HIP: The History
By John Leland. Ecco. 405 pp. $26.95
A cool friend of mine likes to say, "Hip is to fashion as cool is to style." To him, hipness and fashion are superficial, ephemeral and easily merchandized; cool is innate, and style is timeless. You can buy what's hip, but you can't buy cool. Some of the coolest people you meet are hopelessly out of fashion, have no idea what's considered hip at the moment and couldn't care less. Hipness is public; it does you no good to be hip if nobody's around to appreciate it. There are legions of hipsters, wearing their identical fashions, listening to the same music, reading the same blogs, crowding together in the hippest neighborhoods in their towns. But there are no coolsters, just cool individuals. Cool needs no outward validation.
John Leland would probably say that's all precious and elitist. To him, cool and style are mere contributory aspects of hip, a much broader cultural phenomenon.
Leland's Hip: The History is an impressive achievement -- thorough, exhaustively researched and eventually a bit exhausting. He seems to know everything there is to know about hip. He's read all the books, listened to all the music, seen all the movies. He manages to lay it all out with a detached authority that's just a hair shy of the know-it-all smugness implied by the book's title.
So what is hip? Leland, a former writer at Spin and Details now working at the New York Times, isn't foolish enough to offer a sound-bite definition for smart-aleck hipsters to refute. Instead, he tracks hip through many manifestations and media, from Harlem to the Haight, from Betty Boop to bebop, from Walt Whitman to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (the hipster's current rock band of choice).
The foundation of hip, he argues persuasively, is uniquely American, a mongrelization of African and European influences evident in everything from blackface minstrel shows and the blues to American vernacular English (the word "hip" and the concept of "cool" both have African roots) and hip-hop's young white fans. Hip is also a convergence of the intellectual and the sensual, first seen in the American literary renaissance of the 1850s, when Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and Emerson "set down the intellectual framework for hip. Celebrating the individual and the nonconformist, advocating civil disobedience, savoring the homoerotic, and above all claiming the sensual power of the new, the writers articulated a vision of hip that we now carry everywhere like an internal compass." Then too, hip is "a form of enlightenment" that "flourishes during periods of technological or economic change," which "produce new freedoms and anxieties, and are divisive. Some people reinvent themselves through the new, others cling to the old -- they get hip, in other words, or they get corny." Thus the early 20th-century rush of immigration and urbanization, abetted by new electronic media, fostered jazz, the Harlem Renaissance and Greenwich Village bohemia; the apocalyptic dread of the new atomic age prompted the Beats to drop out of mainstream society and embrace Eastern mysticism; the economic collapse of inner cities in the 1970s hollowed out cultural wastelands in which flourished do-it-yourself youth cultures like punk, graffiti art, breakdancing and hip-hop; and the computer and the Internet gave rise to a culture of hipster geeks clicking through a virtual bohemia.
Hip operates on the margins of society and among its outcasts and outlaws -- poets and painters, gays and lesbians, blacks and Jews, gangsters and gangstas, dope fiends and dropouts. They come together to form inner circles of ultimate hipness, but Leland argues that hip would die if stuck in those hermetic, elitist confines. Luckily, he says, the hip always attract the hipsters, the idlers and the slumming media who broadcast the gospel of the new to the rest of society. Thus what's hip today is absorbed and becomes tomorrow's fashion -- not just in the sense of punk's ripped jeans or hip-hop's XXL t-shirts, but in cultural and intellectual trends as well. Consider, for instance, the way hippie ideas percolated throughout mainstream Baby Boom culture, or the recent transit of gays and lesbians from pariahs to prime time. Leland argues that hipness couldn't thrive without the interest of the mainstream and sees the long and edgy relationship of hip to advertising, fashion and the media as a symbiotic one, cyclically feeding newness to the larger society while goading the hip to move on to further frontiers.
This leads Leland to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that the mainstream's avid pursuit of the hip has now pushed us into a "post-hip" age when "nearly everybody is hip . . . . The squarest of American institutions, from gardening annuals to Army recruitment ads, now market themselves in two strengths: hip and hipper." And when hip became square, and vice versa, hip "passed from hip to 'hip.' The inverted commas say, 'We're both too hip to care about this hip stuff, but, you know, isn't that pretty hip?' " Uber-hipster that he is, Leland has read too many premature death-of-rock books to get caught carving hip's tombstone, so he hedges his bets, predicting that we're merely at the terminus of one long cycle of hip. The hip will rise again, he assumes, on some new margin of society.
My cool friend often asks me if a book, record or movie "swings." In this case I'd have to say no. Hip is more lecture hall than dance hall, and Leland buys his Olympian overview at the price of passion. By the end I found myself wishing he knew a little less and felt a little more about his subject. It might help answer a nagging question that this book, for all its splendid depth and breadth, never quite settled for me: Why indeed should we care about hipness? But I suppose answering that would be uncool. *
John Strausbaugh, the author of "Rock 'Til You Drop," is writing a book about racial imagery in pop culture.