IASPM-US Interview Series: Phil Ford, “Dig: Sound & Music in Hip Culture”

by Mike D'Errico on September 13, 2013

Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture

Phil Ford’s book Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture (Oxford University Press, 2013) is about hipness, mentioning also hip, and hipsters – not exactly in the sense that these terms are understood in contemporary popular culture. At different time periods, hipness referred to different groups of people and activities. Although there is some shared background on what constitutes ‘hip’, there are also several variances.

In order to deconstruct the concept of hipness, Phil Ford analyzes hip culture based on hip literature, music, film and other art forms, starting in the 1930s until the late 1960s. Dig is a cultural and intellectual history of hipness as experienced and expressed through these decades, focussing on the dynamics and the juxtaposition of embedded meanings in hip culture.

Ford is a fantastic writer. Dig reads as a narrative – his presence as a writer/narrator is felt throughout the book, without being intrusive, or without assuming too much; he is always reflecting on what has already been written in previous chapters. Ford succeeds in giving a very detailed and in-depth analysis of hipness in America during the 20th century. In order to understand hipness as described in Dig, one needs to bear in mind two points: a) the given socio-historical context of hipness, and b) Ford’s basic claim of the nature of hipness.

Marilou PolymeropoulouTo what extent is this history applicable to Europe?

Phil Ford: “I kept the focus exclusively on the United States because (1) the topic becomes unmanageably large when it expands to include Europe (and why stop there? How about the various countries of Africa, Asia, South America, etc.? Tropicalia, for example, has its own incredibly interesting and musically-rich history), and (2) the story I wanted to tell is such a particularly American story, which has so much to do with the specifically American derangement of race and the specifically American intellectual engagement with the Cold War.”

“To take the second point first: In post-war France, Germany, and England, socialism never stopped being a fully viable oppositional tradition – a tradition with deep roots, a national mythology peculiar to each country, and (with the notable exception of Germany) a consistent and uninterrupted thread of development. In the United States, this was not the case: for various reasons, some of which I describe at length in the book, socialism was quickly seen after WWII as an unavailable ideology – an oppositional tendency whose unavailability made the possibilities of hip opposition not only attractive but perhaps necessary.”

“Contrary to myth, socialism did not entirely disappear in the United States during the 1950s – Dissent magazine and its writers, including Norman Mailer, maintained a serious conversation on the possibilities of democratic socialism – but even there, those possibilities were conditioned by a pervading awareness of the American situation. In the 1960s, socialism made a huge comeback in the radical imagination of the United States and Europe alike, but the fact that this represented an intensification of a prior ideological commitment in Europe meant that European counterculture movements always had a different, far more earnest, and more generally political overall flavor than those in the United States.”

“Furthermore, those counterculture movements in Europe had a greater intimacy with European art traditions, so a lot of European counterculture was more inflected by stuff like free jazz or the post-Cage avant-garde than their American opposite members. Though of course again, I am generalizing. It was a matter of emphasis within a shared set of signs – sort of like a regional accent.”

[With regards to race] While racism is universal throughout the world, nowhere in the world that I know of has the particular polar (white/black) kind of racial imagination as the United States. In the United States, ‘white’ is a capacious and elastic category, and American history is full of ethnic groups, like Greeks and Italians and Irish, that start out being thought of as “black” and are later reclassified as “white.” But ‘white’ can only exist in the United States by contrast with ‘black’, and so ‘blacks’ can never become ‘whites’. Which is why a biracial man like Barack Obama is universally called a ‘black president’ here.”

“These nuances of the racial imagination are conditioned by the very particular history of the United States and slavery. So while white Europeans and Americans alike might experience the ‘desire for the more expansive possibilities of selfhood that blackness seemed to represent’ as I write in Chapter 2, in Europe blackness was more likely to register as a generalized primitivism, whereas in the United States it represented something more complex – ‘the primitive’, yes, but also a site of for self-recreation that was at once intimately familiar and available and yet ‘other’.”

“While there are all kinds of parallels between European and American hip subcultures – interest in African-American jazz, for example, or a commitment to an oppositional stance –  those parallels are conditioned by different histories.”

Marilou Polymeropoulou: Did students have significant input in the history of hipness?

Phil Ford: “Hipness as we have come to know it is not some pure emanation from some pure, privileged, eternally-hip group but an ongoing mediation performed by intellectuals and intellectual fellow-travellers, which means students. After all, Ginsberg and Kerouac were Columbia University students when they started hanging out in the jazz clubs, smoking reefer, and meeting up with WS Burroughs’s criminal friends.”

Mapping hipness

[gview file=”http://iaspm-us.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/IASPM-Phil-Ford-Hipness-Timeline.pdf”]

“This is the fundamental orientation of hip consciousness: it is a binary orientation that maps the world into hip and square, somewhere and nowhere, with the hipster stuck in nowhere but always remapping it with the (imagined) frame of somewhere”. (p. 5)

Marilou PolymeropoulouWhere and how does hipness develop?

Phil Ford: “It usually works like this: there is a medium-sized place where the rents aren’t particularly high, where people can pursue various arty projects (or just loaf around) without having to work too many jobs. The place is kind of pretty and there is a college somewhere that ensures a steady supply of young, educated, creative types to feed the burgeoning arty scene. Such places attract artsy hipster types, and the hipsters in turn change the town. Bars with live music start to open up; small art galleries, black-box experimental theaters, etc., start to appear, to say nothing of various off-site places where people hang out, and do the kind of undirected low-intensity screwing-around that constitutes that elusive, intangible thing, a ‘scene’. The kind of thing where, if the scene gives rise to famous art, like the 1970s CBGB punk scene or the San Francisco Beat scene in the 1950s, there will be scholarly studies and coffee-table books.”

The scene

“Many conceptions of hipness are based on the most extreme and marginal figures, the ‘lucifugous creatures of the darkness’, rather than the less exotic, more commonplace kinds of people for whom hipness was less the point of existence than a happenstance of it. The latter were the sorts of people who in the 1940s began to play a role in the development of the hip sensibility, because the hip sensibility started to play a role in their lives. Columbia University students, jazz journalists, bookshop owners, advertising men and the like were not so much ‘hipsters’ as people invested with a certain amount of hipness. They had interesting friends, lived in the Village, had a few more sex partners than average, smoked a little reefer, frequented the better bars, took evening classes at the New School, had advanced taste in music and books — but they were not the Dostoyevskian rebels that Mailer and the Beats mythologized.” (p.60-61)

Phil Ford: “Being involved with the scene in however second-hand and passive a way didn’t mean that you were gay, did drugs, had a lot of wild sex, lived in a legendary party house, etc., but maybe you might check one or two of those boxes. In any event, you were cool with it. I’m describing a substantial minority of all kids who went to college in those years, and doubtless a higher proportion of kids going to college now. It’s not like all those kids are hipsters. It’s just that they are all in dialogue with, conversant with, the sensibility of hipness. That’s not at all the same thing as being a hipster.”

Characteristics of hipness

Irony and tricksterism

Marilou Polymeropoulou: From what I understand, the element of irony, and the concept of tricksters are fundamental to hipness. Do such characteristics originate from the American hip scene of the ’30s? Or did it ‘just’ happen that hipness globally has a tendency to irony and tricking?

Phil Ford: “Irony is, of course, universal. And it seems to me that there can be national styles of irony – American irony is different from English irony is different from French irony. Likewise the trickster character – probably as near to a universal archetype as exists, but there is a particular brew of trickster/irony that owes its unique flavor to particular historical conditions in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and this brew gets exported around the world. But it gets mixed with the characteristic national flavors of every place it visits.”

“To choose an obvious example, compare Bob Dylan and John Lennon – both rock stars whose public persona were ironic-tricksterish. But Lennon’s persona was recognizably English, and Dylan’s was American. Of course, this is part of the appeal of each musician for his international fans. The various national styles of hip get imported back into the United States, and they influence United States hip culture just as United States hip culture influences English, French, etc. My long quote from John Leland in Chapter 1 gets at this – hipness is transcultural and transnational, though at each link in the chain of influence something new gets added. À bout de souffle, for instance, is a French film that is very influenced by American culture (it is a late-1950s updating of a longstanding French intellectual fascination with American hardboiled fiction), but it is just as surely its own (French) thing, a new kind of cool, and that new kind of cool is in turn influential on American films as different as Taxi Driver and Mulholland Drive.”

“I don’t write too much about the present day in the book, since I try to stay pretty firmly within my self-imposed chronological limits, and in any event the topic is immensely complex, worthy of a book in its own right. But clearly irony, that in-it-but-not-of-it mode of consciousness I discuss with regards to Monk, Miles, Parker, etc. applies just as much to the way latter-day hipsters collect and curate corny and esoteric items of popular culture. “Ironic appropriation of mass-cultural items is a pretty important part of hipness, but present-day writing on the hipster, because it is so de-historicized (basically everyone is carrying on as if hipsters were like invented about five years ago) tends to treat the ironic-appropriation aspect of hipness as if it were the whole thing. Obviously, I think there is more to hipness than ironic T-shirts. But the T-shirts certainly are part of the picture. One thing I think everyone misses about hipsterism is that hipster irony isn’t just condescending scorn. If you are the proud owner of a Hulk Hogan lunch box, it’s not just that you are sort of snarking at the kinds of idiots who really like stuff like that; you are saying that you have perceived something about it that ordinary consumers overlook. There is this complex dialectic of distance and devotion implicit in hip irony.”

Irony is thus an important aspect of hipness. In Chapter 2 in particular, Ford analyzes irony and reduction as both being hip characteristics and parallels the reduction found in a hip greeting with that in jazz hip pieces written by Miles Davies and Thelonious Monk. Following this, I asked Phil about the relation of irony and emotion, and if that is an element that can be represented through popular instrumental music:[1. “Within a community that shares an understanding of what the gesture means, there are also governing expectations of what it should look like, and these are deliberately undermined when a finger is presented in greeting instead of a hand” (p. 67)] 

Phil Ford: “I actually don’t know if I think irony is an emotion – it can certainly be colored by emotion (it makes sense to speak of ‘bitter irony’ etc.), and in some cases irony can be used to short-circuit or suspend emotion entirely (this is very often how it is used in hip culture). ‘Instrumental music’ likewise covers a lot of ground – I’ll go on the assumption you are interested in how non-vocal, un-texted music can convey emotion at all. This is an excellent philosophical question, and one that has been hashed out for a very long time. I am unlikely to add anything much to it. My book does investigate one particular way of thinking about emotions and music, which is laid out pretty straightforwardly in the quote from Marsilio Ficino:

“But remember that song is a most powerful imitator of all things. It imitates the intentions and passions of the soul as well as words; it represents also people’s physical gestures, motions, and actions as well as their characters and imitates all these and acts them out so forcibly that it immediately provokes both the singer and the audience to imitate and act out the same things. By the same power, when it imitates the celestials, it also wonderfully arouses our spirit upwards to the celestial influence and the celestial influence downwards to our spirit. Now the very matter of song, indeed, is altogether purer and more similar to the heavens than is the matter of medicine. For this too is air, hot or warm, still breathing and somehow living; like an animal, it is composed of certain parts and limbs of its own and not only possesses motion and displays passion but even carries meaning like a mind, so that it can be said to be a kind of airy and rational animal.”

“This is all phrased in a Neo-Platonic way alien to our own time, but it nonetheless presents a certain point of view that I argue came to the fore in hip culture. From this point of view, music doesn’t just represent emotions, but embodies them directly. Music (and its substrate of sound) is held to be unique for the ways that it can bypass our cognitive faculties and can realize an emotion in us. It’s like we become a whole different person when we listen to music; the music gives us a soul transplant, at least for the time we’re listening to it. This is also why rationalist philosophers have always kind of mistrusted music – we can’t hold it at arm’s length with our reflective and rational faculties – or else have insisted on understanding music in a strictly rationalist way.”

“As for what my opinion on all this is… I don’t know. I don’t think music does just one thing. Music doesn’t exist without a listener, and there are almost as many ways of listening to music as there are listeners. My answer to the old Enlightenment-era philosophical question – can instrumental music represent emotions? – is yes, of course, if listener and composer/performer are engaged in that kind of hermeneutic game. Does music go beyond representation and directly model emotional processes? Yes, that’s possible too. There are many rooms in music’s house: I find it absurd when scholars insist that music inherently can only do this or that.”

“My own approach has been to work historically and reconstruct what kinds of emotions people experience while listening to certain kinds of music (especially modern jazz). Richard Taruskin wrote in the introduction to his massive Oxford History of Western Music that “the historian’s trick is to shift the question from ‘what does it mean?’ to ‘what has it meant?’” I try to think along those lines, always with the understanding that such an evanescent thing as the meaning ascribed to a piece of music can only ever be recaptured partially and with a good deal of intuition to supplement hard historical and textual/analytical evidence. Writing a history of how people thought about things is tough; writing about how they felt about them is much tougher.”

Co-optation: the dying form of hipness?

“Co-optation is a story that keeps us on the hook, looking for fresher and more appealing kinds of rebellion.” (p. 38)

“The hip kids who develop new styles abandon them once they are widely issues. And so the cool hunter is forever running in circles, following the increasingly rapid cycles by which hip urban youth adopt and discard styles. The ever-escalating speed of obsolescence is a result of the success of modern market research. Hip styles, once they enter into mass awareness, are no longer hip styles”. (p. 4)

Phil Ford: “What are the social forces driving changes in hip culture? The obvious one is capitalism – I mean, capitalism is kind of inescapable, right? The natural thing to do then is to say, well, these artists have to carry the weight of living in a certain kind of capitalist society, and so their music will sound a certain way because it constitutes a particular mode of resistance to the burdens of capitalist modernity. This is the great inheritance of Adorno, who insisted on this kind of thought. His genius, to me, is that he managed to think sociologically but with great aesthetic sensitivity to the music and literature he wrote about. I’m not saying you can’t come up with some pretty great stuff by following this line of thought – Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style is deservedly a classic in this line. But I always feel it leads to a certain kind of dead end.”

“That dead end is co-optation – the idea that (1) art matters by virtue of its social force, its power of resistance to a regnant capitalist mainstream; (2) that power of resistance is evacuated from an artwork when it is ‘co-opted’ by that mainstream, which is to say, when it is not only permitted but widely consumed, though on compromised terms; (3) it is therefore important to distinguish the genuinely oppositional, resistant artworks from the co-opted ones.”

“Criticism is the business of distinguishing the pretenders (like Rod McKuen) from the real guys (Dylan, maybe). This is Robert Christgau’s (and, in a more subtle way, Greil Marcus’s) whole thing. It’s a game that has been played for decades now, and I think it’s time to retire it, because it leads nowhere. It’s the hipster ‘I was into them before they were cool’ thing. It creates a tyranny of cool, with the critic as a ‘philosopher-guerrilla’ who can somehow just tell who is real and who is faking it.”

“I think that in the 1960s and 1970s, the question of what expressive culture carries an authentic political charge was urgent, meaningful, and productive. It seemed to be leading to new answers, and those answers seemed like they might make a difference. But several decades on, I think we have to recognize that this phase of intellectual history has run its course. We aren’t going to get any new answers from this kind of investigation. And the basis for making distinctions between ‘authentic’ and ‘co-opted’ artworks was always shaky or non-existent anyway. The commerce between ‘hip’ and ‘mainstream’ is intimate and constant. In fact, in my book I suggest that there is not ultimately any hard-and-fast distinction between hip culture and mainstream. The hipsters are the early adopters of what becomes the mainstream American style. Hipness was, as I say, the right idea at the right time: it set the tone for American (and to a degree world) culture for the half-century after WWII. As I say in Chapter 2, everything in hip culture is always already co-opted. But it’s OK. What makes this music, literature and film worthwhile is not only its political force, but its aesthetic one as well.”

“I think that this political or social force in music does exist, but that it is most often a function of its aesthetic force. However, I see this ‘aesthetic force’ in a rather odd way, rather as J. Hoberman or Norman Mailer saw it, as the way that an artwork intervenes in the ‘dream life of the nation’ (in Mailer’s phrase) and, by shaping the way people imagine themselves and others, impels a nation to act in different ways. The immaterial stuff of dreams (the orchestrated dreams of Hollywood, say, or in a pop record) can move around the hard, dense, material stuff of social life.”

“I suppose I’d say that my work tacitly disputes the materialist assumptions of much cultural-studies work in pop culture. I have an essay, not yet published, on Duke Ellington’s film work in the 1930s and 1940s, arguing that Duke confronted racialized and demeaning entertainment stereotypes by creating a new kind of entertainment image for himself – one that Barack Obama availed himself of in the 2008 presidential campaign. Inasmuch as Ellington’s filmed performances drive home his image, and inasmuch as a later iteration of this image helps Obama get elected, I’d say that the immaterial stuff of dreams cannot be counted out of any political calculation. Images have power. The hip sensibility/aesthetic is powerful as a social force in itself precisely because it is so widely ‘co-opted’ – that is to say, so widely adopted and adapted.”

Marilou PolymeropoulouDo you think the mainstream/dominant culture benefits from co-opting hipness, see for example the Apple Macintosh 1984 anti-conformist commercial?

Phil Ford: “If I were to be strict and starchy about it, I would insist that there is no mainstream or dominant culture, and that counterculture is simply a very successful, mainstream ethic of being non-mainstream. Of course some things are pretty far out. There is a big difference between, say, Eraserhead and some romantic comedy with Jennifer Aniston. But one story that always fascinates me is how fluid the boundaries between these things are, how much these seemingly disparate cultural phenomena constantly influence one another. I have countless examples. Seeing ‘counterculture’ and ‘mainstream’ as poles of a single culture that passes notions and stories endlessly between them is more interesting to me than asserting some definite boundary. The world is more interesting when we see its connections and relations than when we assert separations. At least that’s what I think.”

“As for the question of how this plays out in advertising now — I think that the hip sensibility still has a lot of power, but it’s waning. In 1984, the famous Mac ad could be really sort of stirring, because it spoke in an idiom that had not yet been subjected to the kind of irony and demystification it has in the last ten years or so. Nowadays the same ad would occasion a lot of eye-rolling. We’re hip to the clichés of fighting The Man, and are well aware that there’s something funny about the pretense that you could fight The Man by buying a goddam computer.”

“Even so, we still tend to think of such moments as the Mac ad (or the use of the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ in a Nike ad) in retrospect as high-water-marks of ‘co-optation’, which in turn implies that we still hold out the hope that somewhere there is some oppositional culture that is not co-opted, something that is truly, permanently oppositional, that is and will always be hip. We don’t really believe it anymore, even though we still want it and hope for it. We are all in the position of ‘the gambler in the Leonard Cohen song, looking for the card so high and wild he’ll never need to play another’, as Heath and Potter put it (p. 179), even though we’re wise to the game we’re playing. It’s a weird historical moment, not so different, actually, from that moment in the 1950s where (as Mailer put it) ‘authorities were desired with anguish and yet no authority could be believed’ – where the old notions of opposition had come to seem tired and discredited but the desire for opposition kept intellectuals on the hook, looking for some new principle of cultural resistance.”

Meet the hipsters

“…the hipster becomes a new incarnation of Henri Murger’s Bohemians and Walter Benjamin flaneurs.” (p. 26)

In his seminal essay “A Portrait of a Hipster” (Partisan Review, 1948) Anatole Broyard uses the metaphor of a beetle laid on its back to describe hipsters: “[…] his life was a struggle to get straight. But the law of human gravity kept him overthrown, because he was always of the minority — opposed in race or feeling to those who owned the machinery of recognition.” Who are really the hipsters?

Phil Ford: “Hipsters tell the best stories. Stories are the accumulated interest on a lifetime of living life like art. The hipster anecdote is an underappreciated genre; indeed, it is perhaps the hipster’s most authentic art form. A hipster’s stories are his calling-cards: they announce his credentials and establish his authenticity.”

“My book isn’t really about hipsters; it’s more about the sensibility that hipsters share with the much wider set of people who are conversant with the symbols and cultural accoutrements of the hip sensibility. In a sense, we are all ‘hipsters’. This is one reason it’s so hard to write about hipsters – who the hell are they? There are the cartoonish obvious types with the Woody Allen glasses and whatnot, but once we really start thinking about it we realize that any real distinctions we might make between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are pretty elusive, and then we start wondering if there are ever any ‘real’ hipsters in the first place. What I’m saying is that there is a sensibility, or (if you like) an aesthetic of art and the self that gives rise to various kinds of person, various artworks of the self. Some of those artworks look a lot like the classic hipster and some look distinctly bourgeois. But as I argue at length, nothing is as bourgeois as hipness.”

Marilou Polymeropoulou: How hip are you?

“Well, of course everyone says they’re not a hipster, especially the hipsters. So I could be lying. Maybe I’m a real hipster. But if I said I was, I wouldn’t be. Confusing, no? The trick here is to go beyond the binary logic by which someone is either a hipster or not. The occultist Austin Osman Spare developed a kind of mental technique he called ‘neither-neither’.”

“You start off with proposition A – ‘Phil Ford is a hipster’. If that seems wrong, the natural thing is to negate it – ‘Phil Ford is not a hipster’. Not-A. But Spare, like many others, understood that the world is ill-served by our binary logic of A and not-A.”

“So we might say, well, perhaps the truth lies in the middle. In some ways Phil Ford is a hipster, and in some ways not. That would be a third logical form, A plus not-A. But there is yet a further negation possible: neither A nor not-A. This is Spare’s ‘neither-neither’. It is very hard to imagine that Phil Ford is neither a hipster nor not a hipster. And yet that comes closest to the truth. Or at least I have found this kind of neither-neither negation to be a very useful mental technique in thinking about hipness historically”.

Furthermore, in the introduction, Ford writes:

“So how hip, or unhip, am I? The question is beside the point. Do we ask someone writing about Romanticism whether he or she is sufficiently Romantic? No, because Romanticism does not dominate the sensibility of present-day intellectuals. It is the peculiar power of a living sensibility to compel its contemporaries to believe there are no options outside of it: one may be for it or against it or ambiguous about it, but it is somehow impossible to imagine discussing it in terms that do not assume its priority. (It is hard enough even to see it as a sensibility and not simply the natural order of things.) Once it is no longer a living sensibility, it no longer defines the range of thinkable positions. With the benefit of historical distance, writers can see it simply as one epoch in cultural history among many. Indeed, this is what I have tried to do in writing an intellectual history of the hip sensibility in its first three decades, from the late 1930s through the late 1960s. If hip culture offers us a good deal of delusion and posturing to go with its great works of imagination, my aim has been to understand a little better, without sentimentality or anger, the roots of its destructive illusions and profitable conceits alike.”

Phil Ford: “As a kid back in the day, hanging out of with people who seemed like bone fide hipsters. I thought these people were just kind of brilliant and mysterious and I wanted to be like them, though I knew on some level that that would never work. I started out with a ‘hipness is awesome’ kind of idea, though it wouldn’t have occurred to me to think of ‘hipness’ in such a bracketed and abstract way.”

“A little later on, training to be a music historian, I flipped it around and started being against hipness; this was in my graduate school days, when I had a kind of grudge against the posturing and self-delusion I saw in the artistic and academic world around me. A rather adolescent attitude, really: ‘I’m just sick of all the hypocrisy and bullshit, man!’ This is what I see at the bottom of the present-day fad for hipster-bashing. People are drunk on the sudden awareness that hipsterism is a kind of game, and we can see through it now.”

“The trick is to go beyond even the stage of ‘A plus not-A’ and arrive at neither A nor not-A. I’m not for hipness and not against it; I don’t want to be hip nor not want to be hip; in fact, the things that matter to me in my life just have no relevance to that set of concerns. This isn’t quite the same as ‘detachment’, because I believe there is no such thing – we are always connected intimately to the things we write about. If you’re not, you’re doing it wrong.”

“It’s just that I have sought a certain attitude of being disembedded from those things, of seeing them, as I say, without sentimentality or anger. You have to see that hipness is a thing that happened, that it had a birth, a process of growth, and is fated at some point to die. In that respect it’s like any other item of history, like Romanticism or the Merovingian Kings that the historian can write about, except that it’s still happening to us, and that makes it tough to see clearly.”

Marilou Polymeropoulou: How has the countercultural idea of hipness influenced cultural studies?

Phil Ford: “I do think that much of the intellectual style of cultural studies, at least as I encountered it in the 1990s, was profoundly influenced by the countercultural idea. There’s a certain amount of discussion of that in the book. The more intellectual elements of 1960s counterculture had an attraction to cultural theory as purveyed by Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Marcuse, which seemed to help explain their singular cultural moment to them.”

“In the 1970s, McLuhan and Marcuse were old hat; the generation that went to grad school in the 1970s and started the famous ‘long march through the institutions’ discovered French cultural theory, which catered to many of their countercultural preoccupations (power, sex and sexuality, culture as resistance) but in a new register. That generation is now retiring. The younger generation (mine and the one coming up behind me) is more heterogeneous, and I don’t know if I can characterize it in any particular way. I wrote about the contemporary state of cultural studies a couple of years ago on my blog, Dial M for Musicology.”

Marilou PolymeropoulouDo you think that hipness will always exist as a source of creativity?

Phil Ford: “Nothing lasts forever. At a certain point the hip sensibility will no longer provide people with a compelling way to understand themselves and the world around them, and something else will. What that might possibly be I couldn’t say. Maybe that process is already happening, but I can’t really say.”

A portrait of the writer

Phil Ford grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, and was classically trained as a pianist. As a teenager, Toronto was his mecca; he travelled there during the weekends aiming to expand his musical knowledge. Phil developed an interest for 1970s rock and punk as well as classical music.

Currently he is an associate professor of musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music where he teaches a mixture of western art music and various vernacular strains.

His interest in hipsters developed while he was working with them: As he says, “I used to curate a music series for the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, MN. The Weisman is one of Frank Gehry’s shiny crumples, and the interior space was both intimate and oddly-shaped, a very inviting space for any number of the small ensembles doing every kind of oddball art-pop thing that was on offer at the time and in that scene, which was a pretty vibrant one. University of Minnesota was also an epicenter for academic hip, especially in its cultural-studies program, CSDS. In retrospect, it was a lot like that show Portlandia. I also got really interested in Cold War intellectual history at the same time, and so the topic started percolating in my mind”.

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