Stay Uncool for a Better Life

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Oct. 9 2013 11:51 PM

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Uncool

In defense of escaping the herd.

Steven Quincy Urkel
Embrace the uncool.

Fotos International

“I was never cool in school,” Darren Jessee sang on Ben Folds Five’s “Underground,” a 1995 song that satirized prep years and mohawked scenesters with double-edged glee. Two years later, the band had a breakthrough hit with “Brick,” a frank, moving song about abortion. They couldn’t have been cooler—until Folds went solo, and the jokes suddenly seemed less sharp, the ballads overly sincere. In a word: backlash. This is the eternal story of cool, an ever-shifting, ineffable quality attained thanks to the whims of a cultural moment or transitory peer group. It can apply as easily to the outcasts of Freaks and Geeks as to the indulgent in-crowd of The Hills. While coolness can be the product of one person, its recognition and consumption is always a group effort.

And as a savvy observer from a long time ago put it: It’s a trap!

But there’s a way out: Embrace the uncool. It’s a far scarier route, of course. But it’s a way of being that allows you to be true to yourself rather than succumbing to whatever peer-reviewed focus group you’d otherwise subscribe to. It’s a mindset, not a set of wrong choices. Being uncool doesn’t simply mean liking what everyone else scorns; liking things ironically, after all, is still kind of cool, and finding treasure in a majority’s trash aligns you with the proud contrarians anyway. The alternative is throwing aside the narrow guidelines and hierarchy of consensus and conformity and appreciating things for being awesome to you. Maybe it’s The Godfather, maybe it’s The Room; being uncool means understanding it can be both for completely different reasons. It means embracing the sincerest distillation of yourself and your taste. Oprah calls it “living your truth.” Oprah gets it. 

Advertisement

Cool is a sword to live and die by, a binary system that pits you against others. It requires not only love, but hate: a rejection of the mainstream. Or the alternative. Whatever. Take the social media fan armies at war over Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, unleashing death threats and tween rage on nonbelievers with terrifying fervor. Earlier this year, Lady Gaga, who runs a foundation centered against bullying, stepped in and wrote a blog post telling her Little Monsters such threats were “wrong and upsetting.” Among cultivators of elitist, outsider cool, threats are replaced with cold exclusion: Cool isn’t for everybody. Status is often for the obsessive, like the malevolent nerds who use their passions as a crutch to swing at “fake geek girls.” Gene Roddenberry didn’t create Star Trek for you to be a dick about it.

Twitter, in particular, is a minefield of cool. Is Haim the next big thing (six months ago: yes) or overrated hype (this week: yes)? Your followers are expecting the right answers. The pursuit of cool winds up an exhausting chase for a quick high, with trendsetters and tastemakers forced to jump from one drug to the next. A new artist—like this fall’s 16-year-old singer Lorde—can be an alternative darling one moment and a Hot 100 chart-topper the next. The demand for a new fix is constant, and growing. As Jessica Hopper wrote in her BuzzFeed piece on hipsters and black metal, indie kids seek out difficult genres as fresh scenes to gentrify, and all kinds of small, recent rebellions—cassettes, urban chickens, artisanal coffee, seapunk—represent a push to extremes. What comes next? An authentic Limp Bizkit revival? Hand-sewn Revolutionary War hats for fall/winter 2013? It’s time for an intervention.

Because the conscious pursuit of cool is a sacrifice: to win the approval of the elite or mainstream alike means the loss of autonomy, the exchange of one establishment for another. This kind of coolness is less an act than a reaction, the satisfying friction of opposition—without realizing the constant churn is merely capitalism at work. Cool is more of a dead end than ever: The same Internet that provides the shovels to dig so deeply through pop culture allows for coolness’ immediate mainstream co-option. Seapunk never recovered from Rihanna bringing its imagery to national television on Saturday Night Live, while the #menswear trends seemingly kicked off by Tumblr-savvy street photographers are already on J. Crew shelves. The list goes on. Again, that’s not to equate cool with inherent value: just with social currency. And in the case of chasing fashion trends or status-symbol smartphones, actual currency, too. Coolness, after all, is a club that always charges a cover.

Shut out the roar of outside influence and you might be surprised at what you love. For my college newspaper, I wrote often and foolishly about “shallow music” and championed the hipster underground; less than a decade removed, I’ve spent 2013 extolling Ciara’s “Body Party,” an R&B bedroom romp released on Epic Records. It’s a hot track! It co-exists on my running 2013 favorites playlist with songs by latter-day emo icons Paramore, indie survivors Yo La Tengo, and Kacey Musgraves, a country singer who has ridden humor and taboo topics to acclaim. Her funniest, truest song is called “Follow Your Arrow.” “Damned if you do and you're damned if you don't,” she sings, “so you might as well just do whatever you want.” Musgraves gets it, too.  

I’m not making the case for omnivore appetites—liking everything is as tiresome and limiting as only liking trendy, preapproved things—but instead for curiosity and the confidence to trust your own open mind. Imagine not reading album reviews. Imagine going to movies because you liked the trailer. Hell, even listening to the radio instead of your own carefully curated playlist or enjoying meals at chain restaurants. Perhaps this is already your life (hi, Dad)—then you know how blissful and freeing it can be. Perhaps living your truth really does mean growing a beard, taking up mandolin, and drinking Cascadian dark ales. Maybe it means cosplaying Vraska the Unseen at Comic-Con before going home to watch The Bachelor. You might even go to an indie rock show and not humblebrag about how you liked their older stuff better, because you don’t. We can contain multitudes.

Don’t worry about being defined: the first rule of being is uncool is being the only person who understands how cool you are. Will people make fun of you on Twitter for listening to Paramore? Sure. But don’t forget: They’re the ones following you.

David Greenwald is the Oregonian’s music critic and the founder of Rawkblog.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.