Vehemence About Hipness

Jonathan Bellman

I smiled at Phil’s chiding me about vehemence in my “throwdown” about hipness, because vehemence was something for which my father would upbraid us when we were adolescents…generally at the top of his lungs. “Why are you being so vehement?!” was commonly asked—yelled—in my childhood home, with absolutely no awareness of the impossibility of a rational response to an essentially irrational question. Others were “Why are you so vituperative?” and “Why are you so belligerent?” My brother once bellowed “YOU DON’T WIN THE ARGUMENT BECAUSE YOU CAN OUT-VOCABULARY ME!!” which, though it frustrated my father, put my mother on floor.

Why such vehemence about hipness? I appreciate (and endorse) the identification of the doubleness inherent in hipness. Of the two meanings, of course the more general is benign, and we all know curious, wide-open people who find and share new things, who are less inclined than the rest of us to tread the well-worn paths of our respective cultural mouse-mazes and so on. These people scout, and share, and it is a pleasure to know them. “Well, that’s pretty hip,” generally means that we have been exposed to something new, enjoyable, and beneficial, and that life will somehow be improved thereby…but also that an assumed (or imaginary) boundary has somehow been transgressed, some minor rule broken with a much greater corresponding good. To my (probably arbitrary) reading, for something to be hip, the newness is of an order beyond novelty or a new flavor of Ben and Jerry’s. Rather, something has to be reconceived, some new paradigm now made available. To me, identifying something as hip implies that you’re now going one lane faster on the freeway (the Southern Californian in me talking), the breeze just a tad snappier. Discovering a new or unfamiliar musical style in which you see value and take pleasure might make you feel the style is really hip. Another popular song in a familiar style, by comparison, may be great but it probably wouldn’t be hip.

That was not what I was talking about, though. If you scroll to the bottom of this hipster thread and begin reading upwards, you’ll find Phil’s laser-accurate observations on hipmeisters: Allan Ginsberg is about beating the man; Sinatra is about being the man. The Rat Pack structured their stage show to play upon rarified coolness: offering the audience a sense of congratulatory inclusion that they (however briefly) got to be part of the world of the coolest and (yes) hippest people on earth. I probably never would have picked up the fine print, left on my own. Phil’s discerning popular-culture eye has really hit it, I think, and his observations enable me to identify what makes me so angry about it.

Why such vehemence? I usually respond vehemently to manipulative hokum. Inherent in these descriptions of hipness is the positioning of the hip person with respect to someone else, the man, whoever. The true hipster needs others to stand in his reflected light, to be colored and transformed by him, but his entire existence is likewise based on being a kind of reflection of others’ light: different, distorted, not them, but still unthinkable without them. On top of that is the marketing-agency-meets-Tom-Sawyer strategies of the merchants of hip: really, it’s all-important to buy these labels, ape this posture, talk a certain way, because aping someone perceived as fiercely independent must surely make me…fiercely independent too? Or just one more citizen of a cultural sub-banana-republic carrying a general’s picture around?

I guess that I don’t see any fundamental difference between hipness or any other kind of fashion (or mind control): if you want to be, you must do the following. In my view, the people manipulating such tastes (and it’s all about control and manipulation) are, one way or another, cynical profiteers. So, while the entire phenomenon of hipness is probably a lot more interesting than I give it credit for, my old-line liberal’s soul just blows a gasket at the idea of celebrating it. Which is, ultimately, more my problem than The Truth; my old-line liberal’s soul firmly believes that the better understanding of anything is the fit and proper business of scholarly inquiry.

Still, I felt I needed to explain myself (and my possibly outsized vehemence) a bit more clearly. Back to being defiantly un-hip for me.

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 Vehemence About Hipness

  1. Laura says:

    The choice of the word ‘hip’ in all these posts amuses me no end – ‘hip’ is painfully dated! And I’m not remotely ‘hip’ nor an authority on this or anything – but I am in my early twenties (young, with potential to be ‘hip’ if bothered) and it seems that the only people to use ‘hip’ sincerely are the not-considered-hip people of my parents’ generation (aged nearly 50!). Of course, maybe the term is thrown around with a knowing, ironic postmodern smirk by those concerned with it (which would at least legitimate the use of the term), but I’m not convinced.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I think that’s the point, Laura, though I would not want to speak for Phil’s project. The aesthetic of hipness IS a historical phenomenon, and that contrived, enviable up-to-dateness is (to me, and I’m surely irrelevant to this) what the entire hip aesthetic is about. Compare the “modernism” of the first part of the twentieth century: huge machines, a robot-like workforce, teardrop-shaped cars . . . the image I cherish most was an illustration from *The How and Why Wonder Book of Space* that had people flying around–in space–in what looked like late-50s convertible bodies with no wheels. It seems to me that this reflection on hipness per se has a kind of acknowledgment of the quaintness of the studied dangerousness or badass quality of a Sinatra–so the faintly antique quality of the word is part of the consciousness about it.
    Perhaps, though, I haven’t a clue. I’m almost 50 myself. Or should I say “aged nearly 50!”? My 14-year-old son lets me have it about my age all the time, as I did my own parents, though it’s a bit of a shock to realize I’m old enough to have offspring in the early 20s.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Well, you have to call it something, and the usual thing historians do is call things by their name of origin, insofar as it can be known. To repeat myself ( see my “Hippist” post), it isn’t my job to *be* hip, to use the up-to-date slang words for things, etc.; my job is to describe what other people mean when they make that kind of distinction — and it is the same basic distinction, whether you call it “hip” or “ill” or whatever. And since the hipster stance has always been about exclusion (as Jonathan and I have both noted), there is a Heisenbergian quality to hip talk. The moment all the kids at school are calling something “rad” (say), the hipsters will stop using that word. The very act of using the word changes it. So the very act of my talking about hipness means that you, dear reader, will want to argue that the words are now different. It may be true that the words are different, but the basic stance, the sensibility, to which the words refer has remained the same. You are in fact demonstrating it right now. Maybe you too would argue that you have nothing invested in a hip sensibility. But not everyone involved with these structures of thought and feeling are real ideal-typical hipsters. These patterns of thought are somewhat automatic for a great many people who consider themselves quite ordinary. The hipster is often a fantastic, imaginary figure, a way of projecting ordinary things that we feel about ourselves onto some clearer, more sharp-edged persona.

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