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What is hip?

It's not cool or edgy or even trendy. Two authors try to put it into words, but one thing is for sure: It's fleeting.

November 30, 2004|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

You'd have thought it was one of the other life-or-death issues currently bedeviling us, like war, stem cells, gay marriage or the red state/blue state post-mortem.

But what had people gnashing their teeth, if not altogether up in arms the other night at Westwood's W Hotel, wasn't what was happening in Iraq or in Ivory Coast or, for that matter, Ohio.

To hear writer John Leland tell it, it was a different bend on the culture wars. "Everyone came up and they were really challenging, like: 'Well, come on! Isn't this just about self-destruction and killing? Nihilism? Why aren't you writing about nihilism?' "

You'd have thought Leland was really on to something truly transgressive. But his new book, "Hip: The History," is an earnest look at a phenomenon that tends to prefer to wriggle out of definition. At nearly 400 pages, it is not just a history of hip; rather it is a history of popular culture in America and how blips in hip have shaped everything from cartoons to noir to the Internet -- with commerce never too far behind.

The book has already prompted some spiky responses. "At a reading in New York," he continues, "someone says to me: 'I noticed that you didn't use Anatole Broyard's 1946 essay, "Portrait of a Hipster." That seems to me like a missing piece.' And I loved that. He was like a 60-year-old. In a beret."

Of course he was.

For those deeply invested, "hip" is nothing if not subjective. Who or what is "authentically" hip has always been something hotly contested -- fighting words. That doesn't even scratch at the notion that the word "hip" (or "cool" or "edgy," for that matter) often translates into just the opposite after it broadcasts wide, is suddenly everywhere at once. Such is the nature of the street.

"Cool used to be a symbol of escape. An unassailable castle, at least that was the sense," says Lewis MacAdams, who too tackled this ever-changing territory a couple of years ago in his elegant and worldly book, "The Birth of Cool." "Hip is angry and wise to the ways of the world," he says. Indeed, nowadays, what hip is -- or what it was and has evolved into -- is often elusive, slithery.

The idea then, says Leland, was to start conversations, not finish them. "I thought if this were the last word on hip, that's bad," says Leland, who is in the midst of taking hip's temperature across the country promoting his book. "My hope was that it would be the start of an argument or a piece of an argument. If there's value here, it will be in what people add to it."

Leland is ready, come what may. He's busy diagraming all of this over lunch in a shadowy Silver Lake bistro that overlooks Sunset Boulevard's scruffy eastern end. To his now well-seasoned eye, it looks a lot like much of the post-hip enclaves of the last few years -- dotted with coyly named boutiques selling neo-retro garb, music outposts that deal in vinyl and a surfeit of cafes for loafing.

Leland takes in the street theater: Dudes in trucker hats slouched in front of laptops, girls with blue-black Bettie Page bangs and combat boots trudging to the bus stop are juxtaposed against the guy with the suede top hat, beard and '60s flight bag, rushing past them, bent toward something else.

According to hip calculus, it probably would have been hipper if this chat were taking place two blocks east, in Echo Park, as opposed to Silver Lake, which is oh, so five minutes ago. And, according to Leland's rubric, there is nothing worse than being five minutes ago.

But hip is cyclical. It's subjective and elusive -- and always au courant. This season alone offers two very different books strolling bohemia's picturesque territory -- Leland's comprehensive history charting the evolution of the word as well as Laren Stover's whimsical, tongue-not-completely-in-cheek "Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge" -- which tracks the lifestyle.

What both these recent books remind us -- whether it is called "cool" or "hip" or "boho," or recoils from labels all together -- is that what used to be considered "outsider culture" is something that is constantly being picked apart, redefined or utterly reimagined.

Those hipsters who rolled up in their ironic '62 Ford Fairlanes in the '80s look down two decades later on the guys with Beck hair, who are driving up their rent. But what the Fairlane folk forget: When they arrived, there was that crop of earlier settlers who were packing up, fleeing their soon-to-be ruined scene.

One hip enclave is much like another. And so is its history: What's happening in Silver Lake or Echo Park is happening in Williamsburg, in New York or SoMa in San Francisco. "But for the people who moved in today the glory days are right now," Leland explains. "The people who move in two years from now will be really annoying and fake. I think authenticity and hip are almost exclusive. That kind of purism, to me, it curdles immediately. It gets to be that nerdy, hipper than thou, band boy, record collector types."

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