Delinquent, Hipster, Square

Phil Ford

The very first academic conference I ever read a paper at was AMS Toronto in 2000, which, looking back on it, was insane. This was, I think, the biggest music-scholarship conference ever, with something like 15 academic societies (AMS, SMT, and SEM foremost among them) holding their annual meetings simultaneously. Doing your first public presentation at a venue like that is like learning to ski on K2. But it turned out OK. I did an early version of what eventually turned into an essay I published in Musical Quarterly. It was my first sustained attempt to think about hipness, which (as you might have figured by now) has become an ongoing fixation. Back then, a callow graduate student full of unrealistic expectations, I somehow expected that my reading this paper would be an epochal event: people would turn white with rage and attack my radical new ideas, or would be stunned by my erudition, or something. But I wasn’t expecting nothing, which was basically what happened. I went out for brunch with my Mom afterward, and that was pretty much it. Word for those of you about to read your first paper at some big conference: you will expect things to change, but they won’t. Or they will, but you won’t know about it until later. I mean, one cool thing that came out of that panel was meeting John Howland, who read a paper on James P. Johnson’s Yamekraw right after me and later became a great friend.

Oh, and Edward Rothstein attended AMS that year and dissed my paper in the New York Times. Well, he didn’t actually attend the paper; evidently he quickly riffled through the program book looking for a funny-sounding title on which he could hang a well-worn narrative of intellectual decadence. Writing about how musicological interest in popular music (a “hybrid” enterprise, as he saw it) demonstrated the waning of the Western art music tradition more generally, he wrote “Some of these exotic hybrids were open to satire (‘Thelonious Monk and Anatole Broyard’s Aesthetic of Hipness’).” I am the decline of Western civilization!

Anyway, one of the things I did at my presentation was show a clip from an old 1959 TV teleplay called “The Delinquent, The Hipster, and the Square.” The play it was based on was a very serious, very 1950s attempt to understand The Issues Facing Our Youth Today by looking at these three types of young people as parallel expressions of a certain underlying spiritual emptiness of postwar society. The series of which this was an episode was something called Look Up and Live, a progressive and rather intellectual series of Christian programs with an Existentialist flavor.* The program was apparently popular enough for the play script to have been published — I dug up a copy in the University of Minnesota library. Anyway, this whole meandering and pointless post is simply a lead up to my discovery of the morning: some young filmmaker has also dug up a copy of The Delinquent, the Hipster, and the Square as well and made a funny, very fresh short film out of its opening monologue. Check it out:

*One of the best books ever written about 1960s radical politics, Douglas Rossinow’s The Politics of Authenticity, makes the case that Christian Existentialism was one of the main intellectual sources of the New Left.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Delinquent, Hipster, Square

  1. David Cavlovic says:

    I tell you, that Elvis Presley will bring ruination to our young’uns, dagnabbit.
    And thanks to your post, all I can hear in my head right now is:
    “There’s a town I know / where the Hipster’s go / it’s Bedrock! : / twist, twist!”

  2. Mark says:

    1. Never knew that there was such a thing as Christian existentialism.
    2. Dissed or not, cited in the NYT! Wow!
    3. So my ultra-hipness may square me?

  3. rootlesscosmo says:

    Maurice Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer: the Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left also discusses a kind of Christian existentialism–the “personal witness” pacifism of people like A.J. Muste, in particular–as an important source of what emerged as the New Left in the early 60’s.

  4. Alison says:

    I’d never heard of Christian existentialism either, but the video is marvelous. The musical choices for each group are fantastic.
    Oh, and David Cavlovic, you are pure evil for passing on that particular earworm.
    (twist, twist)

  5. eba says:

    Smells like a Wes Anderson copycat. Or would that be “Wes Anderson”?

  6. ben wolfson says:

    The film has not quite convinced me of the dangers of the square, whose malaise seems mostly private and inward.
    (And ignorance of Christian existentialism? My man Søren must be spinning!)

  7. Gina says:

    Phil, I went back to your MQ piece not too long ago. Great stuff.
    On the hipster tip, do you know of work by Andrew Mall…?

  8. Kip W says:

    I was glad to see the Flintstones reference, but you got the dance wrong — it’s “Twitch! Twitch!” Because Fred got the twitches from eating pickled dodo eggs, and, like everything else that happened to sitcom characters in those days, it became a dance craze.
    Swell video. I am the king of the divan!

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