The Etymology of Being Hip, Pt. II

I told you I was back.

In those long evenings spent at Vince’s house in the late 1980’s, of course we danced. You gotta move around to “Mary Mack”; the stuff is propulsive. The hottest dance at the time was the “Cabbage Patch”. I won’t even describe it, I will just inform you that, at first, I couldn’t get it. Certain body parts are supposed to go one way while others are going another. I did not look hip.

So we practiced the “Cabbage Patch”. Vince got it stupid good, right away. It was like he owned that dance, or created it himself. He would laugh, doing an exaggerated version where his fists and his shoulders seemingly encompassed the room. Over time, I got better at it. I wouldn’t relent until I could capture that swing to become the King of the Cabbage Patch!

I got it, and we would take it to the 94th Aero Squadron, a club/disco at the airport, to bust it out to songs by Vesta Williams, Stacey Q, Nu Shooz, and Cameo. This is what you do when you are young and unattached. You show off. Or show out.

In those days, if you wanted to be hip, you had to collect. A lot of time and energy went towards physical archiving. You had to buy hard copies of music and then have some place to store them. Eventually, a stack of records became a collection that you had to keep away from water, or heat, or cold, and the like.

Before the Internet, to be hip was to be an avid student of a discipline. You had to attack the literature on a subject. You were a seeker who looked out for magazines, TV shows, and radio stations that wrote about or showed and played the artists you liked. Often, you had to wait.

I built a record collection. A tape collection. I started buying CD’s. I curated a book collection, and even have a baseball cap collection. In my basement, I have boxes filled with magazines, photos, and other mementos I cannot yet part with. It’s the story of my life. I am not a hoarder.

You showed other people who you were through your collections. I could figuratively say to you these are my ideals, values, tastes, and preferences through my records and books. It was a shorthand that started taking up a lot of space.

If you really wanted to be hip, you had to be a completist. You had to own everything by or about an artist. The greatest fear of a hip completist in the 1980’s was to find out that there was someone out there who knew more about something about which you cared deeply. This information, this knowledge, was valuable social currency. There were arguments–probably fights–on college campuses over who had a better record collection, or who knew more about Prince.

I met people in this way. People knew when I was at the radio station at Washington University, if you wanted to know more about black pop, go see that white guy at the Beta House. I would lug my entire record collection to the Women’s Building every Saturday night to play “Get It Up” by the Time; “Spice of Life” from Slave; “Let’s Work” by Prince; “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five; and Madonna extended cuts. These were good songs that weren’t getting heavy airplay on the bigger stations. I wanted to introduce people to this good music that they might not know. That was the definition of hipness: you were “hipping” people to the good stuff. The punks stood in opposition to the commercial radio stations; the more obscure the better. I considered my niche as an adjunct to black radio stations in St. Louis; as more interesting fare for fans of Majic 108 and Z-100.

My point is that being hip is more important when you are young, and it is necessarily so, unless you are a musician, a critic or journalist, an industry insider, or a committed denizen of the clubs. People my age have had to rearrange their priorities. They aren’t all sticks in the mud because they listen to the music they loved when they were your age; they have been busy for a long time, and they are lost in this new environment. I would have to spend months of deep study to pretend to approach the musical knowledge of the typical 23-year-old. Should I do that?

I have heard and seen Solange and I think she is overrated. I sort of like the Weeknd, especially the song he did with Daft Punk, who I have liked for some time.

The whole idea when I was 20 was to find a girl you like, get her back to your house, and drop the needle on that new hot record. If you knew about “Erotic City”, (which was not on any album, and only came on a 45 rpm record), and you could find it, and play it, you felt all you needed now was a girl. You wanted to be the bearer of a cultural gift; the deliverer of a private revelation; and, most importantly, to be seen as such. Your fantasy was that it would go like this: “Are you from the future? How do you know these things?” That’s a turn-on.

Erotic Friggin’ City! I was 20! Where is this city?! Can I go there now?!

In 1984, I was ready to make mistakes. With experience and hope, you don’t make so many mistakes when you are older. The problem is that if you are unfortunate enough to find yourself single in middle age, it is much more difficult to corral that girl, and ten other important things must go right for you to have any chance. That’s as it should be.

What we see on social media today from young adults is a lot of signaling of hipness. It is a come-on. To be hip is to be sexy, and to be sexy is to get sex. It’s the same guiding principle: to show somebody how special and unique you are.

It’s still my guiding principle. I am divorced. I am single. I take care of myself. I’m looking. The way I walk, talk, smell, dress, and think are geared towards my own idiosyncratic conception of what is sexy. I do what I can with what I have. I am trying to attract a certain type: my type. I have one. I’m one of those people. Straight peacockin’ out her’! It still doesn’t work, but it is who I am and how I must be in the world.

My friend Tony says that I am “too corny” to attract the type I seek. That is code for “white”. The corollary, he says, is that I am looking for a unicorn. You know what? The optimist in me–who gets smaller and smaller as I get older–tells me that unicorns exist. They are out there. I just can’t find them.

Bobby Mack is back.

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