Sunday, September 4, 2011

What Is "Hip"?

Hip: The History by John Leland. 421 pp. Harper Perennial. $14.99 (paperback)

Asked to define jazz, Louis Armstrong famously said, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” The same is said to apply to the word “hip.” On the back cover of this book is a quotation from Joe Levy of "Rolling Stone": "What is hip? If you have to ask, ask John Leland." I wish I’d written that. Regardless, I agree.

This is not a frivolous account of trendiness but a fascinating study showing how outsiders, creative thinkers and artists have influenced American culture from the start. One of the most prevalent themes is "hip" as a hybrid phenomenon brought about by a black and white exchange. Expressions of this exchange are seen in minstrel shows, the blues, jazz and the coded language of black slaves, which gave rise to hip talk that befuddled the “squares.” Leland focuses on the most influential periods of “hip,” which primarily took place in urban settings: the American Transcendentalists, the Greenwich Village bohemians, the Harlem Renaissance, the bebop jazz movement, the Beat Generation. Leland admittedly gives short shrift to the Sixties counterculture, viewing it as an offshoot of earlier influences.

“Hip” rebels against mainstream society, refusing hierarchy, rigid morality, fixed definitions and living for the future as opposed to the present. On the other hand, it is not immune to a symbiotic relationship with commercialism. Mass media has played a key role in transmitting the innovations of musicians and writers; advertising has capitalized on consumers’ need to be trendy, live for today and express oneself. The line between communicating one’s vision and “selling out” can indeed be thin.

Leland considers other influences on “hip”: drugs, the Internet, hip-hop, an increasingly multi-ethnic American society, cartoons, tricksters, outlaws and the struggles of women artists. “Hip: The History” demonstrates that “What is hip?” is a question well worth asking.

Readers interested in further exploring the black-white American cultural exchange should read my review of “Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s” by Ann Douglas. For more on the Greenwich Village bohemians of the early 20th century, I recommend “American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century” by Christine Stansell.

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