Robert Downes 9/14/09
The Death of ‘Hip‘ (Again)
Whats the hippest show on TV these days?
If you believe the critics, along with millions of viewers, four Golden Globe awards and six Emmys, its Mad Men, a drama about the stressed-out, hard-drinkin, skirt-chasin, underpaid and overworked ad executives of Madison Avenue.
Cue up the Perry Como records.
Mad Men takes place back in the early 60s and reinvents the men in the gray flannel suits as brimming with snappy patter, Old Fashioneds, and a devil-may-care attitude about sleeping with their secretaries. You know, like really hip.
The funny thing here is that the Mad Men are just the sort of worker drones the beatniks and bohemians rebelled against when they came up with the alternative hipster lifestyle in the 1950s.
As every English Lit major knows, to be hip was to live outside of the mainstream, with Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg making it up as they went along; hitchhiking down the highways of America in the late-40s and 1950s, and pushing on to Mexico, Morocco and India. The Beats borrowed ideas from other, more exotic cultures, not to mention the liberal use of marijuana and hallucinogens such as peyote and ayahuasca.
The late author Norman Mailer wrote a famous essay in 1957 called The White Negro on what it meant to be hip: basically, you had to slip into the loose loafers of a black jazz musician, fire up a dooby and swing, man, swing...
So the cynics who invented hip would surely scoff at Mad Men as being the epitome of hip today. But then, those long-gone beatniks never would have dreamed that the zenith of hipsters these days -- Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake -- would have been the manufactured products of the Mickey Mouse Club (!).
In the 1950s, the Mad Men of the day were the antithesis of hip. Sloan Wilsons novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, described the arid, joyless lifestyle of working in that sort of environment, imprisoned by conformity and stifled by the suburbs (a story retold in the recent film, Revolutionary Road). There was a good reason why they drank all that bourbon.
It goes to show that hip is a snake that continually eats itself and re-emerges -- that post-modern quality where every fashion and fad is recycled and reinvented with a different twist. Frank Sinatra, the biggest square imaginable to Woodstock Nation in the 60s, is now a must on their iPods in the 00s.
Hipness is a navel-gazing subject, but it gets trotted out every 10 years or so to be declared dead and gone... only to live again.
By the end of the 60s, for instance, the Beat writers were declaring that King Hip had been killed off by the youth marketing hurricane of records, bell bottoms, black light posters and headbands. Social critic Thomas Frank (author of Whats Wrong With Kansas) raged against hipness all through the early 90s in his literary magazine, The Baffler, noting that it was just a ruse to sell kids more products. Big revelation there.
Then in the early 00s, young writers in the hipper environs of New York City declared that irony is dead -- a significant development since irony is one of the main ingredients in being a hipster. They even wrote several ironic books on the subject.
But whats really killed off hip is that its a lot of work. Yeah, sure, theres the example of the lowbrow, free-loving car thief Neal Cassady from On the Road, but mostly the hipster gig involves being some shade of a too-cool-for-school intellectual. You have to be up on a wide range of obscure, esoteric subjects, with a practiced sneer for those not-in-the-know.
For the Beats, that meant having a passing knowledge of Buddhism; the poets William Blake and Rimbaud; the books of Hermann Hesse; and digging the music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. No big hurdle there.
But todays hipster needs to know so much more, and what is hip? gets recycled so much faster. Remember when Seattles grunge scene was so hip it made your teeth hurt? Today, grunge is considered a musical joke or a trivia question.
The Beats studied the poetry of Blake and Rimbaud to rediscover lifes mystery in an uptight, homogenized America. But todays hipster has a lot more junk to sift through, owing to the cult of celebrity that sprang up in large part because of the ‘hip‘ thing:
Have you read the poetry of Ann Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Derrick Brown? Is Yo La Tengo on your iPod? Are you up to date on Jay-Zs Auto-Tune controversy? Do you know what Mudhoney meant to Kurt Cobain? Whats the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Richard Ford? Why did Suge Knight have it in for Puff Daddy before he became P. Diddy? Does Jay MacInerny still matter? Can you name the top five Coen brothers films? Have you read Cormac McCarthys Border Trilogy? Whats the difference between Mudvayne and Slipknot? Who is (or were) Karen O, the People Under the Stairs, Anna Wintour, Ute Lemper, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fred Sonic Smith, Sugarland, Bebe Gilberto, Albert Grossman, Brandon Flowers, the It Girl, John Sayles, Toumani Diabate, Sam Cooke, ICP, Youssou NDour, Trent Reznor, Bob Weir, Method Man, FutureMan, Estelle and Buckethead?
These are some of the easier questions on the hip learning curve, which to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, requires knowing “one million useless things.“ No doubt theres some Maynard G. Krebs out there in Northern Michigan who has all the answers.
But maybe not, because Northern Michigan has a way of squeezing the hipness right out of people. You want a bunch of blasè hipsters, check out the baristas at the coffeehouses down in Royal Oak; up here its like people pass through a de-hip-notizing ray as soon as they get past Gladwin. Cynical, alienated hipsters arrive at the 45th Parallel and are transformed into optimistic, wholesome types who have a hard time squeaking out a sneer now and then.
So heres to the death of hip, again. Long live hip.