On Hipness: Interpreting Culture across borders

About a month ago I signed up to do an interview on behalf of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (US Branch) with Phil Ford, who is about to publish his book “Dig: Sound and Music in hip culture” (Oxford University Press, 2013). I was really fascinated about reading his book and interviewing him, as I felt there was a connection between my material and his work. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and I found it really thought-provoking. Although a cultural studies product (interpret this sentence with ethnomusicological scepticism), “Dig” is filling a gap in academic knowledge and I believe it’s a way forward for social sciences/humanities research. Phil writes a cultural history through time, in the geographical area of the US dating from 1930s (roughly) to late 1960s: the history of hipness. Don’t expect a direct definition in this book about what hip or a hipster are (so anthropological!). But then again, it’s not really needed. It’s not a guidebook on how to recognise hipsters (and perhaps, annoy them), rather it narrates a story of how hipness emerged, what are its characteristics through time, and how was it experienced in literature, music, cinema, and other written – with few references to oral..!- forms. 

According to the writer, hipness is a stance. It’s a way of conducting one’s life. It is a form of culture. 

I’m sure many of you have come across the word “hipster”, usually to define fashion and/or mentality/ideology. Although Phil Ford writes about America, it is safe to say that hipsters and hipness can be found across cultures and geographical boundaries. 

Geographical limits in anthropological and ethnomusicological research have been very common since the beginning of the disciplines: “hip hop in France”, “rituals and beliefs in Papua New Guinea”, and “an ethnography of the rain forest” are familiar tales. The idea of place in the digital realm, however, is changing fast. The place is a post-modern notion. It can be somewhere and nowhere (to quote Ford’s terminology). And the internet has changed the concept of being in a place. I wake up, switch on my computer, reply to e-mails from people that don’t live in the UK, talk to people in a different time zone than myself, listen to an internet radio broadcast from L.A., watch a gig that was recorded in Japan, read the Greek news, and all this without leaving my flat in Oxford (Sherry Turkle writes extensively about everyday processes in relation to technology and how this is changing the way we perform ourselves).

I find that the chipscene is very much related to hipness – it shares similar ideology and stance/sensibility (again, these are Ford’s terms). Chipmusic is an expression of hipness – it is a rediscovery of old, obsolete material, which are used to create something unexpected: a musical instrument from an old videogame console. Repurposing itself is hip – to change the meaning and use of something and transform it. 

The “chipster” idiom is used to describe chipmusicians. Chipsters tend to be tricksters, much like any other hipster. However, in the time of the internet, these are called trolls. I’ve seen really fascinating trolling in the chipscene – from micromusic.net members that registered themselves as residents of the Antarctica, to Superpowerless’s awesome trolling of the X-factor, or when Je deviens DJ dans 3 jours trolled the whole chipscene, making everyone believe that he had a misspelt “Eindbass” (instead of “Eindbaas“) tattoo done on his arm prior to his performance in Utrecht, when he hadn’t in fact done a single thing. 

According to Ford’s history, hipness is often co-opted, redefining the mainstream. This is also the case with chipmusic; 8-bit samples have invaded popular radio music.

The list of similarities goes on – but I’m saving some of it for the thesis…



One thought on “On Hipness: Interpreting Culture across borders

  1. Pingback: IASPM interview on Dig | Dial M for Musicology

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