The Irony of the Ironic: Hipsters Don't Understand Irony

alanis Morissette

Not too long ago, I was at show and the opening act was an incredibly horrible hipster band. Western button down shirts, big Harry Caray glasses, porn star mustaches, the whole shebang. I would try to look up exactly what band it was, but I'm afraid even touching upon that horribleness again will send me into a spiral that I will never be able to recover from. They had sort of a throwback 80's synth sound (which as a child of the 80's I have no problem in and of itself – I will be wanging the proverbial chung tonight), but it sounded like this was the first time they ever performed together or picked up their respective instruments. The thing that really stuck with me though is that I couldn't figure out if this band just happened to be hipsters and happened to be awful or if they were intentionally trying to be awful. As in being awful was a personal choice and some statement they were trying to make. Their awfulness was some sort of grand ironic statement: they're here, they're terrible, get used to it. Which begs the question: do hipsters understand irony?

Most of hipster culture is built upon a thick layer of the kitsch. Kitsch meaning to find beauty, value, and art in seemingly worthless or tasteless objects. They are going to surround themselves by a series of things or objects or concepts that everyday people tossed aside and will defend these discarded pop items with somber intensity. The problem is just because something—a shirt, a song, a hairstyle—is horrible doesn't mean it's kitsch. The hipster problem is perhaps a complete misunderstanding of the term ironic. It's the mindset that says bad = good. In the hipster world, if something sucks it is ironic because they believe themselves to not suck. Which formulates to something along the lines of:

Sucks = Cool if Cool ≠ Sucks

This is the principle behind a non-cowboy wearing a cowboy shirt at concerts playing what can only be described as uncountry music.

However, as you can see, this is not quite right. Irony is when the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same creating an incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. There's a contextuality to irony that Hipsters seem to ignore. Two major events in the past 20 years have aided in this misconception. The problem perhaps first developed with Alanis Morissette in her song “Ironic” (which is actually ironically titled because nothing in the song is ironic). This song established irony for an entire generation of young minds, and established it incorrectly. The song is a list of great ironies, instead of listing ironic instances, Alanis simply lists things that are bad. Let's look at the song: It's a black fly in your Chardonnay. It's like rain on your wedding day. It's a free ride when you've already paid. All of which are bad, none of them being actually ironic. This will eventually lead to the hipster mind associating irony with bad. However, it is not the object itself being bad which makes it ironic, but your relationship with the object. So, rain on your wedding day is not ironic, rain on your wedding day and you're marrying a weather man, slightly ironic. Similarly, that cowboy shirt is only ironic if you're standing next to a shirtless cowboy. Irony is more about personal relationships and underlining context than mass compilation of dissimilar possessions or ideas; hipsters have become little more than pop culture hoarders.

Ethan Hawke

The other major footnote in the hipsters misunderstanding of irony is from Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites. Ethan Hawke is the poster boy for indie douches everywhere and indie girls who can't understand that a guy's total indifference is not deep and secret longing. It's just indifference. But back to Hawke and irony. When asked to define irony, he famously states, “It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.” Which is a good sounding answer. It seems very much correct. But this would mean that all opposites are ironic and doesn't take in the incongruous nature of the situation. Irony has no negative or positive values, and while an ironic relationship can be caused through polar opposition, it is not necessarily the only cause. Hawke ultimately feeds into the this thing sucks/I don't suck philosophy. This isn't irony, but grade school opposite day. And in large part hipsters skate by playing an endless game of opposite day. Dorky is the opposite of cool meaning this cowboy shirt is cool.

All I know is that bars by me are charging 5 bucks Pabst Blue Ribbon and kids are running around with the same glasses as me (but with no lenses), thank you Ethan Hawke and Alanis Morissette.

  • Tommy Salami
    Comment from: Tommy Salami
    08/27/10 @ 09:22:02 am

    Very well put. Hipster irony is more like Bizarro Superman's take on the world.

  • Supertedd
    Comment from: Supertedd
    08/27/10 @ 12:21:53 pm

    You lost me when you got the definition of kitsch wrong.

  • W. G. Nards
    Comment from: W. G. Nards
    08/27/10 @ 12:32:33 pm

    According to Webster's:

    Kitsch - something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality.

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/kitsch?show=0&t=1282933720


    If you can define it better than Webster's be my guest.

  • flickerbat
    Comment from: flickerbat
    08/27/10 @ 01:17:27 pm

    Isn't it ironic when hipsters think they are smarter than Wolfgnards ? AHOOGA!

  • gucci mane
    Comment from: gucci mane
    08/27/10 @ 02:02:17 pm

    dude, come on. i thought you would be above this 'blog trend'.

    sweeping generalizations are a bit cheap

  • TomW
    Comment from: TomW
    08/30/10 @ 10:59:08 am

    Also, bloggers don't understand what "begs the question" means. It does not mean "raises the question". Unless you were being wrong on purpose. To be ironic.

  • J.M.S. Esq.
    Comment from: J.M.S. Esq.
    08/30/10 @ 01:06:42 pm

    Very true. A nice discussion of how hipsters leech meaning from culture appears here (http://newyork.timeout.com/articles/features/4840/why-the-hipster-must-die#ixzz0y7KY1t3k), but the meat of it is this:

    "Under the guise of 'irony,' hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity . . . . As the hipster ambles from the thrift store to a $100 haircut at Freemans Sporting Club, [the aesthetics of fringe movements and ethnicities] are assimilated—cannibalized—into a repertoire of meaninglessness, from which the hipster can construct an identity in the manner of a collage, or a shuffled playlist on an iPod."

    There's another good article over here, https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html. This one makes note of my personal favorite hipster trend, where hipsters display their fierce Palestinian nationalism by sporting keffiyehs.

  • Z.
    Comment from: Z.
    08/30/10 @ 01:09:51 pm

    While the classical meaning of "begging the question" relates to the logical fallacy of assuming an initial point, it has indeed come to mean "to raise the question" in a modern context, TomW. Such is the elastic majesty of language.

  • grays sports almanac
    Comment from: grays sports almanac
    08/30/10 @ 01:52:50 pm

    Things ain't so bad over here in the UK. You'll see smatterings of 'hipsters' but mostly they're a nameless community reserved to university term times and the occasional times where a punk rock gig clashes with an academy unsigned venue.

  • TomW
    Comment from: TomW
    08/30/10 @ 05:57:10 pm

    I don't disagree with you Z. But, then that must surely mean the elastic majesty of language would also allow for "ironic" to mean "bad", right?

  • DarkSock
    Comment from: DarkSock
    09/03/10 @ 02:16:21 pm

    I peed in a horse once.

  • Meeee
    Comment from: Meeee
    09/04/10 @ 12:53:27 am

    You misuse the phrase "beg the question." You make horrendous errors re basic grammar. Your thesis is bunk arrogance and your writing style is faux intellectual. Therefore, you don't suck.

  • Ira Knee
    Comment from: Ira Knee
    09/04/10 @ 07:18:41 pm

    In fairness to the esteemed Mr. Hawke (ahem), the blame for that line from Reality Bites belongs to the screenwriter, Helen Childress. With an assist going to Ben Stiller, the film's director.

  • Derek Flint
    Comment from: Derek Flint
    09/04/10 @ 09:13:08 pm

    You know, another thing I don't get about hipster 'culture', is that they mostly are going to all this time and expense on their appearances,...

    Wait for it...

    TO LOOK LIKE CRAP!

    I remember going to a meetup in Williamsburg, after seeing some guy peeing in a policeman's horse once, and looking at all these allegedly 'ironic' people and thinking, "WTF? The joke's not on me. It's on them. They can't figure out how to dress/groom differently from everyone else for their little clique membership and still look ok doing it. Weird."

    Don't get it. Just really stupid.
    And there really were a few girls who clearly were cute.

    Maybe another element of this fad is that they're so desperate to alienate themselves from everyone else, making themselves look like buffonish homeless people is just another part of it.

  • gramnaz
    Comment from: gramnaz
    09/06/10 @ 09:48:04 pm

    @ Meeee

    You inserted "re" into a sentence without properly identifying that you were using it as an irregular, arbitrarily placed abbreviation. You also did this in the very sentence for which you were criticizing someone's "grammar" use.

    You failed to properly hyphenate "faux-intellectual", again within a criticism of some one else's intellect. You also did this under an obvious pretense of judgment, assuming yourself to be superior, and therefore had more of a faux-intellectualism than anyone else in this thread.

    Finally, the construction of your comment into a sort of demonstration of irony, which you certainly think is quite clever, was done with the subtlety of a baboon.

    Therefore, I declare your comment to be merely a demonstration of your own lameness and an almost assured proof that you are yourself a hipster.

  • Dog Boy
    Comment from: Dog Boy
    09/07/10 @ 09:48:29 am

    Hawke's definition is actually a definition of sarcasm. And he was indeed an indie wanker. I always thought the yuppie should have got the girl.

  • dirtpig
    Comment from: dirtpig
    09/21/10 @ 04:58:13 pm

    In the late 90s, when the Alanis song was a big hit, it was the hipster dbags of that time who would roll their eyes when the song came on, and try to convince everyone that nothing in the song was "ironic". Then, I remember hearing the question put to an academic, decribed as the country's foremost expert on Irony, on NPR (Google tells me it was Herbert Lindenberger, pres. Modern Language Soc.). The prof. sided with Alanis. He said that all of the situations in the song would fit the bill for some sort of situational or cosmic irony. The fact that you are now poking fun of the same ilk of hipster that used the same fallacious argument to tease Alanis and her square fans back in the day is... (wait for it)... ironic.
    Btw, I am not a hipster. I don't own a western shirt, but I have worn Chuck Taylors to a cowboy bar. I am also not an Alanis fan, though I do find her strangely bangable.

  • dropin
    Comment from: dropin
    09/21/10 @ 06:21:34 pm

    We grew up in the Bay Area, and my sister, who was a hipster through her 20s, just made a move to the Marina. She says in a town of men who wear skinny jeans and 45 YO execs who attend Burning Man parties in costume every weekend, the only way to make a real counter-cultural stand is to cross over to the "dark side" -- AKA the yuppy side -- and rock the cashmere + a pencil skirt look.

  • trituradora
    Comment from: trituradora
    09/26/10 @ 02:34:39 am

    Sucks = Cool if Cool ≠ Sucks ,Haha,yes Good article.

  • 乳膠床墊
    Comment from: 乳膠床墊
    09/28/10 @ 12:48:31 pm

    Wow! This can be 1 of the top blogs I've actually arrive throughout on this subject. Merely Magnificent

  • ish
    Comment from: ish
    11/08/10 @ 04:56:21 pm

    I am so fucking tired of reading long, well written articles about the intricacies of hipsterdom. The term hipster can officially retire. Everyone wants a voice and a style, and some make it up and make it better than others. I'm not invalidating your statement on the ironic and the misconception of irony, I'm just saying I'm fucking tired of reading about it. And I am allowed to have my opinion and refrain from reading any more article on this topic.
    My point: Hipster discussion is no long interesting.

  • joilson
    Comment from: joilson
    11/08/10 @ 07:26:17 pm

    a hispter blog criticizing hipsters is ironic? just kidding...
    but receive this post from a hispter is.

  • Pandorica
    Comment from: Pandorica
    11/09/10 @ 02:17:06 am

    Fezzes are cool.

  • Mandragora
    Comment from: Mandragora
    11/09/10 @ 02:20:40 am

    I intend this fez sarcastically. You see, I'm not trying to be "impressive" or ironic or anything. I'm saying I'm not that interested in my own fashion statement.

  • Logopolis
    Comment from: Logopolis
    11/09/10 @ 02:23:45 am

    The irony being the *perception* that a hipster is actually trying to impress people by being unimpressive when actually they are as disinterested as you in themselves. See?

  • Bowelhowl
    Comment from: Bowelhowl
    11/13/10 @ 10:07:04 am

    Hipsters, their music, their "lifestyle", their vile little hitlerian facial fungi, and all that oozes with them are like the little nuggety bits of dried fecal matter found in the gusset of a meth heads underwear. Worthless, stinky and should be disposed of rapidly. How about dedicating one day a month as A Hipster Day? On this day one could rain un-ironic comments about their appearance, about their nasty upper lip growth, trip them on the el platform, spill drinks on their clothes.... this list is endless and fun..... I think an annual "Culling Of The Hipster" day where they can be thrown to floor and be shaved of their mustaches (yes, the girls too) without recrimination is also a good idea....
    Vote Bowelhowl for President and it shall be so!

  • jeff
    Comment from: jeff
    12/02/10 @ 09:30:17 pm

    i don't think there's anyone who doesn't know that alanis got the definition of irony wrong ... that song is from 15 years ago. you might be right if you were like the first person to think of that. Also, hipster = former alanis morrissette fans? probably not so much.

    Part 2: Reality Bites is generally considered overrated in my age group 20-26 ( prime hipster years). It was kind of lame. Really lame. Winona Ryder was in it.

    I think hipsters are annoying, but I've seen this post over and over for the past 2 years. At first, it was novel and interesting. Now it's just sort of tedious.
    Nice attempt tho.


  • Danny
    Comment from: Danny
    12/12/10 @ 11:29:33 am

    Irony is very subjective. No one person's view on what may or may not be ironic, is necessarily 100% true. Fighting over what is "ironic" seems like the worst possible way to tell a hipster his faults. You mights as well argue the definition of faith to a religious person. In the end, who cares? Douschebags dress in all styles. I haven't seen enough of them in hipster's dress to disdain the fad all together.

  • Tommy
    Comment from: Tommy
    12/23/10 @ 12:29:28 am

    Irony is NOT "very subjective." Surprise, words have definitions, and they matter.

    Secondly, Ethan Hawke's definition is a good definition of irony, and does not imply that all opposites are ironic. Black is not somehow "ironic" because it is the opposite of white. Just like you said, the context is very relevant. So, black would be ironic only if it were the color of the White House.

    Mediocre article, I've read better.

  • Dave
    Comment from: Dave
    12/25/10 @ 09:49:43 am

    Being severely old (I'm 50), I wasn't aware about this thing called hipsters until I got bombarded by Hyundai TV commercials this season. I did some research and discovered that the clowns in it were supposed to be hipsters and that explained why some youngsters I know today look the way they do. It reminds me of when I was young. I grew out my hair, put on a leather jacket, jeans and cowboy boots so everyone would immediately know that I was a counter-culture badass who rejected their mainstream blah, blah, blah, never noticing that I bought the jacket from JC Penney at the local mall with money my mom gave me for keeping the front lawn so pretty.

    Next time somebody starts telling you about indie music, just ask him when was the last time he listened to Beethoven - the original independent.

    Anyway this is a terrific essay. Kudos to whomever wrote this - you have a great writing style.

  • Kyle
    Comment from: Kyle
    12/29/10 @ 09:20:11 am

    improper use of the phrase "beg the question"... learn. improve.

  • me
    Comment from: me
    02/25/11 @ 07:15:10 am

    Jokes on you, they're creating the ultimate irony. Fuckin hipsters. Just wait until there's no money for social services and welfare, that'll straighten them out when they'r starving.

  • scrawny
    Comment from: scrawny
    05/27/11 @ 12:04:25 pm

    i think you are confusing kitsch with post-irony or even post-modernism in general.

  • Harry Hipster
    Comment from: Harry Hipster
    07/26/11 @ 04:48:13 am

    I didn't give this article a thumbs up because I like it, I gave it a thumbs up to be ironic.

  • Joe
    Comment from: Joe
    08/06/11 @ 07:27:01 pm

    Fuck hipsters!

  • EmilPerson
    Comment from: EmilPerson
    11/16/11 @ 11:51:12 pm

    Three points: 1) The anti-hipster sentiments in the US today are themselves worth analyzing. Are Americans really just freaked out by anything they don't understand? Is it a form of elitist anti-elitism?
    2) Im as turned off as anyone by arrogant pseudo-intellectuals, but hipsterism has some real benefits that all the vehement rhetoric overlooks. For example, Americans tend to be a people with NO historical consciousness. Although the hipster indulgence into previous American memes is often shallow, it does carry the potential to spark a more meaningful exploration of the past.
    3) Hipsterism is used differently by different people. I'm sure that by the time these memes made it to Omaha, they lost some of the connotations they had in NY, NY. And gained some meanings.

  • Pete H
    Comment from: Pete H
    12/20/11 @ 01:23:08 pm

    Your criticism of the Reality Bites definition of irony ("But this would mean that all opposites are ironic and doesn't take in the incongruous nature of the situation.") is the dumbest thing I've read in at least a month. Either you have poor reading comprehension, or you are over-eager to find fault with that definition because of who uttered it. Here's the definition according to Merriam-Webster: "the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning." Virtually identical to what Ethan Hawke said.

  • alex drinkycrow
    Comment from: alex drinkycrow
    04/18/12 @ 10:10:22 am

    great example about that song ironic, my mind is blown. or was that vh1 that constantly uses that example anyway one of you is brilliant.

    this article came up when i was searching for hipster porn. bump.

  • Lai-Lai
    Comment from: Lai-Lai
    09/17/12 @ 06:09:12 am

    This teaches me nothing. What the f**k is a hipster? Is it anyone who uses the word irony incorrectly? Is Alanis Morissette their leader?

  • George DeLange
    Comment from: George DeLange
    09/22/12 @ 04:48:36 pm

    While much of what you wrote is true, your understanding of logic is horribly flawed. To jump to the conclusion that if irony is when the literal and actual meaning of a single word, phrase or concept are opposites, that irony must include all opposites makes no sense.

    Most opposites are precisely opposites and not ironic. Hot and cold are opposites, but there is no irony unless cold is used to imply hot. While I have no doubt that the average hipster does not completely grasp this literary technique, it seems clear that neither do you and that your understanding of basic logic (think if p then q) is similarly lacking.

  • Muttonchops
    Comment from: Muttonchops
    12/31/12 @ 12:02:51 am

    Supertedd is correct. Webster's definition applies to things like professional wrestling, South Park, and Jackass. Your definition makes it sound like people who make sculptures out of parts from a junkyard.

  • lol
    Comment from: lol
    04/14/13 @ 02:11:14 pm

    umadbro?

  • sane  man
    Comment from: sane man
    05/17/13 @ 11:44:57 am

    Bit surprised at some of the comments bashing this article, I get the gist of what he is saying, basically it is directed at the notion that some youngsters are trying to look bad on purpose, which somehow makes them look cool, and their excuse for this style is 'being ironic', which of course it isn't, simply because they don't look cool whether they think they are or not.
    Perhaps it would be ironic if they had no thoughts or cares about image or style, and by coincidence ended up looking far more stylish amongst people who obsess and spend money and time trying to look good. But trying to look un-fashionable deliberately does not make it ironic.
    The only ironic thing about being a hipster is that it started as an attempt at individuality and has turned into a mass trend.
    The article then briefly delves into the possible origins of the misunderstanding of the word irony. The song 'Ironic' being sourced as the main proprietor, even as a child hearing that song it was obvious that nothing that she sang was ironic at all.
    I would say this article is more based on the misuse of the term irony rather than having a dig at hipsters, which some people seem to have taken it as.
    In my personal opinion hipster are the pioneers of terrible fashion sense or anti-style, which to them makes them cool and ironic, but unfortunately to everyone else it looks exactly like it is, poor dress sense, regardless of the motive.

  • Meade
    Comment from: Meade
    06/04/13 @ 03:43:19 pm

    The strict definition of irony is not to be taken literally. Simply, at least in hipster terms, irony is the OPPOSITE of what is expected. Most people expect hipsters to be on the cutting edge of trends and like what is deemed as cool - but mainstream minds have a different idea of "cool". So a hipster listening to Classic Country music and collecting vintage clothing or shopping at Walmart or Target is the opposite of what most people think of as "cool". So they deem the opposite. The most ironic hipster would not be a liberal Obama supporter, but perhaps a Ron Paul supporter with even Conservative Republican quips about how horrible young people are today and how we have lost "family values" would be 10x more ironic than a tree hugging, vegetarian extremely liberal hipster- would actually would be a modern hippie, rather than a hipster. Hipsters aren't as genuinely concerned.

  • jimmy
    Comment from: jimmy
    06/05/13 @ 08:41:04 am

    I am not sure what the dispute is with the author's use of kitsch. There is the aesthetic Kitsch (e.g. Klaus Nomi) and then there is the description, kitsch. It is similar to whether something is modern (airplanes), or is Modern (the empire sate building, Frank Lloyd Wright). Or whether something is romantic (Paris, love poems) or Romantic (John Keats, Henry David Thoreau).

    I am also not sure why the author is criticized for his use of "begs the questions." This expression already claims "petitions the principle" and "affirms the consequent." This logical fallacy cannot be allowed to annex every colorful expression. Besides, it is usually seen as "begging the question."

    While the article is not very well-written, it suggest a plausible reason for the irritation others feel towards this group of people. What I took away from this:

    From what I can remember in High School (the level of mentality to be preoccupied with such things), the traditional order of things to acquire things to make one cool. Now, there is an angst amongst 20-somethings towards this rebellious new order of things; assuming one is cool from the get go, and than imparting that to various randoms objects and apparel. This spiralled into the exaggeration of purposefully acquiring and imbuing random and at times even distasteful objects and apparel.

    I think that it the gist of it. However, I never really cared for the previous order in the first place. Indeed, despite the change in perceived mentality, I still think people look at objects in a store window and say to themselves,"Won't I look slick in that number?"

    It is also why I can't find out what hipster's really are. It used to be one could name the three b's about a subculture; bands, brands, and beliefs. The absence of any of these leads me to believe this is a made-up subculture. The angst against those that have adopted the post-modern absence of any motif in this generation has communicated itself in a red herring. There are no hipsters, just pretentious goofy motherfuckers. These have always been around.

  • Morley
    Comment from: Morley
    01/12/14 @ 08:48:36 am

    You're all a bunch of idiots. Bitching at each other just makes it more apparent.

  • Jive Dadson
    Comment from: Jive Dadson
    03/14/14 @ 09:05:46 pm

    Is the author being ironic when he misuses "begs the question" and "kitsch"?

  • Jive Dadson
    Comment from: Jive Dadson
    03/14/14 @ 09:08:09 pm

    Is the author being ironic when he misuses "begs the question". "kitsch", and (alas) "ironic"?

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