What makes Hip a special language is that it cannot really be taught — if one shares none of the experiences of elation and exhaustion which it is equipped to describe, then it seems merely arch or vulgar or irritating. —Norman Mailer
In a 1957 essay by Normal Mailer, the writer goes about describing what distinguishes members of a burgeoning counterculture by identifying some of the telltale linguistics of the mid-century hipster: cool, swing, with it, crazy, square, dig. In the parlance of Mailer’s era, it was, he wrote, “essential to dig the most, for if you do not dig you lose your superiority over the Square.”
Today, the phrase “dig it” has been co-opted for the web; we ‘Digg’ novel online content if we want to signify, like millions of other web users, that we like it.
Hip wasn’t just a linguistic code. To be hip used to mean being able to deliver and embody a preternaturally controlled expression of intellectual or artistic freedom. It was not simply a measure of style or swagger, though that usually came as part of the package deal.
For his 2004 book, ‘Hip: The History,’ New York Times reporter John Leland (who cites the Mailer piece in his introduction) traced the history of American hip from the introduction of African culture to America and the civil disobedience of the backwoods transcendentalists, through the jazz age, the Beat Generation, and so on. It’s a pantheon of many of the greatest artists, writers and musicians in our nation’s history.
“No skater, raver, indie-rocker, thug, Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker or wi-fi slacker today acts without their permission,” wrote Leland.
Through several decades of commercial and Internet indoctrination, it’s much easier these days to embody the external qualities of hip. Hip isn’t only attainable; it’s accessible, searchable, and for sale. Today, the hipster is usually seen as a clown — not so much a trendsetter or truth-teller, but a young and moneyed member of a cultural niche or the uber-fringe.
The over-saturation of such a figure has provoked a generational trend of response that is usually part homage, part horror and part humor. A recent spate of websites (see Hipster Puppies, Hipster Kitty, and Unhappy Hipsters) offer more gentle, absurd ridicule. These mostly visual Tumblr blogs count on an elite set of cultural codes for their humor to work (to get the joke you need to be hip enough to recognize the references and stereotypes). Occasionally the attention has been slightly more venomous, like the 2007 Time Out New York article, ‘Why the Hipster Must Die,’ an essay that argued a need to save some kind of still-authentic New York cool by getting rid of the hipster cliche.
It may be because the writers of this blog live in Washington (and not in Brooklyn) that we have observed that not everyone in the country reacts with the same level of vitriol at the very mention of the word. We wondered if — somewhere — there could be something vaguely aspirational left in the idea of hip. Does the term ‘hipster’ still offer any glimmer of recognition for the substantive potential of its former meaning?
Art Beat talked to John Leland about the commercialization of the hipster, hip in the age of the Internet, and whether there are hipsters in Iraq.
[Full transcript after the jump]
ART BEAT: Could you explain your sense of the distinction between ‘hip’ and ‘the hipster’ today?
JOHN LELAND: Well, I still go back to the word itself and the word hip. To the best of our knowledge, it seems to come from these West African words ‘hipi’ or ‘hepi’ meaning “to see” or “to open your eyes.” So I look at hip as being, at its best, a kind of enlightenment, and a particular kind of enlightenment that has a history to it — in the way the West African words come to us through the slave trade, and move from black culture to white culture and back and forth, and exist in the dance between those two things. Hip becomes that kind of outsiders’ enlightenment. And I think that’s still true.
The hipster today has now become the whipping boy for everything that’s wrong in the culture: lethargy and superiority and smugness and maybe the insecurities that they create around people around them.
But I think that one thing that is different really about the hipsters that I write about in the book [versus] the hipsters of today is that people had to make a choice and make sacrifices to live the lives that they did: as the bohemian lives that they did in the 1910’s and the ’30s; in the ’50s and ’60s, to be a bebop jazz musician. But I think now you do not need to make those same kinds of sacrifices. You can have a wonderful job, a wonderful apartment, your parents can be so proud of you in this bohemian hipster role, and I think that’s a big difference between the past and today.
ART BEAT: Has it always been true that people want to push back on ‘the hipster’ in its many different forms?
JOHN LELAND: There have always been criticisms that the hipster is just this kind of commercial caricature, someone who is too hip for the room. There was this idea in the 1910s and 1920s that the bohemians of Greenwich Village had just become commercialized. I think Hutchins Hapgood has said, “We need someone to teach us how to spend our war profits,” and that’s what the bohemians were doing. That idea that ‘hip’ is just kind of this set of sumptuary laws and it’s the emperor’s new clothes — I think that’s been around for awhile.
ART BEAT: How has the hipster been changed by the internet?
JOHN LELAND: One of the things that the internet has done is made all information available to everybody at the same time. So where hip might be this idea that’s cultivated by a few people, and then it gradually spreads to a couple more people, and gradually spreads to a couple more…
Somebody has their own way of wearing their pants, or talking, or has a little bit of inside information that somebody else doesn’t have; now that becomes available to everybody instantly. And it’s created this voracious trend culture that eats its young every minute instead of allowing things a chance to develop organically.
ART BEAT: The internet has been around for awhile; hipsters have been around for much longer. How do you explain the recent proliferation of websites that either feature or mock today’s hipster?
JOHN LELAND: The websites that I see — and I don’t see them all — are really dedicated to mocking the hipster. I think it’s the last thing anybody wants to be now is to be denigrated as a hipster. It has an almost iron clad definition that it can’t entail actual creativity, actual knowledge, actual awareness of the ways of the world — but is just a sheepish following of fashion. And I think it’s proliferated because people see the hipsters in their face everywhere and this is a way to strike back.
ART BEAT: A lot of these websites imply that there is a uniform and a predictability to the hipster. Do you think that jives with the history of hip?
JOHN LELAND: Well, I like to think that there is still a kind of awareness and enlightenment that we can seek and that has meaning, and it will still come from outsiders. I think that kind of “holy grail of hip” still has some appeal. The idea that you are special because you can wear your pants a certain way, and live in a certain neighborhood, and work in a certain industry, doesn’t hold a lot of appeal and probably never really did.
ART BEAT: You’ve recently been in Iraq, and travelled quite a bit. Have you found international versions of hip?
JOHN LELAND: I always thought Japanese culture is so slavishly dedicated to the idea of hip; ditto Parisian culture. I was once in the suburbs of Paris and I met all these people who had learned to speak English through American hip-hop records. There were certain things they couldn’t say, but they could say “chilling” really well. But I have to say, I had the hardest time explaining the idea of hip or bohemianism to Iraqis because people would ask about the book, and I’d say, “it’s, oh yeah, it’s this idea about hip.” The idea that somebody wanted to be on the outside of the culture made absolutely no sense to them.
ART BEAT: Is there anything that you would characterize as hip in Iraq?
JOHN LELAND: I think that will come. I think that you have a situation there where people are so divided into their camps that the kind of mediators or transitional figures have been morphed from one camp to the other, understand people on one side or the other. I think that class of people will emerge, and they will, in their own way, do what hipsters do. I don’t think it’s there yet, unless I didn’t see it. It’s a difficult culture really to pretend you knew everything about it. I think one of our people [at the New York Times] said if you think you understand Iraq, you haven’t been here long enough. And I think that’s probably true.
ART BEAT: Thinking about your definition of the post-hipster — is the idea of the ‘bohemian’ dead, or have we really gotten beyond that? Will we still have cultural subversion, but through other or less subversive means?
JOHN LELAND: I think that probably the average video game designer is cooler than the average musician now. I just think that things have moved on and we’ve gotten smaller. I do think that the online world allows the weird people to find each other in ways that we used to have to do geographically. If you were the weird person in a really small town you had to leave there to find another weird person. And now I think you can find that person, you can ally, you can collaborate, you can do weird things. I think there is an opportunity for weirdness now — and collective weirdness — that maybe wasn’t possible in the past. It doesn’t seem to me it’s dead, but it needs to take a slightly different form. Just dressing up was never enough, but now it seems even more obvious.