What is Coolness?
By Greg Scorzo –
Coolness: What Musicians (and Audrey from Twin Peaks) Taught Me
Coolness is difficult to explain. One of the reasons for this is we all have our own version of what cool is. For some people, coolness is about not being bothered; being unfazed by all the things that create stress for everybody else. For others, coolness is about being brooding and mysterious, a hybrid of James Dean and Edgar Allan Poe. And still for others, coolness is about pleasing the sort of person who gets angry if you don’t call them “they.”
For me, this has never been what coolness is about. Coolness has always been tied to rebellion. Or more specifically, the appearance of effortless rebellion, chanelled through creative and spontaneous re-inventions. Cooless is like the magic of wizards, expressed in mesmeric acts of the social realm. Coolness always creates a raised eyebrow, a gasp, or a silent “wow.” It’s also always kinda strange (even when it isn’t).
Coolness is never just about being efficient. It’s not even just about being good at something.
Loads of people design useful things. Loads of people display courage. Loads of people make well composed art. But when people are cool, they turn these acts into dazzling feats of wonder; feats that shine a torch into some truth most people would prefer to hide (or maybe just ignore).
There’s also something kind of adolescent about coolness; it’s full of bravado. It’s a bit arrogant. It’s often offensive and inconsiderate, at the same time. But even when it is those things, it makes you cheer. A cool person is rarely safe, and because of that, rarely not sexy. It’s rare that they can be what they are, without being just a little bit dangerous.
Yet even when a cool person is unexpectedly safe and wholesome, they still rely on the joy of disruption; of overturning expectations, of creating mischief, of always seeming more interesting and complicated than even an audience of well regarded, highly respected members of the establishment. Here’s what that looks like:
The Uncoolness of Being Completely Good
Coolness often has a weird indifference to morality. For instance, it’s not morally worthy to skip class or smoke cigarrettes in the school bathroom. It’s not morally worthy to disrupt a police investigation or convince your friend to help you do things which could put her in prison. It’s not morally worthy to try and seduce a 35 year old FBI agent, when you’re still a high school senior. Especially since doing so would involve breaking the law, destroying his career, undermining justice, and getting involved in situations where you could become a murder victim. Yet to my ten year old self watching Twin Peaks, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) made all of that look VERY VERY COOL. In fact, it still seems cool now (not that I approve of any of it).
But why is she so cool?
It’s because she’s not a normal person; she’s a very odd (I daresay Lynchian) re-invention of something that should be annoying: the bratty teenager. But here’s the rub: she doesn’t look or sound like one. She looks like an impeccably dressed, 25 year old style icon. She has the walk of a movie star, the confidence of a steely-eyed CEO, and a controlled poise in her movements that’s miles away from an actual teenager.
Audrey talks to her friends like a parent talking to a lazy child. She’s pushy, like a grown up is pushy. And even when Audrey describes the excitement she feels over the naughtiness of what she’s doing, she still doesn’t sound like a kid.
Even though you KNOW she’s a bratty teenager, you experience Audrey as a beautiful woman with a playful confidence that’s astonishing; she seems to have so much giddy fun being rebellious and daring. You can’t help but wish you were like that. Yet this wish is a product of cinematic illusions. Audrey’s just a high school senior who, much of the time, behaves like a sociopath. She’s nothing more than a rich kid with impulse control problems and too much ego; someone like a kid you’ve probably seen before and thought was a problem.
But you don’t experience Audrey like this because she’s a realised fantasy; the bratty teen whose so cool, she might as well be Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Her coolness, interestingly, shouldn’t officially affect you. Morally speaking, you should think of Audrey the way you think of any hubris addled kid, stumbling into massive amounts of completely avoidable trouble. But Audrey’s raison d’etre is to make you feel the wrong way; to get you to instinctively appreciate the glamorous movie star inside every know-it-all teen who does dangerous and dumb things.
She’s a paradox. When watching her, the moral part of you should be thinking, “Oh, that’s terrible! My God, what is she doing? This kid needs help! Someone needs to stop her before it’s too late!”
But that’s not what you’re thinking. I won’t presume to know exactly what you’re thinking, but I will say this: It’s definitely not what you should be thinking. She’s too cool for that.
Her coolness, however, illuminates something about the human condition: There’s a little bit of Audrey in all of us; a tiny bit of bratty, brash, and over confident mischief maker. It’s easy to suppress that side of ourselves, until it becomes obvious we don’t get much joy in life without learning to be at peace with it. Accepting your inner Audrey gives you something like an equilibrium; a midpoint between adolescent immaturity and the kind of do-gooder, grown up life that’s utterly soul crushing.
Because we’re all human, we need this midpoint in order to have healthy relationships with other humans.
People who are nothing like Audrey, we should remember, tend to be our friends; not our lovers. If you want a love that’s both carnal and romantic, a love that’s like the love most people actually crave, you have to be a little bit like Audrey. You don’t have to look like her, of course. You don’t even have to be female. But you have to be sexy; not just kind or loyal or truthworthy or hard working. You have to be cool. You have to be something other than a very nice person; something other than just a good friend who would never break the rules.
As a child, the first examples of coolness I saw came from television. And most of the cool things I saw on television came from musicians. My first memory of “cool” was watching Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean video. Like my experience of watching Audrey Horne, I had the distinct feeling of taking in someone very strange; someone very much NOT LIKE everyone else.
Although I didn’t understand it at the time, Michael was abnormal because he was stridently NOT being a normal pop-star. He wasn’t looking into the camera and smiling. He was dancing, but he wasn’t dancing the way popstars typically did. He wasn’t bouncing up and down, microphone in hand. He was odd. He was a man who didn’t have a deep voice, like a man should. He was more like a tall boy than a man. But he wasn’t a boy.
He also wasn’t a soul singer. He wasn’t quite R and B. He wasn’t even really New Wave. But he was unlike anything I had ever seen. Before my childhood eyes, Michael re-invented what it meant to sing a song in a video. The music video was the format by which he made pop seem suddenly mysterious; like his job was to be some kind of singing, dancing, spinning, and disappearing magician who lived to fuck with your head. Although Michael wasn’t smiling in Billy Jean, he seemed like he was having an incredible amount of fun taunting a private investigator. But it wasn’t quite clear just what he was doing. Everything was incredibly cryptic, including how you should feel about Michael.
Like Audrey, there’s never any explicit reason in Billy Jean to root for Michael. It’s not clear he’s the good guy. Michael could have committed a terrible crime. In fact, he looks like he could have killed someone. The private investigator could be the character we should actually be rooting for. But because Michael’s coolness is the subject matter of Billy Jean, the morality of the story is irrelevant. Michael’s creativity and mischief is literally the point of the story. It’s not the means by which the story is told.
There’s also a not so subtle, erotic element in Michael’s character. The billboard changes when the pretty models look at Michael. Michael becomes invisible when entering a woman’s bed. But because this eroticism is so subtle, it just adds another layer to Michael’s overrall coolness. It’s like he’s deliberately holding back from being explicitly sexy, because that would just be way too easy; too much like what other pop stars do.
Here, you can really see how Michael’s coolness operates. It’s a theatrical message he conveys with everything he does, a message that screams:
I AM NOT NORMAL. I AM NOT LIKE ANYTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN BEFORE.
The way Michael turns this message into reality is by transforming the very medium his job is to present himself with. In executing this transformation, he doesn’t merely point an arrow at himself. He doesn’t do a “look how weird I am!” pose where some highly calculated eccentricity substitutes for the magic and mystery of art. Instead, Michael re-invents the pop video by making it seem like something else; something extremely confident at being exactly what it is, whatever it is.
One of its greatest assets, the thing that makes Billy Jean utterly timeless, is you can’t really know its story or characters. It’s not clear what any of it’s about, apart from being a platform for Michael to dazzle you. This aids the dazzling, as much as Michael himself.
The second music video I saw which did something like Billy Jean was Laurie Anderson’s O Superman. O Superman was extremely different to Billy Jean, but it shared (and in some ways exceeded) Billy Jean’s re-invention of it’s mode of presentation. O Superman was cool because, in a more radical way, Laurie Anderson challenged the idea of how a pop video should feel. But she avoided the post-modern wankery common among artists who try to deconstruct something. Laurie Anderson did something more profound. Like many music stars of her day, she wore a shiny black jacket, and made a music video singing a catchy, cheeky synth ballad. What she did that her contemporaries did not do, was make you go, “What the fuck is this?”
O Superman was definitely 80s pop at it’s finest, but with one big difference: it was otherworldly. To my child self, this made it kind of disturbing; like a very dark, ethereal, impossible to understand advert for deaf children. But I couldn’t turn away (and was very happy I could hear the music). It was like watching a moving painting, even though the point of the video was still the song.
O Superman felt important to watch, as if, in viewing it carefully, you could gain some insight into the nature of the universe. There was even something strangely religious about it. It played like a puzzling church sermon, delivered earnestly by a priestess using English to speak a language from another galaxy.
But she wasn’t really a priestess. Laurie Anderson was the first adult on my television screen who seemed to take an interest in expanding my little mind. I didn’t really understand how she was trying to do that, or in what direction. If I’m honest, I still don’t know.
I just know that as a kid, growing up in suburbia, there’s nothing cooler than watching an adult who gently alerts you to the joys of not understanding things; especially when grown ups are always trying to reassure you that the world is safe and simple (if you follow the rules).
There’s nothing that breaks rules quite like the human imagination. When you grow up, the world doesn’t try so hard to aggressively shield you from it. For me, that’s one of the coolest things about being an adult. There are many laws telling me what I can and can’t do. But for the most part, my mind is allowed to be free. In this way, being a grown up is like realising a childhood fantasy; to be the sort of person who merely annoys (rather than frightens) others when you think freely. To me, that’s largely what adult conversation is about. Adult conversation, especially sexual conversation, is mostly discussing possibilities; things you would never actually do. Your darker thoughts don’t predict what you want.
That’s why being an adult is less about being free to do, than being free to dream.
The World Outside of Television
Despite its lack of freedom, I wouldn’t describe my childhood as a sad one. I would describe it as a childhood that did for me what it needed to do. I didn’t particularly enjoy most of it. Nor would I want future generations of children to have to go through the more painful things I did. On the other hand, people who had perfect childhoods are people I normally can’t stand. If your childhood was the happiest time of your life, it probably wasn’t all that good for you.
This is because childhood is the time in your life where you’re supposed to learn three things:
- How to Control Yourself
- How Fucked up Adults can Be and
- How to Love (some of) Them Anyway
When you’re an adult and you’ve learned these things, you then learn how to effectively take risks, play, and have fun; that is, if your politics don’t get in the way. If you’re lucky, you can share your fun and play with other people. But when you’re a kid, you normally can’t do this. You normally live around people who control you and are the antithesis of anything resembling what you come to find cool. Hence, childhood also becomes the time, more than any other in life, where you learn to identify your lexicon of cool. You do this, mostly by being saturated with things that are unbearably uncool.
This is why, in a bizarre way, I don’t think I learned my coolness lexicon from my parents. They weren’t uncool enough to give me that. I learned my coolness lexicon from the wider environment I grew up in. I learned it from the adults in my neighborhood, who turned out to be the ideal instructors. My neighbourhood was so relentlessly uncool that it didn’t merely give me a razor sharp instinct for identifying what I find cool: It made me fall head-over-heels in love with coolness. That’s why, although I’m sometimes tempted to, I can’t describe my childhood as a miserable injustice. Despite it’s pain, I can’t help but think of it as a great gift.
I grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, during the 80s and 90s. My parents were musicians. That meant as I grew up, I discovered there were many cool things in our house that the other kids on my street did not have. There were cool records and books and video cassettes that most of my peers had never seen and had no interest in seeing. There were also cool adults walking in and out of our home; mostly fellow musicians and friends of Mom and Dad. These people normally delighted me. I envied them for not being kids. And even more than that, I envied them for not having to raise families in suburbs like mine.
Most of the adults who lived in our neighbourhood just oozed a petty and intense disdain for other people who were different to them. For them, getting up early in the morning and working all day at a job you couldn’t stand made you a good person. There was something suspicious about you if you looked like someone who was willing to earn less money, in exchange for a career doing what you love.
My neighbours didn’t particularly like anyone who was weird or creative. They really didn’t like musicians. And those were the nicer neighbours. The not so nice ones were hostile to the point of being vaguely threatening.
In our neighborhood, it was seen as a sign of consideration to do whatever you could to make sure everyone’s property value stayed as high as possible. That meant you had to make sure your house was always immaculately groomed, with no backyard messes or unwatered lawns or overgrown bushes. It was very hot on most days, so that meant you were expected to sweat a lot. You were expected to potter around your front lawn during many afternoons that were so hot, going for a walk felt like slowly being burned alive. If you were frequently busy doing things in your air-conditioned house, the neighbours did not like you. Perhaps that’s being too polite: it would be more accurate to say they thought you were the lowest of the low. Because of your lazy and selfish lifestyle, their house prices could be going down.
If your grass was ever long or one of your trees had too many branches, the neighbours would stare you down with a primal hatred. If you had visible weeds, you might as well have been a sex offender. That’s how the neighbour to our left (let’s call him Ben) would treat my parents. Ben was a World War 2 veteran and retired fireman who viewed my parents with a surprisingly open contempt. He’d often knock on our door and say in an aggressive tone, “Hey neighbour! I gotta bone to pick whichu!” It was normally because Dad was busy writing music, instead of spending his 100 degree afternoon with a heavy chainsaw trimming wood and greenery. From what I remember, our lawn and trees were never all that unwieldy. They just weren’t perfect. There were some days, especially in the summer, when our house didn’t look like a designer home.
Our neighbour to the right was a guy (let’s call him Joe) who was constantly watering his lawn. Joe would water his lawn for up to eight hours a day, with a very disappointed look on his face. Sometimes he watered his lawn well into the wee hours of the morning. I never knew what Joe did for a living, given how much time he spent on the grass. But one thing I was sure of was he did not like me or my family. I’d walk out of my house every morning on my way to school, yelling “Hi Joe!” with a big smile. Rather than say hi back, he’d look down at the grass and shake his head. He wasn’t all bad though. Once a couch in our backyard caught fire and Joe was there to quickly help us hose it down before the firemen came. Joe always wore white tennis shoes, a pink tank top, and white shorts. He said very little. There was a rumour he sold expensive gold watches to Columbians through his computer. This was before the internet.
Across the street lived another World War 2 veteran (let’s call him John). John was very popular with the kids on our street. His lawn hygiene was faultless. On his freshly cut grass was a brown spinning wheel, next to a set of plastic pink flamingos. There was a sign below the wheel which read, “Rancho Not So Grande.” John didn’t like Mexicans. He collected guns. He’d often show us the bullet holes in his arms. Then he’d tell us he got shot so that we wouldn’t ever have to learn Japanese. He was less proud of defeating Fascism than keeping Japanese language and culture out of our little city. Some of the parents heard his racist comments, but they never seemed to mind. He never said anything racist against black people.
At school, we had many assemblies where we had to watch videos about why it was very very very bad to be racist towards blacks. This always felt ironic, as there were rarely, if ever, any black kids to be racist towards. There were plenty of Mexican kids, and being racist against us was just fine.
Most of my teachers were unusually pretty white ladies in their 20s and 30s. Occasionally, you would get a nice one, but this was generally not the norm. Most of them were like tall, barbie doll drill instructors who, by some strange coincidence, really loved the movie Dirty Dancing. They were also all Republicans. And many of them were “Good Christians” who thought the US should be at war more often.
There was no debate allowed in their classrooms. Once you stepped inside, you had to behave (and sometimes write) as though you agreed with whatever they thought.
My teachers assigned us incredibly stressful amounts of work, and did not like being addressed in a friendly or informal manner. They really hated it if you asked them disrespectful questions; questions like “How are you?” But if they liked you, they’d eventually show you in little ways. They’d flirt with your dad at Open House. And the next day, the teacher would mention (in front of the class) what a handsome man he was. My teachers never flirted with my dad. The dad’s they flirted with normally had mullets.
Despite their aggressive ways of communicating with us, my teachers would eventually develop friendly relationships with most of the kids I hated; the kids who were either very popular or the ones who were straight up bullies. It was the eccentric and creative kids these women had a special venom for. They would yell and scream and kick over your desk if they caught you reading the wrong book. Books that teachers today would applaud kids for reading were the books we got punished for placing on our desk tops. It was seen as an act of defiance to read a book not written specifically for children.
My teachers were the opposite of the musicians that drifted in and out of our house. With musicians, their eyes would light up if I told them I loved David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. They’d say, “Wow, that’s great!” if I mentioned I wanted to be a film-director when I grew up. I couldn’t mention any of this at school, because then I’d be prodded by teachers to say what kind of films I liked. It was better to say nothing at all.
Nothing angered teachers more than saying you liked strange music. Especially music from the 60s. I remember making the mistake of telling a teacher that I liked Tomorrow Never Knows, a song from the 1966 album Revolver by the Beatles. I remember her quick and loud response:
“DO YOU LIKE DRUGS?!!!!
I said, “No, no, of course not. I just think the music is really interesting and cool and …”
She interrupted me to scream: “YOU DON’T LIKE THE BEATLES!! YOU DON’T LIKE PSYCHEDELIC MUSIC!! YOU’RE BETTER THAN THAT!!”
I said, “You’re right. I don’t like it.” And then shut up.
Before that day, I really liked Revolver. After being harassed for it like that, I LOVED IT. In a strange way, I feel like I should thank her for this experience. With her bitchy and aggressive intolerance, she made Revolver seem cooler than anything; an album over 20 years old that could still scare the shit out of pretty blonde ladies who liked to scare the shit out of children.
It felt as if liking Revolver, for all intents and purposes, violated my job description as a child. My job was to be completely obedient and cute when necessary. Then I was supposed to play with other kids and leave the adults alone. I always failed as a child because I couldn’t make friends with other children. I found it hard to have conversations with them. I found it easier to have conversations with friends of my parents. They always seemed way more interesting than either the kids at school or the teachers. The kids didn’t know who the Beatles were and my teachers spoke about them like they were a glue sniffing habit.
I did not like this.
What I liked even less was my teachers were constantly lying to me. We always had an hour a day where a teacher asked us to produce a piece of “creative writing.” If I ever did what the teacher asked, I mostly got screamed at until I was in tears. I started out writing stories that involved death or things that were slightly surreal. I learned very quickly this was not a good idea. The safer option was to churn out little pieces about how I respected my parents and enjoyed cleaning my room. Unlike most of the kids I went to school with, I actually did respect my parents. They were my only friends. And they were never all that bothered about how much I cleaned my room. They got more excited by things I wrote (at home).
To most of the adults in our neighborhood, the attitude of my parents was probably something on par with child abuse. Nothing was more disgusting than allowing a kid like me to show signs of future bohemianism.
My neighbours and teachers could forgive kids who stole something, bullied other kids, or lit something on fire. But hell hath no fury if you liked Tomorrow Never Knows or watched Twin Peaks. Being disobedient was far less threatening than showing any signs of eccentricity, creativity, or independent thinking.
Looking back, I can see how this had a huge impact on me. My neighbours and teachers terrified me; while they themselves were terrified of nearly everything I found exciting, everything they loved I found boring and stupid. And there was no one they hated more than the people I find easiest to love. Hence, my neighbours and teachers were like a giant arrow, pointing me towards everything that would become a big part of my future. Whatever they seemed to hate, I passionately loved and daydreamed about.
Still, I sometimes wonder if they didn’t find it so easy to passionately love themselves. Their behaviours sometimes suggested this.
Teachers who bullied certain kids would often ask those same kids to read aloud little assembly speeches, praising that teacher. No teacher ever asked a student who liked them to recite a speech like that. They would always ask a kid whose life they made a living hell. At the end of the year, even the cruelest teacher would always do a sappy speech about how she loved us like her own children, how we had all become a family, and how we should stay in touch as grown ups. During the last hour of the last school day, we were normally forced to give said teacher an inappropriately long and tight hug. She would always be in tears.
To this day, I find all of this very confusing. Maybe this ritual was a way of apologizing for the torments of the previous 9 months. Maybe it was a display of guilt, accompanied by an attempt at something like atonement. But the message never came across that way to me. The message I got from this behaviour was:
“Normal adults show their love for children by hurting and humiliating them. And they think us kids should be grateful for that, because we’re learning valuable skills that will help us someday hurt our own children.”
One of the big past-times among the families in my neighborhood was watching sitcoms together. And no, not critically acclaimed sitcoms like Frazier or Cheers or Seinfeld. My parents watched those. My neighbours liked the sitcoms that weren’t funny, but which had a different purpose: to reassure them that they were good people.
I would sometimes watch these shows, in horrid fascination. They would typically start out with an opening credit sequence where some wholesome, happy, and attractive family would smile into the camera. You’d hear a cheesy song in the background, usually sung by an unknown singer with a raspy voice. The song would always be about how this handsome and witty family was just like you. The whole sequence seemed incredibly defensive, designed to reasure you that you weren’t really a boring, petty, and mean-spirited nobody raising kids destined to be office bullies or gas station attendants.
We didn’t have reality TV then, but we had something close to that; America’s Funniest Home Videos. This was a show that would broadcast “funny” home video recordings enthusiastic viewers had sent in. The opening song to this show was again defensive, designed to re-assure you that you were funny enough to be on television. Again, another raspy singer sung lyrics to reassure you that you weren’t humourless, unstylish, or someone unworthy of celebrity.
I had a sense, taking in all this media, that people in suburbs like mine were very insecure. In fact, they needed constant reassurance that they were nice, decent, responsible, and charming parents of lovely and good looking children; that their churches were moral, that their houses were clean, and their faces were popular and pretty, because they deserved all of that, really. They were living the good life.
To my young self, this vision of the good life was nightmarish.
I couldn’t think of anything more disturbing than becoming an adult and raising a family in some suburb like the one I grew up in. On the other hand, I didn’t think there was really any choice. I thought family-hood happened to everyone, whether they liked it or not. It was a bit like being raped. Your consent didn’t matter all that much. It was just too hard to say no.
I thought there was no way you could afford to live, or be given the privilige of love, unless you caved in and joined the suburbs to raise children. You might be a creative person living with your creative children in those suburbs; but it seemed inevitable that you would be punished for your creativity, or at least your lack of interest in persistent lawn watering and hedge cutting. And that punishment would be mild, compared to what happened to your kids when they went to school.
I didn’t think it was possible to escape that. I didn’t think it was possible be a creative person, living in cool cities, making edgy art, and having lots of friends from all over the world. I didn’t think adults actually did creative things, without also living with, and raising families. That is, until I saw this:
I saw this documentary at my grandmother’s house in 1991 at one in the morning. I saw it completely by accident. I was flipping through channels, after having watched re-runs of old Saturday Night Live episodes. But after seeing this documentary, it became official to me that John Zorn was simply the coolest person in the world.
As an adult, I still think John Zorn is cool for many reasons: his maniacal and abrasive inventiveness, his ability to effortlessly collage different styles of music together, and the way he can make squeeky music sound fun and exciting–like punk on crack performed by jazzy beatniks of the distant future. Zorn is a whirlwind of creativity, so intense that it’s difficult to describe what exactly he’s trying to do. It feels somewhere inbetween effortless genius and undiluted madness. That razor’s edge is perhaps the coolest place any artist can be. It is, among other things, the most fearless place. One wrong move, and you can quickly disappear up your own ass.
However, Zorn’s musical talent was not the reason my 1991 self thought he was was the coolest guy in the world. His ultra-coolness manifested because he had escaped the life I thought I was destined to merge into–the life of sit-com watching, family heading, tree trimming, suburban parent. John Zorn was cool, in part, because his life seemed like a big “FUCK YOU” to people who loved that life, people like most of my teachers and neighbours. He made loud, abrasive music that sounded stranger than anything anyone had ever heard; and he wore sun glasses, had a huge record collection, and was beloved for his music in cool night clubs across New York and Japan. Everyone he performed with seemed like a good friend. I wanted that.
That isn’t to say I was certain I wanted to be a musician. But I wanted a life that was like that–a creative life where I did cool creative stuff with cool people and could collect many many cool things–a life of good conversations and yummy dinners and lots of people describing and analysing cool culture with cool choices of words. It would be a life without the mundanities of suburban existence–a life without 6am alarm clocks, bad TV, obsessive lawn watering, barbie doll bullies, hedgework fascists, or racists proud of the bullet holes in their arms.
Of course, I can see the other side to all of this. I can understand why someone might think I’m full of shit. I can understand why people might love the prospect of being able to fall in love, get married, and raise a happy family in some suburb with green lawns. I can understand how someone might watch the very same John Zorn documentary I did and come away with something very different–the idea that John Zorn is an annoying hipster with an entourage of patient sycophants.
I can understand why someone might think the Beatles are overrated–that Laurie Anderson is pretentious, that Audrey Horne is only interesting because she’s beautiful, that even early Michael Jackson is cloyingly mainstream, while Bobby McFerrin is a smug, show off courting a group of snooty academics with parlour tricks.
I can understand why someone might accuse me of falsely equating good people with good culture–of sneering at ordinary folks who find it easy to be happy in places I find hard. I can understand why someone might be disturbed that I find it easiest to love creative rebels when really, I should find it easy to love everyone.
I can even understand someone insisting that coolness is unimportant–that what matters is being decent and kind, not re-inventing the wheel or being so confident in one’s departure from community norms. Morally speaking, there are far more important things than being fascinating; being cool doesn’t make you nice, and being conventional doesn’t make you worthy of scorn. As much as I love coolness, I sometimes find it tempting to write it off as something shallow and superficial; an adolescent fantasy of how to rank the importance of people.
I sometimes ask myself, “What’s the point of being cool? How could being cool seriously make you better than anyone else? Why praise coolness when you should be praising goodness? Why persist in the delusion that cool people are more valuable than people who are just normal? Isn’t that elitist? Isn’t that inhumane? Isn’t that like the way your neighbours used to look at your family?”
The only honest answer I can give to these questions is something like this:
Cool people aren’t better than anyone else. But coolness is the language by which humanity becomes inspired. When people are inspired, good things happen. People follow their dreams, and fall in love with people they’d like to fuck, while lower numbers of adolescents decide they’d like to kill themselves. All of that happens because people are exposed to other people they think are cool–people who excite them, perplex them, and make them feel like they aren’t alone in the world. Coolness produces a world where people are more tolerant of eccentricity, a world which better accomodates the diversity and dignity of all peoples.
This is largely why things are better today than they were when I was a kid, growing up in a Los Angeles suburb of the late 20th century. That isn’t to say there aren’t things today that kids should complain about. Political correctness definitely sucks. But let’s face facts: In 2016, no pretty blonde lady will ever harrass a kid for liking Revolver by the Beatles. Regardless of whether adults like the Beatles, most of them respect the weirdness of the Beatles. Even if they don’t like it, they’re not hostile towards it. In a similar way, adults generally have a more tolerant attitude towards eccentric and creative children. For all its flaws, the relationship between adults and children seems friendlier today.
But sometimes, not being friendly has its own allure. Sometimes it’s actually cooler to be more like my neighbours.
Unlike my neighbours and teachers, the Beatles themselves were very friendly. Although they often made philosophical observations about society, they didn’t complain about the kind of adults I had to live next to. They didn’t care much about how narrow-minded, intolerant, and petty they were. It didn’t seem like the Beatles wanted to actively piss them off. The Beatles didn’t even view people like my neighbours and teachers with scorn. But there was another cool musician from the 60s who did.
Clip and Image List:
- Cover Image: John Zorn. Photographed by Scott Irvine
- Bobby McFerrin Demonstrates the Power of the Pentatonic Scale. Excerpt from “The World Science Festival.” 2009 See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ne6tB2KiZuk
- Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks, 5th Episode entitled “The One Armed Man.” Directed by Tim Hunter. Written by Robert Engles. Executive Producers/Co-Creators: Mark Frost/David Lynch. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx5XLl0pfUU
- Billy Jean video for Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean. From Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). Directed by Steve Barron. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi_XLOBDo_Y
- O Superman video for Laurie Anderon’s O Superman. From Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (1982). Directed by Laurie Anderson See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vkfpi2H8tOE
- “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, from their 1966 album See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah2ckzXgrx4
- Full House: Opening and Closing Credits for Season 8. ABC. Created by Jeff Franklin. 1994-1995. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=agZ0qQ8lYDk
- America’s Funniest Home Videos. Opening Credits for Season 1. 1989-1990. ABC. Executive Producer: Vin Di Bona. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALGGUG8aT94
- Clip from “Put Blood in the Music” by Charles Atlas. 1989. From The South Bank Show. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQkM3jpw768
- Excerpt from Appearance of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention at the BBC. 1968. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDXj7VYBaVw