The Substance of Style #000: To Be or Not To Be (Hip)

I have long harbored a simultaneous resistance and attraction to hip young writers. When I brought this up to a friend, he jokingly retorted ‘You mean, yourself?’

Of course I am talking about successful, professional writers like Tao Lin, Miranda July, Ben Lerner. But it did remind me that (like my friend) technically, I am young, I write, and I run in some subcultural circles, especially with music.

I remember Freshman year – before the Look at this Fucking Hipster website came to being (2009), before n+1 published the seminal pamphlet “What Was the Hipster?: A Sociological Investigation” (2010), before “Look at This Fucking Panel: A Sociological Discussion on the Hipster” drew crowds at UCLA (2010) – a different friend confirming I am not a hipster, but that then again, as art students, we are also inevitably hipster because we make certain judgments of taste (2008).

The facts are there–I won’t deny possessing some degree of hipness. (For the record though, I’ve never really felt hip or young, and identify fundamentally as a nerd and miserable intellectual.)

The original birth site of hipdom and perhaps the best place to make sense of it is music.

To the ex-punks half a generation older than me who grew up in the golden 80’s post- late 70’s punk explosion, “indie” still rings of independence. But to my crowd, “indie” is a derogatory term. It is really short for “mainstream indie,” which isn’t as contradictory as it sounds– since the preference for a more independent way of life and ethical business has increasingly been absorbed into and embraced by the mainstream. That’s nothing to condemn. But at the same time, we know indie has also become a brand and a marketing tool, as mindlessly homogenous as the masses of yesteryear.

At its worst, indie is pure style. Its philosophy is shaky and irrelevant, so long as the ultimate object of hipness is attained. It is not in essence about rebellion or resistance against mainstream vapidness, superficiality, and corporate culture.

Because of the subsumption of indie (and what it once stood for) into the mainstream, it’s become harder and harder to separate the worthy from the worthless. To do that, specifically with contemporary writing, is the goal and purpose of this series, named after a chapter in Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

My criteria for what separates “good” and “bad,” for making these value judgments, is the pull and tug of style versus substance. Without style, we won’t even talk about it. Without substance, it is meaningless.

The key word for me is “genuine” – whether a band, a book, or a piece of art is or not. It is an intangible element that I also believe to be quite obviously discernible or felt.

Even “underground” music, the last though inadequate term left to describe the culture and community my friends and I embrace, is infiltrated by poseurs and “indie kids.” The difference between style and no style, substance and no substance is fine, but the line is still there.

I’ve come to believe, from all the hip and unhip people that I’ve known, that at its most genuine, hipness is not a to be or not to be choice. It simply is (or, is not) – shaped by one’s inclinations, ideology, and life experiences.

This series hopes to make visible new works written by bright young people who happen to be “hip,” and set the record straight on style and on substance.

The Substance of Style is a series on new works by “hip young writers.” This has been a primer.


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