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

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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  • “At last on this bleak continent the sensual pleasures assume the importance they deserve”

    Henry Miller on New Orleans

  • Christopher B

    The author seems to have a grasp on slippery definition of hip through journalism and literature, but this response to an already-dated T&L throwaway listicle seems tired and unnecessary. Also, this piece by Alex Woodward was more timely and concise when it was published two months ago:


  • Elizabeth

    Timely and concise blog posts can be interesting. However, having a more reasoned, mature, and reflective perspective placed in a historical context is also valuable. Each has its place. Personally, I am more interested in reading the later. The attitude expressed by Christopher B is the same force behind moving the T-P to publish only three days a week, but moment by moment online. I don’t need moment by moment, I am far more interested in reading eloquent pros. A little more Faulkner and a little less Hemingway if you please.

  • I moved to New Orleans in 1979 and may have run across the author and his pals as a young punks from da nint wad. They were like elegant rough boys with Brooklyn accents, fast and happy, smooth to the fine. They didn’t look like Stanley, Brando in a wife-beater looked like Mick, a kid with whom I worked the night shift at Cafe du Monde.
    Too hip to be cool
    Too cool to be forgotten

  • Alec

    This article’s inclusion of “affinity for black culture” as a quality of hipness is moderately offensive, seriously dated, and very obviously written from a white guy’s perspective. Mr. Cannon would be better served by saying that hipness includes an openness to or interest in the best of all cultures, not just because it’s more PC, but because it’s more accurate.

  • lcw

    It’s odd for Alec to criticize an analysis drawing on sources dating back to 1963, 1957, 1946 for being “dated.” The author is obviously discussing the HISTORY of the “hip” concept, not prescribing what he thinks “hip” people are supposed to think. I also don’t see what’s racist about a white guy analyzing the long-standing white American “affinity for black culture,” especially because he’s right that New Orleans has served as a gateway to African-American culture for many white Americans.

  • SomeL

    Why don’t you write something along the lines of “Hip” versus “Laid Back”?

    Or if this place was so full of “hipsters” why can’t New Orleans even pay for basic lights and streets?

    Or if this place was so “hip”, why is the murder rate sky high and 10 times the national average?

    Or if this place was so “hip”, why did the T-P go to 3 days a week?

    Or what is the difference between “hip” and “gutter punks” in the Marigny and the Bywater? As well as all the gutter punk homeless that the NOPD drive by all day long?

  • SomeL

    A few more.

    Or, If NOLA is so ‘hip’, how many of these “hipsters” actually bought a house in NOLA versus renting?

    And if these “hipsters” can even make enough to afford to buy one of the road home houses or even a foreclosed house?

    What is the realistic long term future of these “hipsters” in NOLA? Job wise and family wise?

  • SoulResin

    Mimi’s, expensive? Take a trip to Three Muses, Sylvain or Maurepas and see what you get for your $. Mimi’s is a deal by comparison.

  • SomeL

    An “openness to to all cultures”? What cultures are you referring to when you say “all”? How about family culture? What about the “religious right”?

    By saying openness to all cultures you are saying everyone can be satisfied, all the time.

    In other words, you are going against what the Bible says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

    New Orleans and Orleans Parish has fell through a hole at the BOTTOM of the barrel because it has tried to EMBRACE all CULTURES and will ALWAYS BE the ALMOST TOTAL FAILURE it has been for the last 60 years because some cultures are actually ANTI-LIFE, ANTI-FAMILY and ANTI-MORALS.

    Tourism and City Hall Officials like to TRUMPET about all its rich culture, festivals, movie industry (and also all these startups and social entrepreneur startups and how HIP they are), but at the end of the day, it’s how many people got shot or killed. Or why isn’t anything fixed, like street lights, or why water isn’t working or you have to boil water today. Or why isn’t there any money for anything and government has to lay off workers or cut back hours. Or where did all this public assistance and grant money disappear to?

    Or why are the streets in the French Quarter so bad even though that part of the city didn’t get flooded during Hurricane Katrina????? (Oooh, did I ask that question?)

    Can someone tell me how “HIP” all this mentions above is?

  • Mick

    What is Hip?

    An age-old question, at least Tower of Power posed it in 1973…


    2012? Still wondering.

  • I guess there’s no such thing as a black hipster, since they are black by birth, so there’s no need for an “affinity” to our culture. This article is so demographic biased, which is funny when you consider that more blacks live in the city than whites. Oh well, we are still the minority wherever we are in this white man’s world. Am I wrong?

  • Tommy

    The point when “thrift” became “vintage” was in the late 1960’s when hippies were wearing Victorian and Edwardian velvets bought in rag shops.
    The thrift “craze of the early eighties” is also an overstatement. Not until the ubiquitous flannel of the early 1990’s did such a youth culture craze exist.
    I know, because I have made a living in the thrift-to-vintage industry since the late 1970’s.
    Great article nonetheless.

  • Jake

    Nola is definately not hip in anyway but it is ghetto

  • jones2371

    What is hip? Who defines it? What qualifies “them” to define it? I’m writing this riding in a car sitting on the north side of The Quarter. I see 6-8 “homeless” people drinking, several other destitute people walking, all just after having left the “hip” Garden District with its multi-million dollar homes. Yea, it’s all hip how you’ve done apparently nothing to include these destitute people in your hip city’s polar economy. And let’s please make sure the car doors are locked.

  • C.w. Cannon

    I notice that this piece from a couple of years ago is
    trending again, so I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify an important
    point that’s not well made in the essay. Some commenters have reacted
    critically to the criterion of traditional hipitude that I referred to as “affinity
    for black culture.” Yes, as phrased, this is certainly overly general, vague,
    and misleading. I should have been more clear that the American hip concept
    originates in black culture, and that white hipsters of the earlier generations
    were enamored of a particular segment of black culture and sought to emulate
    it. Hip is (was) basically American bohemianism with a distinctively African-American
    expressive element. Does this mean, as
    one commenter put it, that there can’t be a black hipster? Quite the contrary,
    it means that the original hipster is black and that white hip is born out of
    an effort to embrace and adopt black urban style and attitude, including the critique of the broader (racist) society. But
    that was a long time ago, yes. The Be-Bop and beat generations of the 1940s and
    ‘50s encountered and merged with new
    models of hip coming from the west coast, and then from Britain, all of which
    added other concerns (including eco-ideologies) to the complex of
    preoccupations, habits, and expressive traditions that had defined hip before.
    My point was that New Orleans’ place in the hip pantheon is deeply rooted in
    the older urban hip paradigm circling around black urban culture (particularly
    music) and the ways in which non-black people embrace and interact with that
    culture. This is somewhat obvious since New Orleans is ground zero for
    African/European cultural exchange in the United States. You could even see
    those white New Orleanians who sought out the secretive St.John ‘s Eve voodoo
    celebrations on the lakefront in the late 19th century as
    proto-hipsters in this sense, not to mention the early Jazz cats (white
    and black) who become prophets of hip in
    the early 20th Century. At any rate, the current usage of “hipster,”
    with the de rigueur mention of Brooklyn (or Portland), skinny jeans, expensive
    hi-tech gadgets, food neuroses, etc, bears little resemblance to the older idea
    of hip as an alternative ideology as well as lifestyle.