Almost nobody made fun of mullets until almost nobody had one. In the eighties, shaving the sides of your head was just one way to look different from your older, 70s-styled semi-hippie siblings and cousins. Today we would say that if you shaved the sides of your head but cut the hair in the back, you had some form of a mohawk, and if you didn’t, if you left the back long, you had a mullet. But back then, mullet and mohawk sat on the same continuum, with a lot of give and play between them, a thousand variations of mohawk-like mullet and mullet-like mohawk. We didn’t have a name for “mullet,” either. My hairdresser called it a “ska-fish” when he shaved the sides of my head. (He pronounced “ska” to rhyme with “play.”) My mom called it a “shag,” after David Bowie’s famous haircut. Bowie, because he has remained cool over the decades, somehow avoided being blamed for the mullet, though I think he has a lot to answer for, frankly.
The ancestral ur-mullet, 1973
Lately my redneck relatives have started making fun of hipsters. Note: I do not use the word “redneck” disparagingly. My redneck relatives are reasonably proud to be rednecks, as they should be. If you think that that word is an insult, then it probably doesn’t mean to them — or to me — what it means to you. We’ll talk about rednecks another day. Today the subject is hipsters.
So yeah. Redneck relatives. Talking about hipsters.
“How did the hipster burn his tongue?” asked my Uncle _______, a tractor/trailer operator, the last time I visited Alabama.
I was surprised that my uncle had ever even heard of hipsters. I’d been dealing with hipsters for a number of years, myself, mainly because of my work in the webcomics field, which is crawling with scrawny kids of both genders wearing granny glasses and fedoras, smoking pipes smugly above ironic t-shirt slogans. They can be adorable and they can be annoying. They’re easy to make fun of; they always have been. They kind of set themselves up for making fun. It’s kind of the thing they do. So it’s understandable that my redneck relatives, for whom these kids must look like space aliens, would make fun of them. My redneck relatives will make fun of anybody who isn’t a redneck. That’s the thing they do. That part I get. But as far as I know, hipsters have always been a phenomenon of the trendy, privileged, “alternative” parts of the country — Park Slope, Portland, Seattle, Boulder, Austin. I’ve never seen one in north Alabama, where Uncle ______ lives.
“He sipped his coffee — before it was cool!” said Uncle ______.
I’m going to talk about the word “hipster” for a moment. Pardon the new digression. First I’m going to talk about the word “Punk.” In the 17th century, “punk” meant “rotten wood.” In the early 20th century, it meant “young hoodlum,” “criminal’s apprentice,” and “butt-boy.” It’s easy to see how the word got from there to here:
“Hipster,” likewise, as a word, predates its own most specific definition. Ginsberg spoke of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,” for example, in Howl. It’s pretty easy to assume that the late-fifties Greenwich Village cats and kitties Ginsberg knew were the cultural and spiritual (and maybe even actual) ancestors of today’s hipsters, but it’s also safe to assume that they were as different from their contemporary offspring as an Edwardian prison butt-boy would have been from John Lydon, whose Edwardian butt-boyishness was metaphoric rather than actual. Was a pose, let us say. Can we say that? 50s hipsters read novels and epic poetry instead of webcomics, for example. That’s one big difference. If they drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, it was because they honestly couldn’t afford a better beer, and they didn’t pretend to be happy about it.
But back to my Uncle _____.
Generally, when a lot of people who aren’t part of a pop subculture start making fun of that subculture, it’s a good sign that the subculture they’re making fun of is no longer viable. I’ll take that a step further. Generally, when a lot of people who aren’t part of a pop subculture acknowledge the very existence of that subculture, then that subculture effectively ceases to exist as a subculture. It becomes a part of the larger culture. It’s safe to make fun of because there is no longer any real reason to make fun of it. The threat is gone. See mullets, above. Hipsterism — in the contemporary definition, not the larger Ginsbergian definition — entered the mainstream the day the first Keystone Beer ad featuring “Keith Stone” appeared on the television set of my Uncle ______.
When Madison Avenue co-opts a subculture, that subculture dies, at the same time that it appears to explode. People start to dress and talk and act like members of the subculture because they picked it up from (for example) a beer commercial. See punk, above. “Punks” who don’t understand the punk ethos — who think that “punk” is a sound and a style, and don’t see how, for example, Patti Smith or Talking Heads fit into that sound and style, because they don’t sound like Blink 182 — are the norm rather than the exception. Right?
Hipsters are a little more slippery than that. They were never much more than a pose, so one wonders if it matters how the pose memeticized its way into a new hipster’s head. Is a hipster who caught hipsterism via Questionable Content in 2008 more or less of a hipster than one who caught it from Adventuretime or Portlandia in 2012? Can a subculture be co-opted if it was always commercially-driven and ironic at its heart? Or is faux mass-media-generated hipsterism, ironically (or, I guess, “ironically”), the most sincere expression of the style?
I guess we’re about to find out.
Turns out, by the way, that Portlandia is where my Uncle ______ first learned about hipsters. He loves that show, the same way that Joe and I love watching nature documentaries.
And, yes, my uncle proudly sports a mullet.
I told him to pretend it’s ironic.
He says, “But it is.”
And who am I to argue? We can all be hipsters now.