In his book “Hip: A History”, John Leland argues that hip is a result of the mixing of cultures and ideas, each of which builds off the other. It’s why yesterday’s crime is today’s cool and tomorrow’s passe.
He also argues that the image of cool “has pushed steadily towards androgyny. Nothing is cornier than a dumbly masculine jock, a frat boy, company man or golf buddy”.
It works the other way, too. Singer Lady Gaga is less popular because of her tunes than she is because of her gender-bending image. She is a break from the mold of what most people would expect from a pop singer. It is no accident that Gaga’s popularity took off like a rocket once she adopted and flaunted her current look.
And this little break from the norm is something she has in common with several NBA All-Stars, including Raptors big man Chris Bosh.
But first, let’s look at what makes Lady Gaga hip. Because she has the image of somebody who’s rebellious and almost dangerous, there’s something just slightly off about how she dresses, carries herself and sings. It pushes her over the edge of being just a singer. It’s not a question of talent – anybody who’s heard her demos can attest that she has a very good voice – but a question of what exactly she is.
After all, who else could be dogged by rumors about their birth gender? Those allegations would never have stuck to another singer.
It’s in the way she artfully uses everything in her potential to transcend past what is expected and seemingly required – her looks are fashion from another planet, her voice is artfully manipulated to sound inhuman and her lyrics deal with topics that a Britney Spears-clone would never approach.
So what does this have to do with basketball, let alone Chris Bosh?
Like Gaga, Bosh has skillfully created an image that is hip because it disregards so much of what came before and goes in it’s own direction, outside of what’s expected.
Bosh is part of a new wave of NBA stars that have their own way of doing things. Along with players like Gilbert Arenas, Steve Nash and Baron Davis, they represent a new way to present themselves. They are not meat-headed jocks that utter clichs in interviews. They exist outside the stream of what a jock is supposed to be.
In a way, they are the lasting legacy of Allen Iverson, who infamously rejected everything about the NBA’s past to forge a new identity. He embraced an outlaw chic, eagerly played the role of the outsider and was all the more hip for it.
“Hipsters are criminals once removed, imitations of crime without the thing itself,” wrote Leland. He could have been describing AI. He had the swagger and look of the streets and created the look of something dangerous. He was cool and he forged a new identity for players.
By breaking the mold of what a NBA player was supposed to look and talk like, Iverson gave players new freedom to express themselves – no longer did they have to be like MJ. They could be whatever they wanted to be.
They’ve taken it in different ways. Gilbert Arenas reinvented himself from an undrafted guard to something akin to an on-court comedian while Baron Davis was able to star in a short film where he wears short shorts and roller-skates to New Edition. Bosh was able to become something of a computer geek and YouTube celebrity.
While I don’t think he’s actually ever said he rejects the past, in how he acts, he removes himself from it and places himself soundly somewhere new. He’s an actor and an amateur filmmaker. Who else has self-made a video for YouTube to pitch himself as an All-Star? Few, if any basketball players from the past would have taken themselves and their sport with such good humor.
For Bosh’s popularity, it’s almost as if his talent takes a back seat at times. Ask somebody who’s only casually into the NBA about Bosh – chances are they’ll mention his All-Star salesman pitch over any single play Bosh has ever made on court.
It’s in that way that he’s like Gaga. They both have pushed aside the traditional roles and images of their respective careers to forge something new and unexpected. Bosh has rejected the overwhelming masculinity of pro athletics by embracing something traditionally nerdy and shown a sense of humor while doing it. Gaga has blown sexual stereotypes out of the water and soundly expanded what a pop singer can say or wear.
In an article in The Sunday Times, Gaga described her M.O. as such: “I’m defying all of the preconceptions we have of pop artists”.
She knows her look is there to provoke new actions rather than stimulate past conceptions.
Bosh is similar in how he has innovated change in the way a pro athlete can carry themselves and connect with fans. They both seem to exist outside of the general sphere that most of their peers do.
It’s why they’re both hip. They both are blazing a trail that nobody’s really ever gone down – and like what Iverson did, it will surely open the floodgates for many to follow.
Look at Twitter, for example. Chris Bosh first started a Twitter account in September of 2008. Since then other NBA players like Dwight Howard, Stephon Marbury and Andre Iguodala have all started accounts of their own. In a way, he’s helped to start a revolution on athletes connecting with fans. Without his videos, would there be Baron Davis starring in One Shot? Would there be Marbury’s Ustream channel? I, for one, doubt it.
Bosh isn’t ahead of the curve when it comes the NBA players using new media to connect with fans. He is the curve. That’s what makes him so hip and ultimately so important. And like Lady Gaga, they both represent not just a break from the old, but a look at something completely new and unfretted with the past.