Recently I visited a small university town. A friend recommended I visit a certain downtown coffee shop known for its exquisite espressos and Americanos. “It’s pretty hipster,” my friend warned, and it was. Everyone present was between the ages of, I guessed, 17 and 35. The men wore clothes that could generously be called fitted. The women’s outfits seemed, to my admittedly traditional sensibilities, calculated to offend: not because they were revealing or immodest but because their patterns and colors seemed haphazard, aggressively unbecoming. The music was strange to my ear but not unpleasant; some kind of brass band, accompanied by a vocalist singing in a foreign language I could not place.
While I was waiting for a friendly tattooed and tobogganed barista to assemble my Americano, something caught my attention. The brassy music I heard came from an LP turntable. It was a fine-looking silvery machine dating from maybe the 1980s, with a tinted cover. A long row of LPs extended along the wall.
I don’t know what hipsterism means, exactly, and I doubt anybody does; Googling the term, I find, doesn’t help. But it seems to me that that turntable was revelatory. Hipsters are known for craft beer and 19th-century facial hair and vintage typewriters and wildly complicated methods for making coffee. The word “artisanal” is always near at hand in discussions of hipsterism. It is a backward-looking phenomenon.
Hipsters like things to be labor-intensive. Why wouldn’t those nice young people who ran the coffee shop simply pipe in music from a satellite radio channel or from Spotify? Or even from compact discs, which are far easier to buy and play than LPs? One of them, at least, felt there was something to be gained by finding and purchasing a functioning LP turntable and records to play on it. Is there a discernible superiority in the sound produced by a needle and record? I don’t know, but somehow, notwithstanding my navy blazer and white button-down shirt and absence of facial hair, I feel I can work with a guy who assumes things are probably more worthwhile if they cause a bit of trouble.
Here’s a question, though. Will hipsters come to apply that principle, or that attitude, to sex? The “hook-up culture,” in other words, or the culture of instant gratification, to use a phrase that took off in the 1980s, seems inimical to hipsterism in this sense. If you’re invested in making a BLT with sautéed kale or watching movies on reel-to-reel projectors, are you the sort of person who’ll have sex with mere acquaintances and even strangers merely because urge and opportunity happen to meet? Humans are complicated and inconsistent things, but the answer would seem to be “maybe not.”
The older ethic, if it’s fair to summarize a vast array of religious and cultural practices over many centuries, held that sexual intercourse is only permitted once the male pursuer overcomes a series of arbitrary but agreed-upon barriers between him and the pursued female—familial oversight, financial viability, her own interest, religious sanction. Only after investing a great deal of time and attention to the desired end would the object yield. Those of a more liberal persuasion will have a thousand hot objections to this paradigm, but it was the ordinary way of living for many centuries, and it seems unwise to dismiss it with fancy “-ist” epithets: sexist, patriarchalist.
The LP turntable makes me wonder if sexual mores in North America may move in a surprising direction. I note for instance the 2014 reissue of Wendy Shalit’s book A Return to Modesty. In 1999 Shalit, then a recent graduate of Williams College, made the case for the older sexual ethic, especially for females. She was attacked relentlessly by social libertarians, but in the book’s new foreword she could write hopefully that “teen pregnancy is at an all-time low” and that “the latest national study of sex on campus suggests that contemporary college students are actually having sex less frequently than their predecessors, and widespread discontent with the hook-up scene is no longer a theory, but a fact.” The recent succession of firings and resignations over accusations of sexual harassment (and worse) would seem to reveal a deep impatience with the libertinism bequeathed to us by our baby-boom elders. Maybe the generation that gave up instant coffee will also give up instant gratification.
Whoever hipsters are, whatever it is they want, maybe their aesthetic and attitudinal weirdness signifies an urge among the young to take time and trouble with whatever one wishes to consume. There is hope in that.