The new handbook for hipsters.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 27 2003 3:09 PM

It's a Hip, Hip, Hip World

But a new handbook to social savvy can't escape its square future.

Book cover

Nothing communicates coolness as quickly and effectively as what you play on a jukebox. Consider the following fictional scenario from Robert Lanham's new social guide, The Hipster Handbook. It takes place at a generic hole-in-the-wall in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood, but it could just as easily occur at a dive in Seattle's fashionable Belltown, or in the U District in D.C., or on the Lower East Side, or, of course, in Williamsburg. At one table, a group of frat boys is playing quarters; they request R.E.M. Nearby, a local carpenter has other ideas: Les Savy Fav and—because he presumably knows that hip women "have grown tired of dating men who wear Girl Scout T-shirts"—Ted Nugent. Who do you think is going to impress the hot chick behind the bar?

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In the book's telling, though, the bartender's not a chick, but a tassel with a nice nancy (ass). She's a wash (wait staff and service hipster). The carpenter, a bipster (blue-collar hipster), isn't cool; he's deck. (You get the feeling he's also something of a wally—an acronym for "women always look longingly at you.") The Sigma Nus, on the other hand, aren't deck but fin, and they're probably frados (ugly guys who think they're good-looking) to boot. The R.E.M. selection—especially if it postdates Murmur—is ishtar. Oh well, at least they're getting shellacked on all those bronsons.

The fact that it contains an amusing new slang lexicon has helped create a minor buzz about The Hipster Handbook, but it also raises a question: Is Lanham for real? Rick Marin, reviewing the book in the Times recently, prefaced his piece with a caveat: "Whether this argot is real or made up, who knows?" (Marin was perhaps extra wary of being duped; he wrote the infamous Times story which included a "lexicon of grunge" back in 1992, only to discover that he'd been the victim of a record company intern's hoax.) The New York Post has asserted, "It's all completely invented."

By day, Lanham edits and publishes the Web journal FREEwilliamsburg.com, a mostly monthly arts and culture review that declares itself free of "direction, a mission, or a political slant." (Republicans will nonetheless want to steer clear; "Bush rhymes with pig fucker," reads a banner on the top of the site.) He calls himself an "anthropologist." And he swears the vocab is legit. In fact, he predicts that in 10 years we will all regard "deck" and "fin" much the way we do "fresh" and "fly" today—which, well, depends on how hip we are, doesn't it? Of course, Lanham has admitted that, while writing the book, his tongue was "so far in my cheek that my face still hurts." He is not, by the way, a hipster, or so he says. But then, right there on Page 13: "Hipsters never admit to being hipsters." You see the problem.

Not since Dave Eggers has a writer built so many layers of self-defense into his work. (Speaking of Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius rates as a must-read for aspiring hipsters because it "will enable you to make fun of how pretentious Dave Eggers is.") But unlike Eggers, whose many layers of self-awareness were used as a form of protection from real pain (and, let's face it, as a literary gimmick), Lanham seems, in his carefully calibrated fence-riding, to be trying to avoid the clearly established pitfalls of his particular genre of social handbook (Lisa Birnbach's Official Preppy Handbook, Sam Sifton's Field Guide to the Yettie …).

For instance, there's the problem of the relentlessly ticking hipness clock, a tragic truth first identified in 1973 by Tower of Power: "What's hip today might soon become passé." A lot can happen in the time that elapses while a manuscript becomes a book on the shelf. What are we to make of Lanham's celebration of the old metal/punk devil-fingers greeting ("raise your arm at a forty-five degree angle, pointing your pinky and index fingers in the air while pressing the middle and ring finger against your palm with your thumb") now that the decidedly fin pseudo-punk Avril Lavigne has co-opted the gesture on MTV? After all, the greeting's hipness depends upon a "passion for eighties metal that is paradoxically ironic and sincere," and Lavigne is neither metal-friendly nor old enough to remember the '80s with any sincerity.

And who exactly is the audience for such a book? Lanham suggests that hipsters carry it in their back pockets or purses, but surely he realizes that this is implausible; after all, we know that hipsters, by definition, don't admit to being hipsters, and moreover, Lanham identifies as one of the "core elements of hipsterdom" the fact that "hipsters think lists like this suck ass." Of what use, then, can the book be to non-hipsters, given that it's antithetical, by nature, to the culture it seeks to explain?

To be fair, though, The Hipster Handbook is so comprehensive and so well-done that only a poseur could criticize it without tongue in cheek. And there are some gems of advice for aging hipsters and wannabes who may be falling out of touch with the deck and fin:

"The switchblade comb is still very fashionable."

"Cat fetishes are fatuous and extramarital affairs are bourgeois."

"Dating someone substantially younger won't make you look hip; it will make you look like a pedophile." Dirty old men beware.

But back to Wicker Park. In Lanham's barroom parable, one of the pledge brothers gets charged $6 for a bottle of Budweiser by the wash tassel tending bar; not only is his taste in music ishtar, but he's got the nerve to ask for Buffalo wings. (While it's true that "lately, many hipsters have become devout carnivores who take great pride in a meat-heavy diet," a fondness for kitsch is important, so better to stick with sloppy Joes and meatloaf.) Our handyman Bipster friend, meanwhile, tips heavily on his first bronson (a Red Hook) and gets offered a freebie—which he declines, just as he passes on the sex she offers him later in the night; turns out he "jerked off earlier to 'Girls Gone Wild.' "

Does it matter if he did it ironically? He didn't get laid, and he didn't even pay less for his beer. No wonder the squares never learn. As Tower of Power also sang, "Sometimes hipness is what it ain't."

Ben McGrath lives in Midtown, which doubles as an adjective meaning "uncultured or unhip" in The Hipster Handbook. He is a writer for The New Yorker.

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