May I suggest Lord Buckley for the Hipster Hall Of Fame? He even titled one of his albums Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger Poppin Daddies, released in 1955!
It’s easy to see Lord Buckley as a progenitor of the hipster image. His Dalí mustache and exaggerated British royal persona exude ironic detachment from conventional mores. He helped popularize mid-century bebop counter culture. Before he became famous as a comedian, the man worked in the great north woods as an actual lumbersexual lumberjack! And, don’t forget, he loved weed, which is a very 21st-century attitude.
Lord Buckley: "The Nazz"
But there’s something that won’t sit right with me here. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but I listened to a bunch of old Lord Buckley recordings (thanks, YouTube) and it hit me: Buckley would have adopted his jive-influenced performance style by emulating African-American jazz musicians, particularly bandleaders such as Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. By repackaging bebop style in a pith helmet and funny mustache, Buckley served up black culture in a manner unthreatening to white listeners. I agree with the majority, who hold that Buckley didn’t produce a 20th-century minstrel show. Rather, Buckley admired his African-American contemporaries, regardless of race, and his imitation of black culture was nothing more than the sincerest form of flattery. Even so, there’s a deep unfairness in the fact that while Buckley was forging himself into a living legend, the people from whom he borrowed his act were not allowed to drink certain water in certain parts of the country.
Today, with debates raging over whether or not the #OscarsSoWhite, what, if anything, can popular entertainment tell us? For one, it reveals how easily we misconstrue and reverse the logic of cause and effect. Could changing the Academy Awards change the fortunes of disadvantaged black Americans? I doubt it. Improving the future for black Americans, however, will surely beget change on the Oscar stage, albeit not immediately.
If that’s too abstract, well, what do you want? I was trying to decide whether Lord Buckley deserves a placard in the Historical Hipster Hall of Fame. I think he does.
At its worst (or at least its “most despised”), hipster irony relentlessly mocks for the sake of feeling superior. “Stop laughing at old movies, you fucking hipsters!” pleaded L.A. Times film critic Amy Nicholson last spring in an open letter to every hipster kid too cool to appreciate anything filmed before The Matrix. At its best, and by extension its rarest, hipster irony can dismantle something as insidious as institutionalized racism. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, a white man speaking with a black man’s voice will waft the odious stink of bigotry. Sometimes, if the hipster is hip enough, that ironic detachment shows just how foolish and arbitrary is the gap between black and white (or whatever gap you please), turning it inside out to reveal that, in Buckley’s own words, “people are the true flowers of life: and it has been [his] most precious pleasure to have temporarily strolled in [their] garden.”
We need another Buckley today.