This last Tuesday, Pandora sent out the push notification: “Our music curators think you’ll love Hipster Holidays Radio this holiday season. Try it today!” If you’ve ever seeded or thumbed-up anything deemed cool, indie or “hip” – you received that notification. It’s really that simple.
Pandora is headquartered in a hip part of Oakland, California – which means each day, our employees walk streets considered by many to be a West Coast epicenter of hipsterdom. But this recent social conversation around the term “hipster” got us thinking more critically: what’s the history behind this word, anyway? Being the OCD music and pop-culture geeks that we are, the subject was researched! And, wouldn’t you know it, the word has a deep musical tie in.
The origin of the term “hipster” has nothing to do with boutique fixed-gear bicycles. But it pedals back to 1938 when Cab Calloway jokingly wrote The Hepster Dictionary to accompany his sheet music – it was a glossary of jive terms spoken by “hepcats” (African American jazz enthusiasts). So then “hepcat” evolved into “hipster” by the 1940s. In June of 1948, Anatole Broyard wrote a piece for Partisan Review entitled “A Portrait of the Hipster.” In it, he describes hipsters as blues and jazz informed delinquents on a quest for self-definition.
Nearly a decade later, for a 1957 article in Dissent, Norman Mailer painted hipsters in a political beatnik light – young people into bebop jazz and poetry who wanted to disassociate themselves from the man (corporations), the bomb (nuclear) and the president (Eisenhower). Somehow in the 1960s when young hip folks were eschewing jazz and coffee for rock and hallucinogenics, the word hipster evolved into hippie.
But then in the 1980s the term hipster was sometimes used to describe a person who was heavy into 1960s garage-rock and psych bands like The Sonics or The Chocolate Watchband. Back then; a hipster was the intersection of hip-dressed mod and DIY indie-kid.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when hipster became synonymous with beards, artisanal coffee, urban bohemians or millennials who listen to Thee Oh Sees and Ariel Pink on cassette tapes. Our research also finds it difficult to locate exactly when the word became a pejorative to some people. Was it in 1993 during the 22nd episode of Seinfeld when Elaine called Kramer a “hipster doofus?”
Today, hipster can mean many things to many people. Shane Baker from the psychedelic punk band Pins Of Light once said, “Hipsters are what hipsters call hipsters they don’t like.” And as funny as that is, we at Pandora prefer to boil down the definition. For us it can simply refer to anyone who likes hip music. Of course not everyone who likes hip music is a hipster. Conversely, not all hipsters like hip music. For example, back in 2005 one of our most bearded members of the Music Curation team spearheaded a tribute album to the soft rock band Bread – without a hint of irony. Not that there’s anything wrong with that….