How to Be Cool
Picture an educated, culturally literate member of the upper middle class. Someone who’s in touch with art, cuisine, music, literature. This person has a professional job and lives in an urban center. Overall, her or his lot in life is a fortunate one. But this person isn’t getting any younger. The carefree undergraduate days of doing drugs and staying up until the dawn are over — five, ten, maybe even twenty-five years in the past. This person could slide gracefully into obsolescence and let the younger generation have their outlandish trends, but that option isn’t too appealing. After all, in Today’s Globally Connected World of Social Media, each vicissitude of taste is on display, vulnerable to critique by people who are skinnier and go to more parties. Any evidence of lameness will be immediately noted and remembered forever. This person feels painfully exposed! In these circumstances, keeping up to date feels essential — even as it becomes more unattainable with each Pitchfork Music Festival that goes by.
Does this sound familiar? Yes, New York Times reader, it’s a description of you! Or so the typical New York Times culture writer appears to believe. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s definitely a description of the typical New York Times culture writer. And these authors’ thoughts on the issues of relevance, timeliness and hipness are instructive. Because they are offered up to the gaze of millions of readers, their struggles for cool are those of the average social media user, writ large. In the case of these beleaguered scribes (though hopefully not the rest of us), the result is a hideous vicious cycle of self-conscious navel-gazing, ironic quipping, defensive posturing, and counterintuitive trend-prognisticating designed to make the writer feel ahead of the curve.
Hence all the articles about “New Speakeasy in Bushwick” and “Meditation is the New Botox” and whatnot. This discourse’s ostensible purpose is to help us understand the trending topics of today, so we can feel like the stylish young things we once were. But cultural phenomena are ephemeral, appearing and disappearing like the wind. And no one really cares about a new line of cruelty-free fountain pen ink or artisanal baking soda, anyway. Paying attention to the pieces’ actual subject matter does us no good. If we wish to grasp the essence of New York Timesian cool, we must get beyond the minutia to the “deep structure” that underlies it.
To that end, let’s glance at a work that presents the plight of the aging trend-chaser in particularly stark terms: Wm. Ferguson’s “I like the New Coldplay. Sue Me.” Ferguson is a columnist for The 6th Floor Blog, which mysteriously describes itself as “eavesdropping on the Times Magazine.” In this post, he lets us know that he likes the new Coldplay. How does one come to find this out? It’s hard to imagine. Maybe he was in some business that played the whole album over the speakers, like… a rollerblade shop? Some sort of indoor ziplining establishment? Does Dave & Buster’s have a dance floor? It’s baffling. But however the obsession began, it is now in full bloom and Ferguson can’t be silent. He wants to unburden himself, perhaps even recruit others to his cause. So, like a man who finally tried Chipotle and is now desperate to warn the world that the “mild” salsa isn’t actually mild, he begins his quest for lifestyle acceptance.
“I mentioned to the magazine’s editor that the new Coldplay record was pretty good. He told me to leave his office. Actually, first he said, ‘Oh, I’m gonna tweet this.’ Then he kicked me out.” Sick burn! Ferguson concludes that “Coldplay has assumed the mantle (passed down from Hootie and the Blowfish, Dave Matthews Band, and guys like that) of Relatively Pleasant Pop Band That Inspires Reactionary Hatred. Sixteen million people bought that Hootie record, and I never met a single person who admitted to owning it.” Are you sure those sixteen million people are the same sixteen million you meet in your life as a music and arts blogger living in Manhattan? Wait until Ferguson sees the numbers on snuff-chewing and NASCAR. He’s going to think everyone in Park Slope is living a double life.
Statistics aside, Ferguson remains committed to his reverse-Emperor’s-New-Clothes scenario. “I don’t know how Coldplay earned the enmity of the cool people.” Well fuck, it’s probably because no one told them Coldplay is “relatively pleasant”! If the world’s avant-garde cultural elites have one thing in common, it’s their fondness for inoffensively mild, interchangeable cultural products. Also, maybe the cool people didn’t hear that they won a Grammy. As a result of their scorn, this multimillion-selling act is cruelly underrated. W-Ferg may not grok the hate, “But I know it’s real.” Hell yeah, it’s real! That one guy was enmitous enough to write a tweet about it! That’s 140 sarcastic characters’ worth of real, authentic Coldplay revulsion. Shit just got real! And Ferguson is about to show you that he can be real, too.
“Coldplay — worse than cold weather? Worse, even, than cold sores? I say no. Coldplay is not worse than cold sores.” I… hmm. I feel like this can’t be how this joke was supposed to turn out. The fact that he can only think of two bad things with “cold” in the name is just one of its many structural defects. I would have been like “Coldplay — worse than the Cold War? No, because a Coldplay album only feels like it lasts 46 years! Worse than cold fusion? No, because there is no scientifically accepted theoretical model for the occurrence of a nuclear reaction inside a chemically bound crystal structure, while people just wish Coldplay was a scientific impossibility! Worse than quitting heroin cold turkey? No, because symptoms of opioid dependence include tremors, sweating, tachycardia, vomiting, diarhhea, malaise, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and priapism, while Coldplay’s music has never been known to cause priapism! Worse than Vanilla Ice, whose name also invokes the idea of coldness? No, because Vanilla Ice’s flamboyant persona transgressed middle-class standards of aesthetic decorum in ways that made him unacceptable to the era’s cultural gatekeepers, and in rap slang, “bad” means good!
All right, now Ferguson is going to get real. “Before you dismiss me as just another middle-aged, upper-middle-class tool who wears $125 jeans with a blazer, let me present my credentials. I saw the Clash on the ‘Combat Rock’ tour in a college gymnasium… own original pressings of ‘This Charming Man,’ ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart,’the Hib-Tone ‘Radio Free Europe’; I have the vinyl of every Niagara record on German import. I was cool. You must believe me.” No, no, I musn’t! That’s not how it works! If you love your coolness, you have to set it free, and if it returns, it is yours, but if it doesn’t, it never was! Let it go!
But he’d rather cling. In this paragraph, Ferguson links to an article mocking dad-rock, as well as to the song “Losing My Edge,” which pokes fun at people who fear losing their edge. This suggests something disturbing: Ferguson is dimly conscious of the futility of what he is doing — trying to prove he’s still cool — but the awareness hasn’t sunk in. Ferguson thinks that if he makes a convincing enough case, he can overcome the uncoolness of liking Coldplay, as well as the even more irredeemable uncoolness of trying to prove he is cool. He has generated enough partial self-awareness to screen his vulnerable psyche from the consequences of full self-awareness, a psychological defense mechanism known as I Love Sarvis Syndrome.
“But I think the end of the Coldplay hatred might be in sight.” Because of Madonna… somehow. “Maybe you remember a time when Madonna was the scourge of the culture…. It was only through some weird confluence of Sonic Youth patronage and postfeminist studies that Madonna could be appreciated ironically. We were ‘dancing’ to ‘Madonna’ at a ‘club’ — get it?” Your 80′s friends sound great. I wonder how they turned out later. “Check this out, I’m ‘having sex’ after going on a ‘hot date’ with someone I ‘truly care about’! Now I’m having an ‘orgasm’ — get it?” Five years later… “Oh my God you guys, I’m ‘pregnant’! I feel really ‘joyful’ about starting a ‘family’! Now I’m ‘giving birth’ at a ‘hospital’! Isn’t this hilarious?”
Sadly for Ferguson’s friends and others like them, “there is no ironic way into this band.” But he can suggest another attitude you might adopt toward Coldplay. “It hit me while listening to ‘Mylo Xyloto’…it’s just pop!” Well, that settles it. Only the greatest recording artists of a generation are honored by music bloggers with a genre descriptor. If Ferguson has found a category into which this band’s music falls, they must be good.
Anyway, now that we’ve seen an overview of the hipness arbitration process, let’s look at each of the steps in detail.
1. Be Objective (“X Quality is Cool, Coldplay Is X, so Coldplay is Cool”)
Coolness is the most evanescent of abstract qualities. It might slip from your grasp one day, and you wouldn’t even know it. The only way to be certain your awesomness will last is to back it up with 100 percent objective reasons. Ferguson’s flashing of coolness credentials is emblematic of this tactic; he goes on to note that “If you’re looking for permission to like Coldplay, go ahead. Brian Eno produced it, you know.” Well, Coldplay probably paid Brian Eno to do that — but he drank his own urine for free. Think about that, Coldplay fans.
But you don’t have to be a connoisseur of glam rock and urophagia to have objective reasons for liking something. The “great musicianship” argument is one of the most frequently deployed. In “A Band Tradition, Both Carried On and Changed, ” Jon Pareles laments the public’s lack of appreciation for Phish: The band is “so light-fingered that its remarkable musicianship is often taken for granted.” Stupid music fans, taking it for granted that professional musicians can play their instruments well just because 99 percent of professional musicians can play their instruments well! Why can’t people be more like they were in the middle ages, when if a wandering minstrel showed up who could play the hurdy-gurdy really fast, you’d follow him around all day? The scene is going to hell! Maybe if more talented young people would aspire to “make it” in the music biz, the industry would be a little competitive, and we would have some performers around with the technical capacity to play their own songs on instruments of their choice.
At this concert, Phish’s overall demeanor was “Uptempo, playing familiar songs and ready to keep fans dancing — never getting too abstract or experimental.” Right away, this tells me everything I need to know about Phish: Their music has a somewhat rapid pace, can be danced to, and is not abstract experimental noise. Maybe I underestimated them! This really sets them apart from both Einstürzende Neubauten, and that other industrial noise band I listened to one time that sounds like Einstürzende Neubauten.
“The musicians’ fingers flew; lights splayed above the stage; glowsticks were tossed, in mass bursts, at big transitions; balloons bounced around.” Mistakes were made; colorless green ideas slept furiously; the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. Wait a minute, there were balloons…BOUNCING AROUND? FUCK!!! How did I miss that concert??
Some of these coolness criteria derive from an identifiable thought process, but at other times, writers produce reasons that are purely fanciful. In “Time Out to Enjoy All Things Phish,” Seth Schiesel writes “When your friend volunteers to work at a music festival in exchange for a ticket and ends up with the title of ‘Good Vibe Regulator’ at a custom-built all-night disco bar modeled after a giant pinball machine, you know you’ve ended up someplace pretty cool.” I dunno, man. I used to think that way. When I was young and naive, I thought once I finally got the chance to drop acid inside a giant pinball machine and hang out with the Good Vibes Coordinator, I’d know I had made it. The restless searching in my soul would be quenched. But when it actually happened, all I felt was doubt: Am I really having a cool experience? This jam band festival should be special, but it feels like all the others. I’ve achieved everything I ever dreamed of, so why does it seem so…hollow? Have I lost the ability to feel?
So, thanks for giving the youth generation a Phish-related existential crisis, you dick.
2. Be Counterintuitive (“Coldplay Is Cool”)
The archives of the Times are rife with strained and contrarian attempts to claim the mantle of cool for entities that once lacked it — like “ironic” short-sleeved shirts, Oktoberfest celebrations in “hipster beer gardens,” “‘status symbol’ bicycle helmets” or “conceptual take[s] on white-trash barbecue.” Even wheeled trolleys for transporting groceries are not beneath notice; one writer indulges in feverish imaginings about a world where “granny carts were becoming a hip urban accessory and I was on the cusp of a trend.”
As a result of all this upward mobility, what was once universally accepted as cool is constantly on the verge of being eclipsed. At a foodie music festival, a chef who wowed the crowd with foie gras doughnuts observed that “food is the new rock ’n’ roll,” and that “right now people collect tastes like they’re records.” Conversely, people buy records like they’re gluten-free chimichangas: from a truck. Up is down! Black is white! The zeitgeist is in chaos!
One contender for a hipster Renaissance is the so-called “Coldplay of foods”: pink slime. An anonymous editorialist brings it upon himself to defend the substance, on the grounds that if it weren’t called pink slime people would like it, despite its notable qualities of being pink and slimelike. The writer refers to it by its rap name, L.F.T.B. (Lil’ Fresh Teenage Booty, a.k.a. Lean Finely Textured Beef), and attempts an image overhaul: While L.F.T.B. is “admittedly not all that appetizing,” its mere existence is a labor of love by Beef Products Inc., who “struggled to find the right amount of ammonia — enough to kill pathogens without leaving a strong odor.” Not only are its odors weak, but it’s low-fat, and “does not differ greatly from the rest of ground beef, which is also mostly scraps and remnants.” OH, NO YOU DIDN’T! Don’t you dare come after my scraps and remnants! This is like telling Americans that Harley-Davidsons are made from old pieces of metal no one else wanted. If the liberals have their way, our children won’t be taught the difference between wholesome scraps of beef and Godless, unnatural slime. Moral relativism is dragging us down a slippery slope of chaos and insanity. First they came for our guns, then they came for our scraps, then they came for us! DON’T TREAD ON ME!
In any case, L.F.T.B. is unpopular. “The first casualties of… ‘pink slime’ will likely not be anyone who eats it but rather the workers who make it.” Beef Products Inc. is in trouble because Americans stopped buying their products. The author condemns this act of Romneyesque creative destruction as “unfair.” Consumers are persecuting a hardworking
small extremely large business simply for selling them a food product that they don’t want to buy, because it’s so revolting. And we’re all part of the problem! All my life I’ve been ingesting substances I consider appetizing, not even realizing that I was contributing to a human rights tragedy. Save Beef Products Inc., boycott not eating pink slime!
This encomium of slime is on the editorial page, but it would be interesting to see if it sparks a new trend for ironic L.F.T.B. appreciation. Hipsters will be using it in artisanal cocktails and centrifuging up their own micro-batches at home next to the lingonberry preserves. Brooklynites will seek out indie slime makers and compare notes on which brands are the most finely textured and have just the right tang of ammonia. Can Fuckyeahpinkslime.tumblr.com be far behind?
3. Be Defensive (“Coldplay Haters Think They Are Cool”)
The obvious corollary to raising up the previously maligned is to tear down the arrogant: anyone who thinks they’re cooler than you.
In “Economic Theory Plots a Course for Good Food,” Damon Darlin interviews conservative economist Tyler Cowen on how to dine at restaurants. Cowen’s advice: “If something on the menu sounds bad, it might well be especially good. Order the ugly and the unknown….Avoid restaurants with beautiful women, hipsters and smiling and laughing people.” Unfortunately, a borscht belt comedian failed to wander past the interview and make some remark about “stay away from recognizable food and happy, attractive people? Something something something my mother-in-law!“ Instead, the author takes all this seriously, letting us know that we should listen to Cowen because he is “an expert on the economics of culture and the arts.” (We are also told that he “lives in Northern Virginia.”) I haven’t tried out his advice, because I was following a useful maxim of my own: Never trust a “culture expert” who lives in Northern Virginia.
Just as people seek out fun restaurants with good-sounding food, they also try to make their house look cool by decorating it with the latest cool stuff, but this isn’t cool to do. In “How to Tell When You’re Over-Propped,” Steven Kurutz tells about the new trend of home-decor experts rejecting the trend of furnishing your apartment with trendy items. “The self-consciously styled home has become almost commonplace.” In the words of one decorator, “It’s not just rich people now…It’s all of us.” I knew all those unemployed people were up to something, with their so-called “food stamps” and “welfare.” They’re spending it all on neon pink ceramic antlers and repurposed colonial spittons! DAMN YOU, OBAMA!
One design expert argues that over-styling has gotten worse: “Even my grandparents went out and bought the same lamps as their neighbors….The difference was, they weren’t trying to be awesome. They were just trying to get lights in their house…. Can everyone stop trying to be so awesome? Can we just chill out?’” Maybe? I’ve been amassing creative props for so long, I’m not sure I know how to stop being awesome. But I guess I can try to be more lame. I can learn how to do that on your design blog, right?
Indeed, today’s coolness is not truly cool, because it is different from that of our grandparents. In “Generation Sell,” William Deresiewicz, the author of an inane memoir about “How Six Jane Austen Novels Taught Me About Life, Love, and Taking the Scenic Route,” or something, writes an ambivalent paean to contemporary youth’s entrepreneurial spirit. “Ever since I moved three years ago to Portland, Ore., that hotbed of all things hipster, I’ve been trying to get a handle on today’s youth culture.” Well, you better hurry! I’m giving you another three years, and if you don’t have a handle on today’s youth culture by then, I’ll find a different theorist to analyze culture for me!
He explains that today’s young people have a different attitude from those of past decades. For instance “the punks were all about rage, their social program nihilistic anarchy. ‘Get pissed,’ Johnny Rotten sang. ‘Destroy.’” He also quotes “All You Need Is Love,” but inexplicably fails to mention “Rock Around the Clock” and “Frankie Says Relax.” Nevertheless, I’m awed by the depth of his erudition. Wm. Ferguson must have helped with research.
Today’s hipsters are different from Johnny Rotten: They are all starting businesses selling “wallets made from recycled plastic bags,” as well as “boutique pickle companies.” Zing! Good one. The reason for all this activity is that they no longer worry about “selling out.” They are “bland” and don’t are about “rebellion [or] dissent.” As a result, “The small business is the idealized social form of our time.” Starting your own business has certainly never been idealized in America before. Good ol’ America, where everyone dreams of a life of mutual obligation to a feudal overlord. “Take this job and give it to me,” that’s our motto.
“Call it Generation Sell.” I would only call it that if I were creating a pithy slogan to market my latest nonfiction book… hey, wait a minute! You’re pretty entrepreneurial yourself, William Deresiewicz!
“Try to picture Allen Ginsberg having a chat with Don Draper, across the counter at the local coffeehouse, about the latest Lady Gaga video.” Deresiewicz will probably get another book deal. But his fan fiction is terrible.
4. Be Epigrammatic (“Liking Coldplay Is the New Not Liking Coldplay”)
This category is simple: it combines Frank Bruni-esque koans with welll-known cliches to produce a confusing piece of unconventional wisdom.
“Soho is dead. Long live Soho,” proclaims an article that tells how SoHo used to not be cool, then it was, then it wasn’t, but now it is again.
“To be cool is to be invisible,” a boutique review informs us.
“The only people who truly appreciate the fine-tuning it takes to get nerd style right are the fervently hip” is the message of “Glasses Make the Nerd.”
“Why the Old-School Music Snob is the Least Cool Kid on Twitter” suggests that “Elitists… are the new squares.”
And the inventors of the shaved-head trend “acted so bravely to make an odd look so mysteriously hip” (“Making the Most of Nothing“).
The writers seem inordinately pleased with these formulations. But I think anyone could make their own. Here, try it:
In the land of the ___________, the _________ ___________ is king.
. (Apple product) (undesirable trait) (indie comedian)
__________ _________ly, and __________ a big __________
(type of exercise) (adverb) (verb) (exotic food item)
All the _______’s a ________, and the __________ and __________ merely __________.
(social media site) (Neighborhood in NY) (cultural subgroup) (type of artisan) (noun)
A __________, a __________, a __________: __________!
(designer label) (celebrity) (retro cocktail) (band name)
Finally, if all else fails…
5. Be Rich and Famous (“No One Cares if a Famous Person Likes Coldplay!”)
It’s cool if a wealthy celebrity has obscure quirks. On the other hand, it’s mind-blowingly hip for them to be ordinary. If a celebrity is regular and normal in some ways, but odd in others, that shows the depth of their personality. These people are just fascinating!
For instance, Jason Lee “listens to jazz (on vinyl), takes photographs with film, prefers to play old guitars and writes on a Smith Corona typewriter.” Jessica Chastain owns “three custom-made hats from a Parisian atelier” and professes to “like a quirky, old-fashioned look.” Priscilla Chan‘s Facebook “’interests’ include ‘No on Prop 8′ and Fage yogurt.” Tori Burch‘s “teeth [are] white and even,” yet surprisingly, “the wood floor of the kitchen at her enormous (9,000 square feet) yet inviting apartment at the Pierre is painted an unexpected Tiffany blue.”
The founders of Fat Radish have set New York’s exclusive social circles ablaze with their combination of acting like rich people and having individual personality traits. “Without really trying, they have become representatives for a manly breed of stylish locavores…who wear designer jeans, spend weekends with organic farmers and hop between art fairs and fashion weeks.” “Their vibe is a bit posh but also Eton boys gone rogue,” and one of them even “resembles an aristocratic polo player slumming in bluejeans.”
Maybe for now. But when you reach the top of your profession, you don’t need to bother with blue jeans and all that normal-person crap. Just look at Jack White, “the coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time.” White “boasts a studio with secret passageways, trompe l’oeil floors, the mounted heads of various exotic ungulates…. African masks and shrunken heads from New Guinea; antique phone booths and vintage Victrolas…a cream-colored 1960 Ford Thunderbird,” and “his head carpenter, a Texan named Cowboy.”
You might argue that he isn’t that special: Anyone could buy lots of weird stuff if they had as much money as Jack White. True. But at least he’s better than Coldplay.