I like verse 20 of the Tao Te Ching – it’s an interesting one. Although it does have one of the creepiest ending lines I’ve ever read. The bit that I’m looking at for now is this bit (sorry if you’re looking at this on your phone. looks like you might need to zoom in a little):
Now I can’t say I really live up to all this: anyone who saw me after watching the Avengers last weekend, for example, will know I am capable of getting very excited at pretty unimportant things. That said, I like the line about valuing what others value and avoiding what others avoid. Partly because…
I am really not very cool
I think I’ve spent my whole life being the wrong side of coolness. Maybe not uncool, but never quite at the front edge of fashion. When everyone else got their Guns n Roses t-shirts at school, I was wearing shellsuit trousers and listening to Eurythmics. When I invested in a Guns n Roses t-shirt and started humming ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’? People weren’t interested – they’re wearing big skateboard shoes and listening to hip hop. People wear DCs, I have Skechers. They’re in Firetrap, I’m shopping at Next. When I got my first skateboard at the age of 8 – a razor thin, fluorescent orange one, no less – it probably made me look more ridiculous than not having a skateboard. I never owned a gameboy, or a pair of Doc Marten boots, or a pair of Levi jeans or had curtains (actually the last one’s a lie. I totally did). Some of these references may be UK-centric, or particular to my own generation but you probably get what I mean.
Part of it may be my only-child status – I never had a bigger brother or sister to teach me what’s cool. Maybe it’s because I grew up abroad, watching English-language TV shows about 10 years behind all my friends. Or maybe, deep down I’m just intrinsically, genetically programmed to be not very cool.
Either way, from my dress sense to music to films to TV I’m just not very good at figuring out what’s in fashion. And it’s getting worse, because…
Now, cool is the new uncool. So looks like I’m really screwed.
I read a good blog entry from sweetfoot.wordpress.com the other day titled ‘what if this guy liked your music’. Basically it was a discussion of how music can be ruined by becoming too popular, or by becoming too popular with the wrong people. The comments section below it – in stark contrast to my own ‘minimalist’ comments section – was a riot of colour, of thoughts and discussions, to and fro. Like an Amazonian forest of life. It seems that some people really agree with this sentiment – they hate it if too many people like their music or if it becomes ‘mainstream’ or populist. Others, in stark disagreement, think to have such an attitude is stupid and pretentious. The word ‘hipster’ gets thrown around a lot. Basically, it’s a great post and well worth a read if you have the time.
But the message in it is worrying to me. If it’s uncool to be mainstream then… what, that means it’s uncool to be cool now? We’ve already established I have no idea how to be cool in the first place… so what do I do now? By the time I manage to be cool, not only am I late, but the cool thing I’ve managed to get into isn’t even cool any more? Because being cool made it uncool?
Conclusion seems to be: in this new postmodern, post-ironic (or whatever you call it) world, when I’m uncool I’m uncool. And when I am (belatedly) cool,… I am still uncool. Eurgh.
This is what I call the Bermuda Triangle of Uncoolness. Or, as I call it – the ‘Nerdmuda Triangle’ (in itself just more evidence of how uncool I am. No-one uses the word nerd anymore do they?). An inescapable sea of uncoolness, littered with the wrecks of sunken jean jackets and terrible haircuts and copies of the jazz compilation CDs I thought would make me look cool as a student. A Triangle from which there is no escape… or is there?
Escaping the Nerdmuda Triangle. Option 1: Recreate the ‘80s, or live in the ‘60s.
The first way I can see to escape this deathly cycle of uncoolness is simple: instead of chasing what’s cool, just go the other way and be deliberately uncool. You can pick something that’s already gone out of fashion and then hope that – like baby names – it will naturally come back in the fullness of time. This can work – as I mentioned, baby names are a good example and England is now packed with little Archies and Evies and Rosies and Freddies who would have been mercilessly bullied in my day for having names their grandparents had (ironically by the Tracys, Sharons and Kevins of the world whose names you now hardly see used).
Alternatively if you don’t want to try this ‘constant retro’ approach to life, there is another more daring approach: get in first by picking something so ridiculously leftfield that no-one could possibly have even thought of it yet, and try and MAKE it fashionable. The prime example of this in practice: the entire 1980s, wherein someone got up one day, said “Hey guys. We’re in the future. So… you know, we should like… dress like we’re in space. And use the synthesizer a lot.” And in defiance of all the laws of reason and nature, noone disagreed or thought to ask questions.
This approach has some merits – let’s face it the ‘80s were pretty fun. Unless you lived in East Germany perhaps. But the downside? I don’t know if the universe can ever produce another ‘80s, and barring that – barring an entire generational decade of utter craziness – you’re taking a big gamble: is your retro look catching stares because it’s avant garde? Or have global hypercolor and top-to-toe stonewashed denim gone too far to resurrect? That snakeboard you bought because an ad told you it was hip… is it going to catch on? Or does it just make you look silly? And your rockabilly hairdo… the hairdresser’s laughing in a good way right?
Basically, unless you have an uncanny amount of luck you’ll never get it right whichever way you go: and as Lao-Tzu says, you’ll exhaust yourself trying.
“Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.”
Which is a shame because – as far as I can see…
Coolness and fashion just another thing that’s totally made up. Welcome to the matrix.
I’ve written along these lines before – how I see the world as largely made up of words, the way that Neo in ‘the Matrix’ sees the world made up of lines of green code. How what you THINK you know is just a patchwork quilt of projections and guesswork that your brain puts together to get the job done. Some of these things are done internally, and it’s just your brain that’s lying to itself (like when it tells you you know what an apple is for example). Sometimes it’s a group thing, and what your brain relies on is a cue from others – a sign of collective agreement that yes, we do think X, Y and Z are right and A, B and C are wrong. Either way it’s the same result: you’re making up concepts all the time and then fooling yourself into thinking they exist. Let alone that they matter.
The reason this applies to coolness came to me when I read the sweetfoot post I mentioned above. It struck me – screaming loud and clear from the comments – that coolness in music, in film and art and culture, is a PERFECT example of this concept in practice. Music isn’t just liked by people for what it is. It’s not just the notes and how they’re put together, or the lyrics, or the beat. All those things have an impact on your brain – a chemical reaction they trigger that scientists have shown make the difference between ‘good’ music and bad. But what’s important is also what the music represents, what it says about you that you like it, and what other people think about it, and what you think about those people, and what other people think about those other people. And so on and so on.
The conclusion? Escape from the Nerdmuda Triangle – Option 2: Stop caring.
If I was a conspiracy minded guy I could take this post in all sorts of directions: I could talk about how some people DO realize the extent to which coolness and fashion and groupthink interact and because those people work in behavioural science units at the ad companies we have them to thank for Sunny D and harem pants and all the other things you bought that were rubbish. These people figured out just how little connection there is between something being cool and it actually being good and realized that agreement is a major part of any ‘coolness’ decision. So if they can convince you other people think it’s cool to dress like an idiot/drink vitamin water at $800 a bottle/buy that Renault hatchback that has an ‘ass’ on the back of it they have a fairly high confidence you’ll do it. The same principle goes for the laugh track telling you to laugh during ‘Big Bang Theory’ or the idea that smoking is cool or that Tracey Emins unmade bed is artistic because it’s shown in a gallery.
If I wanted to take this in a particularly dark and sinister direction I could say there’s an angle here on politics and mind control and how the state and the media and ‘big corporations’ take advantage of groupthink to push people into doing things they want. To be honest though, that’s not what this blog is for and that’s not the way my mind works (as stated above, I’m looking for an easy relaxed kind of life, not one spent protesting and getting het up about things).
What I’m saying is this: realize that coolness is a ridiculous load of BS. It’s a totally made up concept that has no real basis in anything and it’s a waste of time trying to be cool, or ironically uncool, or post-ironically seriously uncool or whatever it is that you are trying. Just don’t worry about it.
In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.
Confessions and conclusions
Recently on Fox sitcom ‘New Girl’ (which, for reasons I can’t quite determine, I enjoy) there was a line that I really liked. It struck a chord with me. The character Nick, having spent an entire evening trying to be cool in front of a new girlfriend and failing, finally cracks and defiantly opens up with a confession that he thinks will kill all street cred. The confession?
“I listen to Huey Lewis and the News when I work out. And not ironically. It pumps me up.”
Not only do I totally get this, I love Huey Lewis and the News and am 100% convinced that it is indeed hip to be square. But it’s the kind of earnest, honest, totally-nothing-to-be-ashamed-of thing that is sneered at in todays post ironic society.
In honour of that quote, and to show I really am trying to practice what I preach, here are some ‘big confessions’ of my own:
- Having watched Jaws with my dad at a very young age, I am afraid of the sea. I pretend I don’t like it, and on holiday I tell my kids to stay back from the shore. But this is really just to assuage my unshakeable suspicion there are sharks there waiting to get me. If you see me swimming extra fast through the deep end of a pool? Also, similar thing – sharks.
- I cry. And not infrequently. A while ago in the UK there was a TV advert for detergent where a robot plays in the mud and turns into a human child. I wept like a baby. Every time.
- I get absolutely terrified by horror movies, especially those creepy ones the Japanese make. The last horror movie I saw at the cinema was ‘What Lies Beneath’. I covered my eyes and still kept the lights on for about a week afterwards. Even though I know there will be someone behind the door when he closes the fridge… oh my god! there’s someone there behind the door when he closes the fridge! I broke into a cold sweat just thinking about it as I write this.
- Rather than admit I’m this weak, sometimes I read plot summaries in Wikipedia so I can pretend I saw ‘Paranormal Activity’ or ‘The Ring’ etc. and join in conversations about them at the watercooler.
- Embarassingly, sometimes the Wikipedia summaries scare me a little. That’s how pathetic I am.
Hopefully those mini-confessions and the comments above will give you an idea what I’m getting at, at the very least perhaps they’ve amused you a little. Being totally honest the list could have been ten times the size, but – surprise surprise, I edited out all the ‘non-cool’ things about me that are actually embarassing or which might make you dislike me and left in only the harmless things that my wife finds endearing/make me sound like a nice guy. Guess I’ve still got work to do.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m not any cooler now than I was at 15. Or at 10. What I am is an uncool person who just doesn’t care as much. Lao-Tzu never knew Tracey Emin, and he never had to argue over whether James Blunt is better than the Libertines or why harem pants don’t look stupid or what vitamin water has in it that is worth all that money. If he did though, I am sure he’d agree with me. Anyway, thanks for reading.