I mentioned Hip: The History by John Leland yesterday, so I just wanted to write a short blurb about it. I think the title is self explanatory. And even though it sounds like it is a easy read, it is a very heady book that took me a while to really get in to. Initially, it was not I expected since it reads like a very scholarly book, but I like some of the things Leland brings up toward the end of the book.
While I made many marks in this book as I read, I was particularly drawn to the chapter on hip selling out. In these days where everything seems to be hip or cool and it is almost impossible to be “different”, I like how Leland acknowledges it is still possible to be hip or “true to yourself” while living in our world today.
Selling out, Ginsberg said, was one of those cornball ideas that people who didn’t have anything to do got hung up on. I wouldn’t have minded doing it if I could find what to sell out to. Geniuses don’t sell out, in the sense that genius bursts the bounds of either selling out or not selling out. When somebody has real inspiration like Dylan, the move to electric is just simply the expansion of his genius into more forms, wilder forms. He’s got that sense of negative capability being able to go all the way in, without necessarily losing himself. Committing himself and at the same time doing it like a poet, landing like the cat with nine lives.
And this is from an article he quotes by Thomas Frank:
The minions of corporate America, he wrote, are no longer drones in gray flannel suits. “They’re hipper that you can ever hope to be because hip is their official ideology, and they’re always going to be there at the poetry reading to encourage your ‘rebellion’ with a hearty ‘right on, man!’ before you even know they’re in the auditorium. You can’t outrun them, or even stay ahead of them for very long; it’s their racetrack, and that’s them waiting at the finish line to congratulate you on how outrageous your new style is, on how you shocked those stuffy prudes out in the heartland.”
And I think Leland really nails it here:
Hip becomes relevant precisely when it is impure, jumping in the pit with the beast of capitalism – feeding it, resisting it, exploiting it, reshaping it. Co-opting it, even as it is co-opted in return. As students of the civil rights movement have learned, the choice between autonomy and access – between Malcolm X ad Martin Luther King – is a false dichotomy; the only appropriate choice is both. If hip is a measure of enlightenment; it is only reasonable to expect its truths to play out in the marketplace as well – to open avenues of access even as they provide the buffer of autonomy.
In this world of increasing all encompassing “hip”, I think it is important to remember that maybe the best way to be true to yourself is to be in the middle of it all and making sure your voice is loud, truthful, and sincere.