Best Stuff Day 6: Hip: The History
Immersed as I am in a seemingly never-ending cycle of essay-writing, article reading and crippling self-doubt, the last thing I have time for right now is a semi-scholarly tour through a concept as slippery as hipness. But, in more innocent days (read: this past summer), I found myself positively engrossed in a book that I picked up as a Value Village curiousity.
There are a lot of ways that a history of hip could go wrong, but John Leland (a cultural critic who has written for Spin and Details) manages to avoid most of them. This isn’t so much a history of trends as it is a mapping of what Leland describes as a uniquely American phenomenon, and the ways that he chronicles the intermingling of black and white culture in American history is fascinating. Throughout the book, you see the interplay between blues and minstrelsy in the 19th century, and the way that hip-seeking whites would imitate black culture, creating new forms and social conditions that could be re-mystified in a glorious cycle of re-invention. Pulp and film noir, blues, Bugs Bunny, Williamsburg, Hemmingway, hip hop — connections both direct and tenuous are traced and retraced.
It’s inevitable that the book occasionally gets bogged down in details, trying to pin down hipness in a way that the concept simply doesn’t allow. Those moments aside, though, the book is a fine example of the type of thing I’d like to write myself someday: a well-researched, historically minded trip through pop and counter-culture history. If only the essays I’m writing now were half as interesting.