Too Cool to Be Hip?
It began thusly. I'm on the phone with my friend Joann.Rick: "So what's wrong?"Joann: "My hair. I fucked up my hair!"Rick: "What are you talking about?"Joann: "My friend June dyed my hair. It was supposed to be brown, but it came outblack." Rick: "So... it'll fade."Joann: "Yeah, but black hair is hip. Anybody can be hip. I wanted it to bebrown... that's cool.." After hanging up, I was left in a muddle. Hip? Cool? I never before realized thatthe two had such an uneasy relationship. I sort of figured they went together,complemented each other like Oreos and milk, beer and popcorn or big-hair chicksand The Penguin. Slowly, the scales fell from my eyes, and I began to fathom thetwo distinct camps we know as "hip" and "cool." Why... they're not the same thingat all! It's the difference between Doc Martens and Chuck Taylor's, Zima and Colt45 or T.G.I. Friday's and The Homeplate. Teasing out a distinction between hip and cool, however, is not as easy as youmight think. On one level, the two can easily be used interchangeably. Forexample, the Downtown Arts District Association (DADA) guide to Portland's "artsdistrict" mentions the words "cool" three times and "hip" four times in the samebrochure (we also know that the brochure is hip because it says so on the cover).We're told that "It's cool on Congress" and "Congress is where you'll find thecity's hippest, most eclectic mix of art and commerce...." Good heavens...hipsters and cool cats hobnobbing together on Congress along with suits and bluecollars? I had no idea. I suspect that DADA has no idea either. Which gets back tomy point. While both terms attempt to describe a condition of being "alert," "inthe scene" or "with-it," hip and cool are not one and the same. Nor are theyantithetical. So what makes hip hip? Simply stated, hip seems to be defined by the moment. It'sright now. And, like an open bottle of Pellegrino, hip doesn't have a very longshelf life before it's flat and passe. To better grasp the nature of hip, considera national trend: Witness all the aging crooners and their cousins being dragged out of mothballsto cash in on the Tony Bennett phenomenon... Tom Jones, Nancy Sinatra, Mel Torme.Mel Torme? Five years ago these folks wouldn't be able to get a gig Off-, Off-,Off-Vegas. Now they're performing with everyone from The Red Hot Chili Peppers toBono. What's next, Rosemary Clooney with Snoop Doggy Dogg? The point here is that being hip can be a cyclic process, and theresult can be two-fold. If you were hip once, wait around long enough and you maybe hip again. The incidental fallout from this phenomenon is that you may end upbeing hip without ever really knowing (or trying). My mother, a collector of MelTorme vinyl from way back, is now the epitome of hip. If only she knew. Scenes arewhat hip is all about. From fashion, language, dance and surroundings toattitude... hip is defined by how its members behave. Not surprisingly, hip is a bankable commodity. Hip can be purchased, worn, smoked,visited, read, driven, flaunted, danced-up and consumed. Which establishes a veryreal line of demarcation. For a price, anyone can be hip. This is not to say thatit works for everyone, but it is available. Thanks to DADA, Portlanders have athorough listing of retailers in the arts district ready to part them from theircash in return for "Necessities for the Terminally Hip." From a double latte (in abowl, thank you) to pad thai takeout. From a fresh pack of Djarums to the latestissue of Interview or Details... But buy now... please. Tomorrow might be toolate. Plus, hip eats its own young. Consider the Old Port. At one time it was Portland'sip central, but now you'remore likely to encounter bus tours in the Old Port than you are hip happenings.But the hip prime directive is "never look back." Don't believe me? All rightthen, next time you're at Zootz, start voguing and see who joins in. Has anyonepurchased a pot-bellied pig recently? Anyone want to bring back Milli Vanilli? Ididn't think so. There's a big investment of face time in being hip. You can be the most with-it,decked-out individual in Portland, but it doesn't make a whit of difference,hip-wise, if you aren't seen. Also important is who you're seen with. Butpenetrating the inner circles of the hip crowd can be as difficult as findingunpierced bodies at The Elvis Room. Let's be honest - hip can be downrightelitist. To put it bluntly, Portland isn't a hip place. Sure, it's got its littlehip pockets, but any scene that does exist is the byproduct of proximity to thescenes in Boston and New York. Hip isn't made here... it's emulated. But that'sOK. Hip's not the reason we live here. If you need to be hip, it's as close as atwo-hour drive south. We live here because Portland is a very cool town. Cool is a much more elusive quality to define. Think about it. More often thannot, you'll be able to come up with examples of cool rather than the nature ofcool itself. Pinpointing the qualities of cool is such a slippery task because themore you attempt to isolate what it is that makes something cool, the further youslide into the domain of the hip. In other words: Hip actually tries to be hip,cool just is. In general, cool doesn't advertise. In fact, it often seems that popularity can bethe death knell of cool, forcing it into the realm of the hip. Cool is obliviousto the passing fads. Though it isn't obtrusive, cool is nonetheless impressive.It's important to reiterate that hip and cool are not opposites. It's better tothink of them as two points on a continuum. Imagine the relationship between hip and cool as that between two siblings, onesignificantly younger than the other. The younger sib (hip) looks up to the older.She admires her... wants to be just like her. The older sib (cool) regards theyounger as a bit of a pain in the ass at times, doesn't want to be idolized andmay take some discomfort in the knowledge that she herself was at one time aschildish. I'm convinced that hip and cool have historically had this sort of dynamic - whichcasts a very interesting light on what we regard as cool today. For instance,though Longfellow's cool poems have endured the test of time, many of hiscontemporaries regarded his work as "popular yet fleeting," which is essentially aVictorian way of saying "hip." And much of Portland's cool architecture wasn'talways regarded so. The Baxter Library, the Gothic wing on Maine Medical Centerand Victoria Mansion were very hip in their time. Who knows, One City Center(pretty hip design for the time it was constructed in Portland) may one day beregarded as one of Portland's coolest monuments. Go figure. But there's no doubt that Portland's cool quotient is very high. The Western Cemetery is a cool historical reminder to carpe diem. A sunrise walk to theEastern Prom is indescribably cool. I've yet to meet a cooler deli owner thanDella of Della's Catessan. Cool can be seen in how people volunteer their time andenergy at places like the Preble Street Resource Center. Cool local music? Catch aDarien Brahms show. (Do it quick though, as Brahms is walking the thin linebetween cool and hip.) I've met more people in Portland involved in home-brewingthan anywhere else, and that's tremendously cool. Oh, and my cat is the coolest. So if you're still concerned as to your hip/cool status, all I can say is relax.Remember, it's a continuum. And the beauty of a continuum is that it allows for aremarkable latitude of behavior. Cool and hip become a matter of degrees. Hip canbe a night of drinking beer, fart jokes and wearing comfortable clothes. Cool canbe a quiet evening at home eating B&M baked beans out of the can, nibbling onslices of aged Brie and finishing it off with a strawberry frosted Pop-Tart. Cometo think of it, does it get any better than that?