The New Orleans dilemma: Is it hip to be so very, very 'hip'?

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Making the scene on Frenchmen Street: The New Marigny Millionaires. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans

Making the scene on Frenchmen Street: The New Marigny Millionaires. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans

Congratulations, New Orleanians! The April 2012 Travel & Leisure magazine has voted you the fourth hippest city in America! If only we could pin down what “hip” is supposed to mean, we could feel even prouder.

There is, of course, a great deal of confusion about what defines “hip,” and the definition also appears to have changed a lot over the decades. New Orleans is not a recently hip city, either. It easily qualifies as one of America’s original hipster capitals—depending, again, on the definition. In 1997, he Utne Reader ranked us as the hippest of America’s “Fifteen Hippest Places to Live”, and, in the era before magazines got into the hipitude ranking business, there were other indicators.

Norman Mailer’s attempt to define hip (not very sympathetically) in his 1957 essay,  “The White Negro,” put New Orleans on a short list with New York, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, and Mexico City. Earlier, Tennessee Williams famously dubbed New Orleans “the last frontier of Bohemia.”

However, the measures of hipness brought to bear by these earlier thinkers seem widely divergent from the standard Travel & Leisure invokes. The article begins with this impressionistic stab at a definition: “They sport vintage bowling shoes and the latest tech gear—but they also know the best places to eat and drink.”

Thus has the once venerably countercultural, sometimes sneakily subversive concept of hip morphed into consumerism with a smart fashion sense (and a fairly conformist one at that, if everyone’s wearing bowling shoes). I take the issue personally because my neighborhood, the Marigny, is cited by the magazine as the best habitat for hipster-spotting, and because I’m sentimental about the concept of hip and would like to preserve it from its corporate co-opters.

Many hip thinkers have been ready to dispose of the term for a long time. Tom Frank wrote an obituary for hip in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool. His argument was that “hip consumerism” had so totally repackaged the truly iconoclastic foundations of hip that there was no going back. Travel & Leisure‘s reduction of hip to “indie boutiques” and the “bar scene” (including the expensive and socially homogeneous MiMi’s in the Marigny) supports Frank’s thesis all too perfectly.

Happily, New Orleans embodies older definitions of what’s truly hip more than Travel & Leisure realizes. One of the earliest discussions of hip (called “hep” in those days) can be found in Mezz Mezzrow’s 1946 jazz autobiography Really the Blues. Mezz was an urban Chicago white boy who fell in love with New Orleans jazz, working with Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Leon “Rap” Roppolo and others, as they branched out from New Orleans in the early 1920s. The potent combination of jazz and marijuana (first given to Mezz by Roppolo, a New Orleanian clarinetist) form these first senses of “hep.” Over the next several decades, “hip” would connote openness to drug experimentation and an affinity for black culture – the aspects Mailer focused on in his “White Negro” essay.

An additional feature — from Henry Miller’s Parisian idyll to the American travels of “beat generation” writers like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (each of whom put in obligatory stints in New Orleans), was a lifestyle on the margins of society. This is the “drop out” idea immortalized in 1960s sloganeering. One wanted to avoid complicity—economic and political—with a society thought to be inherently and irredeemably corrupt. The idea dates way back to Henry David Thoreau, but Mailer dubs the tendency to institutional non-participation an “existentialist” response to a morally indefensible society.

Amiri Baraka, in his 1963 Blues People—in which New Orleans also figures prominently—grounds the related concept of “cool” in its original Afro-American manifestation: “… to be cool was … to be calm, even unimpressed, by what horror the world might daily propose … In a world that is basically irrational, the most legitimate relationship to it is non-participation” (213).

Fashion has become implicated in hip in interesting ways since the 1950s. Dressing up in flamboyantly iconoclastic outfits has been a feature of hip from zoot suits to flower power to punk rock mohawks, but “hip” fashion today suggests a trend-setting function —  the furthest thing from “alternative” in any true meaning of the word.

Throughout my childhood, we shopped at the Goodwill Store on Piety and Burgundy. At first I didn’t care, then I hated it (junior high years), and then, suddenly, it was hip. I was lucky to be part of the thrift-store clothes craze of the early 1980s, when I was, yes, a painfully hip NOLA teen. We were hip in the earlier senses of the term because our clothes were bought for pennies and were donated hand-me-downs. There was nothing the fashion industry could offer us, nothing we wanted to buy from them. But at some point “thrift-store” fashion became “vintage,” and this, too, is a classic indicator of the corporate co-opting of a once explicity anti-corporate movement. The big symbol of this shift is Seinfeld‘s Kramer. No surprise that “indie boutiques” with stiff pricetags are one of the defining categories in Travel & Leisure‘s assessment.

If the standards of hip are a willful retreat from national social and economic ambition, a live-and-let-live attitude, an affinity for black culture, preference for alternative daily lifestyles, and  alternative, self-directed fashion sense (bordering on costume), New Orleans has been more of a definer of American hip than a fourth-place expression of it. Of Travel & Leisure‘s top-10 cities, only New Orleans and Philadelphia (no. 9) have sizable black populations. Affordability is not a ranking category at all, as many of the top-10 cities (like no. 1 Seattle and no. 3 San Francisco) make abundantly clear. If you cut the more consumerist and consumerist aesthetic categories (like “attractive/athletic” people), we rank much higher. For truly hip categories, we rate markedly higher. For “diversity,” we rank no. 2 behind New York (amazingly, not even in the top 10). There’s one category, though, that best sums up the alternative cultural formation that true hip represents: “offbeat” people. Despite the vagueness of the adjective, Travel & Leisure voters got that one right: we’re no. 1.

C.W.Cannon teaches in the English Department at Loyola University, and resides in the Faubourg Marigny with his wife and kids.

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