Friday, May 06, 2005

Hip: the History by John Leland

At first, I felt like a real tool, carrying around a book bearing the bright neon title, Hip: the History. "How much does this scream 'poseur'?" I thought. But after reading the lengthy intro - which name drops everyone from Norman Mailer to Richard Pryor, Terry Southern to John Lurie, "honkypox" to Iggy Pop -, I decided a book that takes an empirically academic look at an essentially ephemeral abstract was right up my alley. I am, after all, someone who has spent far more time debating what it means to be punk than being a punk.

And for the next 356 pages, I enjoyed the rolling road through centuries of culture clash through which author John Leland led me. Though his credentials lean more towards Madison Avenue huckster (former editor of Details) than countercultural iconoclast, Leland was once on Chuck D's personal shit-list and was a founding contributor to SPIN magazine - back when, y'know, it didn't suck. Evidently, Leland is the type of guy who has enjoyed the nervous energy and dischordant questing of society's fringe his whole life, but has always managed to keep himself at arm's length from the chaos, viewing the proceedings from a desk, through an objectively academic lens. But Leland acknowledges from the get-go that "there is something inescapably nerdy about compiling a history of hip," allowing us to relax while reading, knowing that someone else sacrificed their cred in the name of our education.

Hip, as Leland explains it, is a purely American concept, the synergy of the nation's ongoing culture clash. It began when the twenty West African slaves landed in Jamestown in 1619, bringing with them the Wolof word from which "hip" is descended: hepi, "to open one's eyes" or "to see". The culutral hybrid continues evolving today, as the nation of immigrants sees its most "cultureless" people - white people - mock its history by donning mesh trucker hats and little league hirts, reducing the cultural stance of the fading majority to a punchline. From Whitman & Thoreau's civil disobedience (back when it was as easy as leaving the city), to bebop's agressive rejection of mainstream acceptance, to the modern mating dance between mass media's big money and underground iconoclasm's thirst for the New, Hip nips at its own tail as it spins into wider and wider circles. With each "Hip convergance" (as Leland calls them), the borders blur between Art & Commerce, outcast & citizen; one person's history & culture spill over into everyone else's cups, and the racial profile of America moves from yin-ynag to mosaic and, ultimately, a muddled wipe of colours.

It's an ambitious topic to tackle, and not just because Hip (or perhaps "hip") is the most mercurial quality known to modern man. As Leland traces the culture clash and resultant hybrid up through American history, it becomes clear that the history of Hip is the social history of America itself. For such an unwieldy topic that could easily lapse into a grocery list of names & dates, Leland keeps the story quick and conversational, as though relating stories about acquaintances.

But while Hip: the History provides an excellent survey of our cultural family tree, I closed its cover without a good idea of where Hip's thrust to the future is headed. I'm well aware, as they say, that to prophesy is incredibly hard, especially with regard to the future, but I'm in need of a few answers.

For starters, Leland's thesis relies on the tightening tangle of race & culture in the Unites States; he points to the world's highest rate of immigration, the continuing rise in minority populations, and the upward mobility of those minorities as proof of hip's ongoing evolution. Yet the same census information will show that the United States is at its most segregated (in terms of the racial character of schools and neighbourhoods) since the 1950s. What happens to Brown V. the Board of Education when the population declines to follow through? What happens when the recent election points to a population increasingly at odds with itself? What happens if the melting pot is full of water and oil?

And on an even broader scale, what happens when Hip is no longer a distinctly American phenomenon? The forefathers of Hip - from Walt Whitman to Jack Kerouac, Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk - may be purely the product of the United States, but now the cultural vanguard is global. We've got political crunk from Sri Lanka, British gangster films, Brazilian covers of Daivd Bowie classics, and the gutsiest rock music comes from Japan. Meanwhile, American hipsters' ability to shock has been thoroughly upstaged by the violence of 9/11 and bar-lowering reality TV; consequently, the American hipoisie has retreated behind a veil of irony so thick, it's impossible to distinguish between reality and parody anymore.

So why do we still care what happens in Brooklyn?

In the last two chapters of the book, Leland speaks at length about the democritizing effect of the internet, and the liberties afforded by metaspace. As technology cheapens itself to broaden its customer base, it pulls up the people to meet each other on a leveled field. This current hip convergence is the shift from a national cultural hybrid to a global one. We only care what happens in Brooklyn as a means of comparing it to what's happening in Berlin, Bangkok, and Bolgatanga.

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