This is one of the most fascinating and unusual books I have read.
It has all the elements of a compelling autobiography (an exciting lifestyle of dating rock stars, having people ranging from the big boss of MTV through to high profile fashion designers as best mates) but it is a marketing-cum-social study.
The author very intelligently and very convincingly examines "what it means to be uber cool". That is not a self-proclaimed statement. It is rather a means to differentiate between what cool meant in the 1990s and how it got redefined in the 2000s. The book is interested in how and why underground trends get picked up by the commercial world of brands. It celebrates innovation and finds a synergy between "hipsters" and "mavericks". It also provides a pattern for trend cycles from underground into the mass market. By comparing the two decades, the book explains how paradigm shifts in mass consumption occur.
This is supported with many examples, brands that we all recognise but the author was there first hand.
For instance, to explain the 1990s cool design, which was minimalistic, the famous Ikea "chuck out your chintz" campaign is used. Only the author knew both the advertising agency when it was a start up and the Ikea team. Then for the 2000s, we get an insight into how wallpaper replaced the "minimalist brick wall" as a symbol of cool design. Once again, this is traced back to those who started the revival and it ends up at B & Q sales. There are hundreds of cases like this. And that covers the "maverick" part of the book.
As for "hipsters", that is a closed off universe. Everyone nowadays seems to have an opinion on hipsters. It has become popular to hate them, especially in gentrified urban areas. The First To Know fully explains the Shoreditch phenomenon in London and provides an incredible insight into the creative communities that unwittingly catapulted this area into a global signifier of cool and major tourist spot (but the same principle applies to New York or other cities). Unlike silly debates on what's hip and what's not, the author is a true authority on the subject. Hip is not about wearing skinny jeans, we find, but it is about challenging a status quo and seeing the world through a lens where tolerance and diversity are the greatest resources for democracy.
I thought I was hip until I read this book and realised that there was a whole universe (exclusive and not for us regular folk) that pretty dictates what is hip. Because, as The First to Know beautifully argues, hip is a paradox; the lifeblood of consumer society and force for positive change. That paradox is very well explained. But this is not just an analysis, super well researched. This is also a part-autobiographical story. The author's own ability to find herself at the birthplaces of cool movements is the reason why we have three stories running in parallel and spanning over two decades: the story that centres on the city of Sarajevo and what it meant to be hip under communism, then during the 90s conflict in that region (these guys were really rocking and ad-busting!) and the lack of it post war (where reality TV dominates and kills innovation but it's not far from what's happening here in our British celeb obsessed society - this is cleverly linked to Orwell's 1984); the story of MTV Europe and its rise from a small office into an empire (I always sneered at MTV, preferring the NME but this was fascinating to read - I didn't know any of that stuff) and the last story, which is the contemporary one that explains how and why Shoreditch became cool. Once again, this is from the point of view of someone who was really there with very real characters and very tangible examples of how they influence the style industry and advertising and how brands follow what these guys do. And then you can watch the book unravel on films on the website. Very intelligent. Very entertaining. Possibly the new hip bible.
This is a huge book - not just in terms of size (it's long and extraordinarily detailed throughout) but also in terms of ambition. It's about subjects that will interest many people (perhaps we all find the idea of being cool, at the cutting edge, and in the know intriguing to some extent, even if we don't live that way ourselves). Its narrative spans two decades (the 1990s and the noughties) and includes personal anecdotes from MTV parties, to Bosnia, to exclusive club nights in Shoreditch which contextualise the author's main argument (well-researched and thoroughly referenced throughout) tracing the trajectory of 'cool' and 'hip' - from their underground starting points to going mainstream and eventually selling out. It explains how trends rise, spread and fall in a repeating, cyclical fashion.
If you enjoyed The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, then this book draws on some of the ideas expressed there, but expands on them, putting forward the argument that at this point in the history of hip, parents are now cooler than their children - which challenges popular belief and probably quite a lot of marketers' preconceptions, too. This idea is returned to throughout the book and develops as a central theme.
The thing I really enjoyed about this book was that it was so hard to categorise. Unlike most books that get published, it's more than one thing, defiantly so, and therefore quite hard to pin down. It doesn't patronise the reader. It's personal, yes, but it's also academic and analytical. It's part historical (and contemporary) account, but it's also an impassioned appeal against the culture of homogenisation that threatens to engulf our creative industries.
Most of all, I'd recommend it as a good read. It's engagingly written and if you've got any interest in popular culture there'll be something (or someone) in there for you. It'll also get you thinking about where creative innovation really comes from (and it's perhaps not always where the media lead us to believe it comes from)... And where it might pop up next.