phrase "white power," which set off McInnes -- who was easy to set off, frequently throwing the panel into high-key chaos -- on a riff that ended with hipster armies wearing American Apparel Brownshirts.
Mary Corey, a lecturer in UCLA's history department, finally got a chance to speak. "Hipsterism has a rich and vital history that has nothing to do with ruining Brooklyn," she said. McInnes reiterated his point that it was just another youth movement and that all youth movements were about music, fashion and fornication, even those we think of as more political. Corey was shocked. "If Angela Davis is reduced to a hairstyle --" she began.
"Who's Angela Davis?" Tao Lin interjected, scoring an easy laugh.
Lin is the author of several books, including "Shoplifting From American Apparel" and the new book "Richard Yates" (not to be confused with the actual author Richard Yates). He speaks in a slow monotone, much like comedian Steven Wright and with the culture-jamming inclinations of Andy Kaufman. Lin, who Lorentzen says has been described as "inauthentic, confusing and alienated," has a devoted hipster fan base -- there was enthusiastic applause when he spoke. (Lin also has detractors; during the Q&A, a questioner equated "Shoplifting From American Apparel" with "a literary bowel movement.")
When pressed on how he defined "hipster," Tao Lin demurred. "Like all categories, I try to stay away from it." He continued, mumbling half-finished sentences into the microphone.
McInnes jumped in. "I can't tell what you're saying!" he blurted, complaining about Lin's mannered speaking style.
"That's my trademark," Lin replied, monotonally.
The panel moved back into intellectual territory when the question of the avant-garde was raised. Corey traced hipsters back to the beats, then back to Norman Mailer, and the ideas in his problematic essay "The White Negro," and back to the 1920s. In those periods, the things we might see as hallmarks of today's hipster -- interest in culture and progressive ideology -- were present, under different names. She was on the point of saying hipsters and the avant-garde were the same thing when the conversation was derailed -- yes, again by McInnes -- exasperated by the application of hipster to other time periods and cultural moments.
If the panel was not able to come to a consensus on the definition of hipster, it did leave the audience with this overview: A hipster is, by definition, someone 18 to 25 years old with an interest in music, fashion and fornication; with progressive ideology (there are no "tea party" hipsters); with a weakness for criticism and apathy; and with the desire to be creative and connected.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Waiting for the hipster panel at UCLA. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg / Los Angeles Times