Against Hipness

Jonathan Bellman

Given Phil’s expertise and profile as a theorist of hipness, Dial M may seem a questionable venue for this opinion. Intending no unfriendliness, and with a bow of admiration and respect to my friend and fellow blogger, I nonetheless needs must opine:

The entire idea of hipness is pernicious.

A quick reverse-chronological tour of cultures of hipness (whether using that term or not) would bring us to hippie culture (distinctive ways of dressing, speaking, thinking, interacting with and holding aloof from larger society), theatrically left-wing beatniks (the same), snide flappers and gangsters (the same, probably), all the way back to the Sun King’s grovelling, toadying seventeenth-century courtiers who knew every last dance-step, move, obéissance, rank, caste, opinion, and appropriate gesture or comment for any given situation. However far you want to take hipness back, historically it is a lie: craven conformity masquerading as individuality. Hipness boils down to some external and ever-changing concept of the right clothes, the right possessions, the right modus vivendi, and really the right the affected contempt, le dédain juste. The entire point is to generate the envy of the excluded. The benighted hoipolloi, once aroused, will make heroic efforts to imitate and be accepted. The hippest people, it seems, are theatrical, pose-striking narcissists who are marketed as fierce individualists. It is not odd for rugged, pace-setting mavericks to be surrounded by sycophants? Such is the standard epiphany of a Warhol or a Brando: St. X Surrounded By Starlets, Hangers-On, Nokhshleppers. Fie!

To be reasonable (I thought I’d try it just once), it seems to start from a normal enough motivation: the youthful desire to be au courant—i.e., in some way different from one’s parents and home environment—understandable, given the imperatives of growing up. No argument with that; one might as well critique adolescence. In some few, though, it doesn’t go away like peach fuzz or acne. Rather, it becomes a puerile attachment to the mannered, stylish badness and enviability after which the merchants and arbiters of hipness seek eternally. The inescapable conclusion is that they have no more integrity or authority than New York fashion designers: cynical, manipulative marketers who prey (with brilliant psychological acuity) on people’s insecurities. When the trappings themselves become the content, the entire aesthetic is built on air.

And now for some music:

There was a time when the Beatles were hip—actually, more than one incarnation of hip. Bad boy Dionysian mop-top teen idols, hippie counterculturalists, slightly disaffected rebels (John mostly), etc. Now, they’ve gone from that to Everybody’s Favorites to—dare I say it—easy listening, Oldies But Goodies. Because the records were records, they stayed the same; the views of the Beatles reflect what the market and cultural forces need them to be. Probably a much less commercially successful parallel could be drawn with someone like Berlioz—a musical and social wild man who is now One Of The Masters. To me, it seems like this negates hipness entirely; if something’s HQ (Hipness Quotient) entirely contingent on the mood at the time, or what it is positioned to be understood as …well, isn’t it a little embarrassing to be thinking seriously about it? It’s a bit like theorizing camp; a good part of me thinks Really? Are there dissertations about it, too?

My personal problem with hipness began when—decades ago—a thoroughly inebriated friend called me (fortissimo) “so hip it’s sickening.” I have never seen myself as anything like a trendsetter, and at the time I was a master’s student doing piano and piano-stuff twelve hours per day, which meant laboring in a closed room to the point where your skin grows pasty and moldy. So I thought, what? This is hip?! I protested that I was “the most defiantly unhip person on earth.” (I know, I know. No sense of self. I know.) He immediately got all maudlin and said “That’s just great” over and over. I thought, what?

Admission: The one area in which I enjoy hipness made manifest is the language: the crazily mutating idioms, vocabulary terms, and fractured syntax can be a rollicking good time, at least on a certain level. (But don’t try putting it in any written work you submit to me.) Hablando de, wishing Phil luck with “cop show.” Still…as a worldview?!?

I’d stay to argue, but I must away to Olympus. Sing, ye Muses!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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3 Responses to Against Hipness

  1. Scraps says:

    I agree in part. When hipness means a kind of anti-popularity that consolidates into just a smaller version of the thing it’s rejecting — “liking” things for reasons other than actually liking them — it’s pernicious. A kneejerk rejection of the popular or fashionable is as slavishly devoted to the rule of fashion as kneejerk embracing is.
    At the same time, I think the extent to which people do this is overstated by the people who disagree with them. I think most people who like popular music like it not because they want to be part of the crowd but because they just like it. I think most people who end up in hipster enclaves end up there not out of a desire to be better than the popular-likers but because they really are more drawn to that stuff. There are dim, dull hipsters who are more interested in disdaining the masses and feeling superior than in the art they champion, sure; their counterpart is the Aw Shucks Just Folks types who sneer at the “lit’ry” types and insist that “no one really reads [Finnegans Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow, Umberto Eco, etc].
    The hipsters are useful; they often are early explorers of stuff that’s genuinely interesting. One doesn’t have to adopt the attitudinizing.
    If I said my readers were hip, it would be because of their interests, not their rejections. Maybe we need a different word.

  2. Matthew says:

    I kind of agree with Scraps above. I know impossibly hip people who are nonetheless incredibly generous with their impractical expertise, constantly trying to get other people turned on to their latest obscure discovery. Hipness that uses esoterica as an exclusionary bludgeon? Bad news. But a lot of the artistic stuff I love and adore first came to my attention through the good kind of hipness.

  3. Isn’t hipness generally in the eye of the beholder? I mean, sure there are those who like to put themselves about as hip, but really there’s nothing less hip than that, I’d have thought.

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