Were You a 90s Hipster (or are you still one)?

(Oliver Lyons returns to 80s Baby with an examination of Gen X hipsters, aka “Ethan Hawkes” -Ed.)

As I write this, it’s the close of the decade. No, seriously, it’s December 31st, 2019. I figured I’d shoot an article out just in time to watch three horror films with my wife and then fall asleep around 10pm. And you though us old folks had forgotten how to party?

Looking back on the 2010s, it certainly was…well…um…we elected Obama again. That was cool, right? I’m sure a more nuanced look at the past decade will emerge in the coming years (assuming we make it that far) but, for now, I don’t feel like revisiting it. I’ve actually been thinking about the past a lot lately. More specifically, the past that was the early to mid 1990s.

I was watching something on YouTube recently that referenced the late-90’s Gap commercial for their khakis where everyone was swing dancing. By that point, swing music was as corny as corny got. It was so corny that the wake of corniness it generated actually sucked the recent ska revival down into the depths of “things we pretend we were never actually into” along with it.  However, only a few years earlier, swing was one of the coolest things around! In fact, in the early 90s, fucking Big Bad Voodoo daddy was the little-known favorite band of a lot of hipsters!

Hipsters? You mean those people with crappy mustaches and terrible haircuts who sell extremely stepped-on cocaine? Weren’t they a product of the early 2000s? Well, yes and no. The term “hipster” originated in the 40’s and was used to describe jazz-aficionados and blah, blah, blah. You’re not here for a history lesson. You want to hear about the insufferable assholes of the 90s. The craft-beer drinking, scarf wearing, fact-correcting , pretentious dicks of the decade largely defined by grunge music and snowboarding. Oh, they existed. Believe you me! While I was too young to actually be one in the early 90s, I consumed a LOT of media at the time that talked about these people and what they did.  A lot this media was purely etymological in nature; detailing an interest in lounge music popping up here, or Mexican wrestling there. It would be a few years before every article had an editorializing slant and would be titled something like “10 reasons why people are listening to cocktail albums in Louisiana AND WHY THEY FUCKIN’ SUCK!” Yes, a long time ago, being a hipster was simply a collection of affectations rather than a blueprint one could follow in order to have an instant personality.  So let’s get into it. Who were the hipsters of the 90s and could you very well still be a 90s hipster today?!

Who are you: You’re in your twenties between the years 1989 and 1997.  Most likely your mid-twenties when you have money to burn on fun things rather than on diapers and chemicals to get the dog poop smell out of your rugs.

Where do you live: The West Coast. Or you are about to move to the West Coast. More specifically, San Francisco or Los Angeles but really close to Hollywood, not in the Valley or some shit. The East Coast of the 1990s was a scary wasteland full of crack-addicted subway drivers and muggers and where it snowed like 11.5 months out of the year. Yeck! Your Wall Street yuppie-types moved to NYC where they blew all their money on blow and then tanked the stock market. You, the 90s hipster, live out West-the land of sunshine, networking opportunities, and fairly lax-attitudes about pot smoking.

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What do you do: You probably have a degree from a liberal arts college so you work in advertising or book publishing or are a “screenwriter.” Who am I kidding? Every 90s hipster was a “screenwriter” in theory. You work in storied firms that have been around for at least half a century. What the hell is a “start-up?” You just got out of a recession, you 90s hipster you. You may be hip but you know your landlord won’t take “cred” as rent payment.  You need security.  More importantly, you need to leave at 5pm because you have shit to do at night. The “always on my grind” attitude of today would have you laughed out of the Brown Derby back in 1992. It’s cocktail hour, you frickin’ nerd!

What do you wear: If you’re at work you’re wearing a sports coat, dress shirt and tie but with jeans and Hush Puppies or desert boots.  The mullet of outfits, as it were. You sometimes switch up you repp-stripe tie for something with a cartoon character on it you bought out of the Warner Bros. Store catalog. You’re definitely the “fun one” at whatever firm you work at that you have no idea will be out of business in less than fifteen years time! If you’re not doing the suit jacket thing, you’re wearing a suit. Only, if you’re a 90s hipster who’s going to wear a suit, you need to commit to being that guy who wears the suit. You’re going to need a LOT of suits. It gets hot as shit out West and you cannot put shorts on. You committed to being suit guy, buster! Heat wave? Suit! Torrential downpour? Suit! Running to the store to buy more tp because you have food poisoning? SUIT!! Oh, and dark suits only. Linen suits were still too “old money-ish” back then.  Dark suit, dark dress shirt, dark tie, and sunglasses, that’s your uniform 24/7. You want to look like a hitman or someone playing a legally blind person in a movie.

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Both of these outfits will take you from the meeting room to the first lounge of the evening just fine. But say it’s the weekend or you just want to change because you spilled Tab on your Looney Tunes tie, what are your 90’s hipster options? Well, you can choose from either your red striped bowling shirt or your blue striped one. Bowling shirts were the height of hipster kitsch in the early 90s. Why? Your grandfather wore them, that’s why. Yeah, you’ll soon see that most of what makes a 90s hipster is simply doing / wearing things of their grandparents’ generation. But the difference between a 90s hipster and a 2000s hipster is that 90s hipster seemed to be genuinely enjoying these things for what they were. Not because they were “stupid.” Some much older person than me, let me know if I’m wrong there.  Also, you may wear a fedora. Yeah, they weren’t ruined at this point in time. Siiiiiiigh.

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Where do you hang out: For the 90s hipster this means, “where do you go at night?” Brunch was not yet a thing so you were expected to maintain a social schedule that ran from 5pm until well after midnight at least six days a week. How this was accomplished fueled primarily by gin instead of cocaine just goes to show that they bred ‘em stronger back in the day. You’d start your evening at lounges like: The Brown Derby, The Lava Lounge, or Trad’r Sams. Before craft beer was a thing, you’d have to make due pretending you actually liked olde tyme drinks like a Tom Collins or Mint Juleps. I’m sure the 90’s tiki-revival craze started just so people could drink stuff that actually tasted good. After a few drinks you’d move on to the main event of the evening. That could be anything from Incredibly Strange Wrestling at the Filmore to burlesque at Grand Ville to just staying your drunk ass at the Brown Derby to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  After that, it was back to someone’s apartment to listen to records on their Linn LP12 or watch TV. That person usually also had the car that everyone would ride around in because gas was crazy expensive back then.

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Last I checked, Taschen doesn’t make books about things that interest the plebs.

What do you listen to: You’re living in the golden age of hip-hop! Overseas there has been breakthroughs in dance music that have taken most of Europe by storm! Down the street from you, a band called Nirvana is playing to a half empty room for $2. So what are you listening to? If you answered: none of that, you’re probably a 90s hipster! Yes, the 90s hipster eschewed anything current in favor of their parents Sinatra, Cole Porter, and Martin Denny albums. Esquivel and various lounge and cocktail music acts from the 50s and 60s were what the 90s hipster had on the “hi-fi” (yes, you had to call your record player a “hi-fi”. I didn’t make the rules.) Later on, this infatuation with lounge music would segue into appreciation of swing music. If you’re thinking “Oliver, at this point in the article you’ve essentially described the setting, plot and soundtrack of the movie Swingers!” You’re right! Did you think that shit was made up? By the time the movie came out a lot of this stuff had seeped into popular consciousness and was pretty played out but, at the time the script was written, Jon Favreau had his finger on the pulse of the contemporary hipster. Did Iron Man ever call anyone a “groovy cat?” I can’t recall?

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What do you read: Spy magazine. Founded in 1986, Spy was a glossy magazine with good distribution that satirized popular culture and celebrities. It was co-founded by Graydon Carter who eventually got tired of satirizing wealthy assholes and decided to become one of them when he signed on as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair in 1992. Regardless, its ribbing of everyone from Steven Segal to Salman Rushdie made it monthly appointment reading for all 90s hipsters so they knew who to be snarky about. In terms of actual books, you’re probably reading whatever Vintage Contemporaries puts out. True, they published some of the best fiction writers of the late 20th century such as Frederick Exley, Cormac McCarthy, and Raymond Carver but, more to the point, all their books had a cool, uniform design so even if you never got around to reading them, they still looked cool on your shelf. If you were super hip you were also probably reading The Baffler, Factsheet Five, and Deadline from the UK. And if you were a dork but also wanted to get laid at some point, you limited your comics consumption purely to Eightball and old issues of Raw.

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What do you watch: Nick at fucking Nite! How else are you supposed to understand whatever’s being sung about on those old records you’re listening to unless you get your nightly fix of Green Acres, The Donna Reed Show, and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis? If you’re going to the movies you’re certainly not seeing whatever Ted Danson was in that year. No, you are a cineaste! So you’re at the Nuart watching revival showings of Jean de Florette, 8 ½, and The Conformist. Did you understand them? Did you stay awake during them? Who cares! The important thing is that you have the ticket stub stuck to a magnet on your refrigerator for company to see when they come over. You’ll also catch whatever Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino put out so as to have something to talk about/complain about at parties. You liked Pulp Fiction well enough but thought Four Rooms was a mess and you only went to go see it because your favorite group, Combustible Edison, did the soundtrack.

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So there you have it. The suit wearing, Mai Tai drinking, lounge music listening, Spy magazine reading hipster of the 90s.  While your peers were decked out in flannel or raving their brains out on E, you are at the Dresden Room grooving to Marty and Elaine. You had no idea what a Mudhoney was but you could always be counted on to yell “sock it to me!” Was this you? Your older sibling? Your DAD!!?? Or is this still you? You obviously can’t be a twenty-five year old in 1993 right now (yet!) but does this way of life still register with you? Do you wish you could go back to the simpler times of mixing highballs and thinking about which Italian movie you were going to see that night instead of chasing down your Adderall dealer and wondering which vaporwave artist you’re going to put on your year end Spotify playlist? Part of me was always fascinated by this way of life though I saw it devolve into ugly things like rockabilly and swing music.  But let me know if you’re still flying the Esquivel flag high. If so, I space-age salute you.

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Evan Dorkin, Fun With Milk and Cheese, 1994

Oliver Lyons can still be found jumping, jiving, and wailing @JokesforJohnnyB

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