Monday 21 July 2008

What is hip?


So that video is useful because, as far as I'm concerned, it exemplifies a kind of hip: hip manifest, hip in motion. Hip alive and making sounds. And the little boy in red up on the fire escape? Yeah. He knows. That little boy in red KNOWS.

But then, though this is true hip and there's no two ways about it, it's a 35 year old example of it. It's an example that is readily understandable to most people I think, to varying degrees of complexity. Because what is hip about it to me is not the clothes and the look, but the manifestation of an inward beat. Duke Ellington's way with swing was also a pure manifestation of hip. The Bothy Band, to me, is an Irish example of hip from the seventies.

Of course all this stuff is deeply subjective. But it's a good topic, and good to treat in a way that is not just about looks. Because being hip, at the time when the word hip was hip, was never purely about a dress code anyway. Hip was distinct from square or straight, and yes of course, there were purely superficial signifiers for this stuff, used as any tribe uses costume to identify other members of a tribe, particularly in a mixed environment.

But hip would also have meant, at least in the sixties, social aspects like: interest in contemporary music forms, cannabis use, sexual easiness, laidback vibe, left-leaning politics. Getting deeper, hip would mean understanding slang, jive. Hip was understanding a social background and also being hip with it. Hip was street smart. Being able to survive. Being smart. Having a sense of humour, easily verbalised. That's hip, and still is. Having rhythm. Being able to turn the hip vibe into song. Yeah, that's hip.

I would strongly distinguish 'hip' from 'hippy', though. I would probably say that a fair whack of hippies weren't remotely hip at all. So you know, Joan Baez was clearly not hip, and Joni Mitchell - even though she seemed kind of angelic when she came out at the very start, with a similar repertoire to Baez - was utterly hip.

Hip to me isn't an outfit or a pose, it's not a lifestyle or a set of opinions. It's kind of a look in the eye, a vibe, a way of doing things, a kind of casual intelligence, a kind of life groove, and it can come through in a person's life or their work. Tom Waits, who has been here in Barcelona this past week, is a living exposition of the evolution of hip through time. He keeps getting deeper into his hip groove. But he's not hip because his style has been appropriated by certain style-makers, or deemed fashionable. He's hip because he's digging his own groove. And he's just hip.

So hip matters. Hip means something. Hip is not a piece of cheese. Hip is innate. Hip lives in your bones. Hip is not cool. This is a useful distinction. Hip is deeper than cool, and is not afraid to court uncoolness if its expression gets in the way of 'cool' rules (and by cool I do not mean in the 'birth of the cool' sense. That's hip).

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