The “Coolness” Curse

There are few things I really dislike. There are plenty of things I could do without: summer heat leaps to mind. But things that really get under my skin, there are probably under five that I encounter regularly. One of those things that I regularly find myself recoiling from is “coolness.”

Pay attention the the scare quotes, I mean them. I’m not against things that are cool; cool things are some of the best things there are. I’m against people trying to be “cool.” Where cool is innovative or new or awesome or obsessive, “cool” is disinterested and better than and status-obsessed and constantly on guard.

I spent a number of years striving for “coolness.” Middle school is where most people learn it, and they primarily do so as a defense mechanism. Nothing marks you as a pariah in middle school quite so much as caring about your grades, or your lessons, or your teachers, or, really, anything at all. The obviously eccentric is the first thing ostracized.

There are things that “cool” people profess to like, but they usually fit into a narrow range a pre-sanctioned topics and choices within those. When I was in school it was a reasonably safe thing to profess to like “any music but country” but if you liked a band that had recently “sold out,” you had a problem. “Coolness” is replete with such idiocies.

My specific example of “coolness” is certainly specific to my milieu and experiences in a mostly white, solidly middle class, uniformly suburban town in the middle of the United States. But I have little doubt that while the specific of “coolness” vary widely, it’s a plague that exists under some name nearly everywhere.

My primary problem with “coolness” is its affectation, its demand for looking askance at anything other than the ten things that excite us right now. While it’s totally cool for hipsters to be into a band you’ve probably never heard of, let them cop to liking Beyoncé and their “coolness” in the eyes of fellow hipsters melts away. This engenders a perverse narrowness of interest and curiosity that I find utterly grating. People aspiring to “coolness” are unable to like anything until a contingent of equally “cool” people sanction it. Until sanctioned, interests are always presented in a frame of “have you heard of  [rendered judgment upon] this thing?”

“Coolness” has a great deal in common with cynicism, of which Oscar Wilde famously quipped, it “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” “Coolness,” alternately, values everything only by its price on the special market of a clique’s taste. “Coolness” thus asserts knowledge that it neither possesses nor desires. It insists, at 13, that it is aware of the entire oeuvre of country music and has judged it all utterly contemptible. The fact that it could, at 23, come to have great respect for the genre is unfathomable.

“Coolness” rolls its eyes. “Coolness” tells you how much everything sucks. How “lame” and “played out” and “boring” everything is that its not sure it can safely like. “Coolness” fails to meet new situation in a healthy way because it asserts so much certainty about its preferences. For fear of being “uncool” its disposition toward  everything unknown is to approach with extreme caution and an eye roll at the ready. This is an incredibly negative way to move through the world.

There’s a reason so many MeFites, answering a question about what they’ve enjoyed more as they got older, make mention of the satisfaction they found upon getting over their “coolness” obsession. To choose just one person making my point perfectly: “Embracing the things that interest me, rather than dismissing something because it’s ‘uncool’. I cut myself off from far too many things because of that stupid attitude.”

Genuine and positive interaction with the world can easily look “uncool” and “nerdy.” It must be open to the possibility that everything it encounters can be awesome. It must be ready to see what’s good about things everyone else is trashing. It requires a sense of wonder, a willingness to just stand back from the world and say, “WOW!”

To blow with the breeze of public opinion is to neuter the only sense of taste that matters for you: your own.  There’s nothing more stultifying to your development as a complete and satisfied human being than caring intensely what others think of you. “Coolness” consists, primarily in an affectatious indifference to the opinions of others. True coolness begins from a place of indifference about the opinions of the “cool.”