The Rise and Fall of “Hip”

March 1st, 2008

A pervasive, over-extended term on its way out 

By Elliot Feedore

What is it to be hip? If the answer to that question were simple, a lot of people would look upon their high school years more favorably. It’s something that’s simultaneously obvious, obscure, clear-cut and yet subjective. Trying to find a bona fide hipster is like asking people if they’re a good driver: some people who seem to have all the trappings will take offense to being categorized as such; certain posers, however, will go out of their way to claim the title. Attempting to analyze hipness is fairly square (blame my editor); I probably won’t end up with a concrete answer anyway, and existential ambiguity is nothing if not hip (thank Camus).
But, these days, is hip even hip anymore? And who’s to say it is?

I’ll start with an objective source: the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “hipster” first appears as meaning a “know-it-all” in a 1941 book called Hash House Lingo—the title says it all. By ’46, however, the term had become slightly less derisive: “a man who’s in the know, grasps everything, is alert.” Twenty-one years later, the term was applied to the “movement in California”—by then it had made the obvious transmutation to “hippie.”

“Hip,” itself, in its current form, first appeared way back in 1904, and by the ’30s it had come to be associated with the jazz scene via Cab Calloway. This had more or less supplanted “bohemian,” which has been defined in English (since Thackeray) as “one who either cuts himself off, or is by his habits cut off, from society for which he is otherwise fitted; especially an artist, literary man, or actor, who leads a free, vagabond, or irregular life, not being particular as to the society he frequents, and despising conventionalities generally.” (This derives from a French term; predictably, they were boho before the Brits even knew what that meant). The term evolved from being applied to gypsies who were, often erroneously, considered to be natives of Bohemia. Therefore, modern-day hipsters can trace their ascent from baby thieves and vampire bait.

Unfortunately, the term “hip” has been tossed about—and misapplied—so often in recent years that it seems like there are no longer walls to fortify Bohemia (the metaphorical one, not the Czech one). Democratization, as a rule, is not a bad thing, but being hip is inherently exclusive to those who are “in the know” and follow their own path; the problem is: if everybody who wants to walk a different path walks along the same alternative to the main highway, some roadwork needs to be done.

On the Christmas Eve broadcast of N.P.R.’s Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed the show’s pop culture critic-at-large, John Powers, who listed off some burgeoning trends he spotted in 2007. One of them was “hip sentimentality.” He applies this to Knocked Up and Juno, which he labels as “old-fashioned” fantasies that take “a sentimental crowd-pleaser and dress it up in all the styles and lingoes of hipness so you can simultaneously look like you’re really edgy and sharp and at the same time be presenting something that they would have been presenting back in the 1950s.” His argument is fairly accurate; but were either of those movies really hip? Knocked Up centered on potheads who made no pretense of being chic; perhaps it was hip unwittingly.

But Juno?

If something is labeled “hip,” but only has a veneer of hip affectation and a deeply conventional core, then what’s the use in being considered “hip”? It is easy to be hip like Juno is hip because the modern hipster-type is fascistically restricted to liking certain fashions, movies and bands if they wish to retain the title of “hipster.” The scriptwriter of Juno merely plucked from a laundry-list of “in” things, and those references are what made the movie “hip”—by proxy. If hipsterdom is all about nonconformity, why then is it so easily categorized? Why is it that the hipsters can be instantly distinguished from the “squares” by a quick glance?

Juno’s makers seem to have relied on Robert Lanham’s tongue-in-cheek classic, The Hipster Handbook, published in 2003. It parodies how so-called nonconformist-types can be catalogued as easily as beetles, listing different species—such as the “loner,” the “clubber” and the “neo-crunch”—as well as their eating habits, musical tastes, pick-up lines, etc. Hipsters have a love-hate relationship with the book; it’s definitely “in the know,” but its self-awareness can be excoriating. When I brought the book up with a friend of mine from NYU, she snidely remarked that she’d rather study how to be hip through an apprenticeship in Williamsburg—at first, I thought she meant Virginia—than read about it in a book.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that if one follows fashionable trends and likes fashionable tastes they’re necessarily a phony—not at all. I’m obviously generalizing, assuming that many people fit these types impeccably for reasons of satire and clarity—just as Lanham does. But, it’s a real issue: conforming to be “hip” is just as lame as conforming to be “normal.” In theory, every hipster should have their own look and sensibility, and that should be the contrast with the so-called others who all dress the same and listen to Dave Matthews or what-have-you. Certainly, it’s human nature to form into divisions that are alike—even if superficially—but doctrine is doctrine by any other name.

Hipness, then—and this should be no big secret—is in attitude. It’s when you’re drawn to a style (trendy or not) because it suits you, not because it was featured in a fashionable magazine or blog. I know plenty who manage to be very hip in both look and personality, but one should never forget that “hipster” can be as easily etched into clothing as “Abercrombie and Fitch.”

More than the hippies, and especially more than the beats, the hipsters of our generation are exposed to and depicted in mass-culture. Accessibility to what was once underground has steadily grown and, oftentimes, been surreptitiously corporatized. It’s cyclical: the mainstream takes a cue from the fringe, the fringe’s styles become mainstream and the fringe eventually evolves or grows up (ask your parents). But I think this current corporate coup is so pervasive that it will eventually lead the hipster community to fragment and revolt against itself. Maybe smaller, more amiable, co-existing pockets will emerge from the intellectual rubble and make a splash in the stagnant, West-Nile-Virus-water of the diversity pool. Why can’t we have a new Lost Generation and a new Beat Generation coexist at the same time and both be “hip”?
Of course, any rule of thumb that attempts to define what is unequivocally “hip” and unequivocally not will be fuzzy at best. My own “definition” is, consciously, not airtight—jocks, prom queens and nerds can be nonconformists, too. But who needs unassailable definitions? Only squares.

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Elliott Feedore is a junior cinema and photography major. Email him at efeedor1@ithaca.edu.

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