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!