“Remember the 90’s? You know, when people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos, saving the planet…forming bands? Well, there’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there”. In the opening scenes of Portlandia Jason, a mid 20’s LA native returns from a trip to Portland, only to realize that ‘The dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland’, “Farm” (Originally aired January 21, 2011). The show’s creators Fred Armisen, a former SNL cast member, and Carrie Brownstein, a past member of a native Portland band, are also the stars in this hit sketch comedy. Portlandia pokes fun at the ever-fascinating city of Portland through its goofy and exaggerated portrayals of the city’s obsession with their original, local culture. With the embellished sketch’s of waiting in day-long brunch lines, obsessing over the locality of food, and the laid back hipster lifestyle, Portlandia might not be such an overstatement of what life is really like for hipsters in Portland.
Through a mix of improvisation and scripted sketches, Fred and Carrie play the roles of various characters that embody the ‘hipster’ trends and lifestyle in Portland. While at a restaurant in the show’s first episode “Farm” (Originally aired January 21, 2011), the characters show their concern for the origin of the chicken and heavily question the waitress about whether it is USDA organic, Oregon organic, or Portland organic. They go even further to question her about the social habits of the chicken on the farm, his personality, and his name, which we find out, is Colin. Although the sketch is intentionally obnoxious and over the top about the ‘locality’ of the food, this clip is not so far off from the true habits of Portland residents. The obsession with local food products is so engrained in the city’s culture that they have an entire website dedicated just to finding them. The website is called portlandlocalfood.wordpress.com and gives information about where to find everything from coffee, produce, and meats, to clothing. The city is also known for its abnormally high concentration of farmers markets and food coops that support local farming. You can find these on just about every corner, whereas chain grocery stores are a rarity.
Fred and Carrie’s comedic scene with the waitress pokes fun at this local phenomenon, but the idea is deeply rooted in hipster culture. In a discussion about hipster identity, Henke (2013) explains that hipsters are anti-capitalist and heavily believe in local consumption. They diverge from popular culture with a longing for individuality within subculture as a way of expressing their authenticity. This authenticity allows hipsters like Carrie and Fred to stay true to local, natural product, and to ensure they are not consuming mass-produced chicken from grower houses. The city prides itself on its artisan heavy economy that promotes local circulation of wealth to reinvest in its social infrastructure and care for the environment. It also puts an emphasis on the quality of products over quantity (Heying, 2010). On a recent visit to the city myself, I couldn’t help but laugh at the amount of ‘local’ signs on every restaurant menu and grocery store sign. Although usually vacant, even large chain grocery stores like ‘Safeway’ are infested with yellow tags in every isle on all things that are ‘local’.
It is evident that the quirky characters Fred and Carrie portray have a serious fear of conforming to pop culture and mass media ideals, as they do transnational corporations. In “Take Back MTV” (Originally aired January 4, 2013), Spike is a 30-year-old, unemployed, washed up punk who is outraged with the new age ‘garbage’ that MTV has become. He misses the old MTV where cool young bands were able to advertise themselves when there was no such thing as the repetitive, ‘poppy’ top 20. Spike gets Iris (Carrie) on board and enlists the help of former MTV producers and VJs to go to New York City to take back MTV. This episode represents the real life opposition of hipsters to pop culture in Portland and around the country. Spike and Iris’s orientation makes them cynical of the lack of authenticity and originality in pop music today. In The Hipster Handbook, author Robert Lanham (2003) explains that hipsters have a fear of the mainstream, and tend to listen to bands from independent labels. This trend may be related to the fact that today’s late 20 year olds were brought up in the old school MTV generation. The channel was historically known for its innovative and authentic musical taste that gave lesser-known artists a chance at fame. Today, it is overloaded with somewhat trashy reality show programming and has little focus on music.
Spike and Iris show a true passion for independent labels, which again shadows their against the grain, hipster attitudes. After all, underground bands run the music scene in the city. Lanham (2003) also writes that this culture equally weights the sound of music with the perceived authenticity of the artist when choosing what to listen to. The show truly reflects the reality of music in Portland. Livibility.com even ranked Portland as the number three city with the best music scene due to its heavy concentration of vintage venues, independent record stores, and local musicians (Krough, 2012).
This trend of local authentic music is a reoccurring theme in Portlandia. In “Squiggleman” (Originally aired January 18, 2013), helicopter parents Brendan and Michelle create a children’s band due to the poor quality of music available in their son’s school library. They and other hipster parent’s share the belief that they don’t want their kids listening to mainstream garbage, and as a result play child versions of their favorite underground music. This aligns with the reality of the city’s preference of subculture. The parents in the episode show pride in their unique taste and don’t want their children being influenced by mass media.
In Portlandia regardless of the sketch, the characters always seem to be hung up on some small detail that is the focus of each episode. Whether it be the origin of the chicken, decorating everything in sight with birds and calling it art, pickling just about everything, or devising a life-plan to success using spread sheets to get a kid into pre-school, the characters seem to have more time in their day than ever imaginable. The storylines also tend to be drawn out where the characters somehow never accomplish anything.
In the opening scenes of the show, Jason explains to Donnie, “Portland is the city where young people go to retire”, “Farm” (Originally aired January 21, 2011). He talks about how people are content being unambitious and only working a couple hours a week in places like coffee shops. Although partly exaggerated like everything else on the show, Portlandia portrays this common way of life where there are no rules; a place where time off without work is considered virtuous. The goal is to have a creative career to escape from the 9-5 commitment of the corporate world. This way of life is seemingly unrealistic to so many, but hipsters in Portland somehow make it work. Portlandia has been criticized for this, but they didn’t make the idea up. New York Times writer Jon Caramanica notes that the show never explicitly says the word ‘slacker’ or ‘lazy’ but it is implied by the story lines and obscene amounts of free time in the characters lives. Even the show’s theme song, “Feel It All Around” is a laid back, slow beat song that mocks the speed of molasses (Caramanica, 2011).
This non-traditional way of life for young hipsters is also shown in “One Moore Episode” (Originally aired on January 13, 2012). Fred and Carrie get so addicted to a box set of Battlestar Galactica that they neglect all responsibilities and lose their jobs due to their ridiculous addiction. Their lack of concern about doing absolutely nothing productive for days is just one comedic representation of this carefree and seemingly backwards mindset that is considered atypical for young Americans who should be establishing careers.
The outlandish taste is music, lifestyle, and clothing make Portlandia seem too strange and funny to be true. The goofy portrayal comes off as awkward, but the hipster culture today is actually praised for its creativity and individuality away from mainstream norms. Scholars Zeynep & Thompson (2012) discuss how hipsters customize and create their possessions and style to ensure that they are one of a kind. To hipsters, this style is known as ‘kitchy’, and means that weirdness is conscious and intentional to express the owner’s ironic motives for why they purchased an item. Someone who is ‘kitsch’ purposefully displays themselves as different with the awareness that they are against the norm (Henke, 2013). This is continually displayed all over the show, as the characters in each sketch express different kitchy styles. Ranging from vintage wildlife or tie-dye t-shirts, ripped leather jackets, Indian serapes, and an array of unusual mismatched thrift shop clothing, there is nothing mainstream about the hipster appearance in Portland. When in the city recently, I almost felt that it was an ongoing competition for who could dress more outrageous.
Portlandia’s satirical spoof of the unique city may exaggerate some aspects of the hipster identity, but when visiting the city first hand, their portrayal of this distinct lifestyle is pretty spot on. With their anti-capitalist mentality that rejects cooperate domination and mainstream norms; the hipster culture in Portland gives special attention to detail in just about all aspects of life. From the food they eat, music they listen to, stores they shop in, shows they watch, and clothes they wear, Portlandia depicts what seems an unrealistic lifestyle, however we have to remember, ‘the dream of the 90’s is alive in Portland’.
Caramanica, J. (2011). So much time to smell the roses. The New York Times. Retrieved from:
Henke, K. (2013). Postmodern authenticity and the hipster identity. Forbes and Fifth.
Heying, C. (2010). Brews to bikes: portland’s artisan economy. Retrieved from:
Krough, D. (2012). Portland ranked #3 for best music scenes. Livibility. Retrieved from:
Lanham, R. (2003). The Hipster Handbook. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Zeynep, A., & Thompson, C. (2010). Demythologizing Consumption Practices: how consumers protect their field-dependent identity investments from devaluing marketplace myths. Journal of Consumer Research, 37.
(2012). Portland local food. Retrieved From: http://portlandlocalfood.wordpress.com/lamb-beef-pork-poultry/