Why Do We Judge Other People for Being Uncool?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 23 2014 9:31 AM

The Easiest Thing to Forget

Why we judge other people for being uncool.

(Continued from Page 1)

I didn't ask these questions the first time I read the book because I got so involved in Wilson's parsing of the “signifiers,” “referents,” and “touchstones” that make up the horrible baroque language of modern criticism, a layering upon layering of poses, assumptions, interpretations, and second-guesses trip-wired to catch the uncool. The importance of cool in this culture is something that Wilson spends a great deal of time on and is depressingly convincing about. What he’s describing is a world of illusory shared experiences, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or “crazy”; a world in which authenticity is jealously held sacrosanct and yet is often unwelcome or simply unrecognizable when it appears.

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Wilson eventually seeks out and gets to know some Céline Dion fans, one of whom is Sophoan, a young Christian Cambodian-American who spent his first five years in a refugee camp on the border of Cambodia and Thailand. Wilson maintains his equilibrium as Sophoan describes his love for Céline Dion but loses it when Sophoan reveals that, as a toddler interned in a camp with a dirt floor, he really loved Phil Collins, especially the song “Groovy Kind of Love”: “What on earth,” muses Wilson, “does [Collins'] goopiest tune ... sound like to a displaced Cambodian five-year-old? (I suppose not knowing the word ‘groovy’ would help.)”

I think the parenthetical is meant to be funny, but still I almost answered out loud: Gentle, Carl. To any toddler the song would sound comforting and gentle. To a toddler surrounded by anxiety, fear, sadness, and loss, that sound would be especially nurturing, especially the sound “groovy,” with its delicious “ooo” and fun “eee.” (These same sounds are also nurturing to adults forced to live with chronic fear, sadness, and loss, which is probably why Dion and singers like her are, according to Wilson, popular in Iraq and Afghanistan.) At this point in the book, I had come to like and admire Wilson for his empathic and imaginative willingness to pick his way through the dark maze of signifiers and referents in order to see past his own received ideas. Still, I wanted to say, “Good grief, man, music is about sound; that social-meaning shit is ... basically shit. Fun, interesting shit maybe, but ... ”

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Speaking of sound, either midbook or on finishing, I finally listened to Céline Dion on YouTube. I heard three songs, including the Titanic one, and I realized why she'd never registered for me. I thought her voice was pretty, even beautiful at moments, but her overall sound made little impression; I'd probably heard her and forgotten it. Her appearance on Larry King, however, did make an impression; it struck me as absolutely sincere and sane. That thousands would actually spend time watching this interview so they could jeer at it, jeering especially that Dion (a singer!) had the nerve to sing a song after her speech, seemed not merely cynical but neurotically detached from reality: Dion's response wasn't only moral, it showed a sort of biologically based empathy that understands the physical vulnerability of humans in the world. Newsflash: Real humans are connected with one another whether they like it or not. They are awkward and dumb and wave their arms around if they get upset enough; real humans all have personal touchstones that are “off the map” because there is no map. We are so maplessly, ridiculously uncool that whole cultures and subcultures, whole personalities even, have been built to hide our ridiculousness from ourselves. These structures are sometimes very elegant and a lot of fun, and fun to talk about, too. But our ridiculous vulnerability is perhaps the most authentic thing about us, and we scorn it at our peril—yet scorn it we do.

At the end of Let's Talk About Love, Wilson concludes that Céline Dion will remain “securely uncool” and that this gives him “the heart to go on.” In other words, he's realized that someone he had despised for reasons having nothing to do with her is just a person making art that he can like or dislike, but that his likes or dislikes don't reflect on the fundamental quality of her humanity or his, a quality that independently exists and will “go on” outside of any systematized set of social/artistic judgments.

It seems the most obvious thing in the world. But in the middle of writing this reaction to Carl Wilson's reaction to Céline Dion, something funny happened: I went to see a reading by a writer who had been described to me as great, and I not only failed to find him great, I found him bad, obnoxiously bad, bad to the point that I was a-boil in my chair as I listened to him hold forth. When he was done I turned to the person next to me and said, “What a fucking idiot.” That night I called someone and expanded on that thought, using words like buffoon, jerkoff, and conceited pig. I don't know how long I went on about it, but it was much longer than seconds. It wasn't until I hung up and was pacing around mumbling that I heard my own words in my head: Bitch, excuse me?

This seems to me the real substance of Wilson's book and why it is more than an intelligent discourse on a small, specialized segment of society: The most obvious thing in the world is the easiest thing to forget, especially regarding any subject that you care about, especially when that subject is an art form full of costumed personalities making their most private experiences into publicly projected stories, where real and unreal are fantastically or oafishly mixed. In this nonstop torrent of personae—audience and performers both—Wilson has slowly and patiently found and come to respect one human soul, regardless of his cherished “likes”; it's a beautiful reminder to see someone do that, in any context.

Mary Gaitskill is the author of five books, most recently the story collection Don’t Cry.

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