One Nation, Under Hip

The Argument

With liberty and coolness for all, America pledges its allegiance to the pursuit of hip

October 17, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Staff

Are you hip enough to read a book on the history of hip? To paraphrase what Louis Armstrong said about jazz, if you have to ask the question, you already know the answer. But here are some ways to make sure: If you drink Pabst Blue Ribbon while wearing a trucker hat and listening to the Strokes, forget it. If you registered for Friendster within the last year or style your hair into a faux-hawk and take part in flash mobs, forget it. If you use the word metrosexual. If -- heaven help us -- you are a metrosexual. Forget it. Sorry. Game over.

Hip is tough. Hip is fleeting. Hip cannot be pinned down. In an age when MTV and radio and corporate America are constantly looking to appropriate hip -- an age when trucker hats are on sale in Barneys and Bob Dylan appears in a Victoria's Secret ad -- the half-life of anything hip has been reduced to about five seconds. Once it's on TV or in the newspaper, it's no longer hip. Hip has moved on.

But the power of the idea is stronger than ever. Hip sells cars and shoes and underwear. Hip entices new recruits into the Army. Hip transforms neighborhoods from places you wouldn't set foot in to places you couldn't afford. Hip moves the economy and renews cities and -- if author John Leland is to be believed -- could have only happened in America.

Leland's new book, Hip: The History (Ecco, 405 pages, $26.95), makes the convincing case that the clash and mingling of European and African cultures produced the perfect environment for the development of hip. The word itself has been traced from the verbs hepi ("to see") or hipi ("to open one's eyes") from the African Wolof tribe, and it has been used in America since the 1700s. Hip, then, began as an outsider.

Working from that Wolof heritage, Leland defines hip as enlightenment or awareness -- of oneself, of others, of the world. It's knowing more than you should. Leland says that what has been hip in America through the centuries -- from folk tales to minstrel shows to the blues to hip-hop -- shows a curiosity and admiration for different people and cultures. Hip is not a specific thing, at least not for long. It's about new ideas and attitudes that stand out from the mainstream but eventually infiltrate the mainstream.

While the textbook history of America is marked by racial conflict and struggle, Leland argues that hip offers an alternate version, one where the give-and-take is productive for both sides. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, was informed by the lessons about dialect and storytelling Mark Twain learned from African-Americans on his uncle's farm. The bluesy prose of Ernest Hemingway and the borderless sounds of Louis Armstrong, Leland writes, both owe debts to Europe and Africa.

"This line of mutual influence, which we seldom talk about, is not a decorative fillip on the national identity but one of the central, life-giving arteries," argues Leland, a culture reporter for The New York Times. American culture is mongrel, he says. There is no pure black culture or pure white culture. It all got hopelessly mixed up long ago. Black and white artists, Leland writes, "worked in each other's presence and under each other's influence."

Thus, to call Elvis Presley or Eminem just white boys who stole the blues is simplistic. Both straddled black and white cultures and pushed society forward. In the best sense, what the white boys who stole the blues want is not to be black -- or white -- but both. And, if possible, to be even more -- brown, yellow, the whole spectrum. Hip is about reinvention, about opening one's eyes.

Hip met with some resistance at first. Herman Melville, whose Moby Dick established the hip, individualistic road narrative and who Leland identifies as one of hip's O.G.'s (original gangstas), died poor and relatively unknown. His Times obituary identified him as "Henry Melville."

But corporate America eventually realized that hip sells, creating a steady stream of new products that everyone must have. And perhaps some of the hipsters realized they could put a price on hip. Lou Reed let Honda use "Walk on the Wild Side" to sell scooters. William Burroughs made a commercial for Nike. Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Miles Davis and Chet Baker all appeared posthumously in Gap ads.

In his essay Why Johnny Can't Dissent (collected in the 1997 an- thology Commodify Your Dissent), Thomas Frank argues that corporate America has cornered the market on hip: "They're hipper than you can ever hope to be because hip is their official ideology, and they're always going to be there at the poetry reading to encourage your 'rebellion' with a hearty 'right on, man!' before you even know they're in the auditorium. You can't outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long; it's their racetrack, and that's them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland."

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