It's been several years since Huey Lewis and the News sang that it's now "hip to be square," which may go down in history as the theme-song of the '80s. In many ways it seems like hipness (in the classic sense of being on top of the latest trends) is irrelevant and has outlived its utility. This proposal will come as no surprise to most people who are on the far side of thirty and no longer feel quite at ease wedged into the middle of a crowd at a Butthole Surfers show. When you begin to lose your hair and have given up on trying to look youthful by buying your clothes at the Gap or, better yet, trying to look embalmed by sporting dreadlocks, white pancake makeup, and a completely dirt black wardrobe, the ever-increasing energy required to be cool hardly seems worth the effort. Thus, for untold millions of aging baby-boomers, hipness has had a long lingering decline.
Of course, one of the curious aspects of the concept of hip is that hardly anyone ever really admits to not being hip, even if they spend most of their day selling real estate in a three-piece suit. I've been in the stupidest locations in my life (say, the "It's a Small World, After All" ride at Disneyland) and there is never a shortage of sophisticated people there who somehow wandered in by chance and seem intent on distancing themselves from the proceedings by cracking sarcastic jokes. In fact, for years I was bodily dragged through shopping malls, protesting my innocence and purity every step of the way. "I know it's uncool to be here," my body language would holler, "but don't blame me! I'm hating every minute of it!"
At some point, however, I began to realize that such protests were simply a losing battle with the unasked for wisdom of age. With the pace of change ever accelerating, only the very young (or the terminally vacant) have the energy required to sort out the nuances of difference between rap, hip hop, house music, and a 12-inch Siouxsie single remixed for after-hours dancing. Where once it might have been argued that the essence of hip was grasping the relative priorities of things ("how can you waste your time watching a sell-out show like 'Mod Squad' when there's a war going on in Vietnammmm?") that essence has mutated over time to its present state where it is only possible to maintain a hip edge by either championing the outré at all costs or burrowing into the very heart of bourgeois squareness. (Thus we have the Village Voice's Richard Goldstein touting the safe-sex cool of adult infantilism on the one hand, and my post-punk friend Gary's proud brandishing of his 2-album boxed Perry Como reissue, on the other. No doubt the ultimate in 80's cool would be to lounge around in diapers while listening to "Hot Diggety, Dog Diggety.")
Countercultural hip was predicated on not selling out and not being co-opted — which unfortunately proved to be impossible. As long as the vanguard of hip was to be "different," the fashion-conscious would be the first in line, since the motor-force of fashion is calculated difference. And because everyone likes to be both unique and fashionable, it is not long before everyone has glommed onto the latest hip outrage, in a tasteful manner of course. These days the half-life of hip is about six weeks, at which point the ad agencies step in and milk the style for a few more months, leaving a dried-up husk to blow off to the Valhalla of Johnny Carson routines.
In my own case, I'm at something of a loss to pinpoint exactly when I began to lose patience with hip and yearn for a stability of values and meaning. Going to Europe for the first time, ten years ago, had something to do with it: it was a revelation to discover that many shops in Paris had maintained the same aged facade by dint of a local ordinance that kept commercial landlords from raising rents if shopkeepersdidn't redecorate the exterior. That may have been bad news for landlords, but it had helped maintain a sense of place for generations.
Similarly, wandering around with dozens of other tourists in the basement of St. Paul's amongst the tombs of Britain's honored dead stirred an emotion in my innards that was decidely unhip, not to mention politically taboo to the max. Up on the streets of London the mohawked punks of a declining Empire may have been chanting "no future," but ten feet below, I was beginning to comprehend the curse of the hip yankee with "no past."
A further monkeywrench to the gears of sophistication was provided a couple of years later in the course of a religious ritual that could trace its elements back for millenia. Nothing can better cause a reevaluation of priorities than meeting meaning where it is least expected: in an ancient form whose power has nothing to do with the pick hit of the week.
I'm reluctant to generalize from my personal epiphanies of the unhip to the culture at large, but that reluctance has never stopped me in the past. Thomas Merton once wrote about modern urban life as "a life of vain hopes, imprisoned in the illusion of newness and change which brings us constantly back to . . . the contemplation of our own nothingness." On beyond the hip — and even beyond the square — there's plenty of uncharted territory in which to make a life. Of course, as I noted at the start, this conclusion is hardly news — it is undoubtedly one of those perennial verities of life that is despised by the young and cherished by the curmudgeonly. As time goes on, you begin to appreciate that which lasts for longer than a season, and before you know it, you're hopelessly out of it, and proud of the fact. But I've saved the worst for last, and that's my sinking feeling that you can't write about the death of hip without implying that the ultimate in hipness is to swear off being hip. Yes, It's Wild! It's With It! Everybody's Doing It: Nothing!
This essay originally appeared under the title "Hip: R.I.P." in CoEvolution Quarterly, circa 1988. ©1988
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