Monday, May 09, 2011

The Constant Quest for Coolness

BTW, this picture was the first one listed when I typed the word "cool" into a Google Image search. There were a lot of LL Cool J pictures, but he's no Millhouse.

I am 36-years-old. I’m married with two children. I own a home in the suburbs, I work a normal 9-to-5 job and every day I drive one of two Hondas that are parked in my driveway. I am not part of any family feuds or dramas, I like my wife’s family a lot and get along well with 99% of people I know. Aside from going out to dinner with my wife, most weekend nights involve me hanging out with my family and watching a movie.* During the entire weekend, I may consume six beers; if I drink more than two I get sleepy. I am thoroughly and completely in the most stable period of my life and I love it, I have no reason to try to be cool or impress anyone.

Yet I rewrote this opening paragraph at least three times because it didn’t convey the “right” message.

* I can honestly argue about the plot lines and discrepancies of any of the three Tinkerbelle movies and could probably quote entire scenes on request. This is just what happens when you have a three-year-old daughter.

My generation is the first generation that constantly seeks validation from others that they’re cool. Not that they’re good people, or that they live a virtuous life; but that they’re cool. And it’s not going to matter how old we get, we’re always going to wonder if what we’re doing is cool. I don’t think that it’s something that we can ever stop either, because since we were babies we have been exposed to a daily dose of what cool is.

I was born in 1974 and one of the first memories I have is of my Star Wars pillow case and a plastic “Happy Days” cup that I drank my milk from daily. The pillow case had the entire cast of characters, but aside from Darth Vader’s gigantic head looming as a scary moon, the most prominent character was Han Solo. My beloved “Happy Days” mug didn’t have a group shot of Richie, Ralph, Potsie and the gang; it was just a picture of Fonzi taken from the shoulders up against the backdrop of a brick wall. His expression was a bit different than his outer space compatriot. While Han Solo’s likeness was all action: gun drawn and about to leap from the canvas. Fonzi’ expression was one of utter indifference, it looked as if he just got done with the Aloha Pussycats and was exhaling his trademark, “Ayyyyyyyyyy!”

Both of these cultural touchstones were at the peak of their popularity during the late 1970s, the number one movie event of all time paired with the number one TV show in the land. And both had charismatic anti-heroes who looked similar (Harrison Ford and Henry Winkler shared a similar coif and facial structure ), who dress alike (black jacket/vest with exposed white TV shirt), who had the same mission in life (shepherd a nerds to the promised land – getting girls or blowing up the Death Star), who didn’t talk much (men of action, mostly), both drove iconic vehicles (the Millennium Falcon or a motorcycle) and both got the girls at the end of the day.

While the movies and TV show weren’t especially targeted towards kids my age, the duo were so gigantic that they eventually filtered down to my age group. And what was the message? Being cool was the ultimate and it trumped everything. Fonzi’s pal Richie Cunningham was a decent athlete who received high marks through high school and college and Solo’s buddy Luke Skywalker had the Force and was on his way to being a Jedi Knight. But Fonzie and Han Solo were the breakout stars of their medium and the “main” stars were often relegated to the background when Fonzie and Solo shared space with them. They were who everyone wanted to be because they were effortlessly cool.

Being cool didn’t stop when the popularity of “Star Wars” and “Happy Days” waned. As the 1970s bled into the 1980s more and more TV shows had at least one character whose job it was was to be cool. On shows that were targeted to tweens (we weren’t called this then) like “Diff’rent Strokes” it was Willis and on “Silver Spoons” it was Rick Stratton. As we got older, the shows changed but the attitude stayed the same: the entire premise of “Miami Vice” was two cool cops fighting crime.

And it worked in reverse as TV series that ran prior to the hay day of “Star Wars” and “Happy Days” retroactively made their characters seem cool; with ubiquitous reruns showing Greg Brady, JJ Evans and Keith Partridge cooling it up in their seemingly daily adventures.

The tempo changed was amped up in the 1990s as shows geared towards teenagers and stoned 20-somethings (“Beverly Hills 90210” and “Saved by the Bell”) dumped the one-cool, rest nerds formula of the 1970s and 1980s and replaced it with an entire group of cool kids and one nerd to provide contrast (David Silver and Screech for 90210 and SBtB).* Even shows geared towards adults, like “Freinds” or “Seinfeld” were about what happened once the cool table moved from the high school cafeteria to Manhattan—just edging out Seattle as the ultimate cool city in the 90s. The entire philosophy of the FOX network was that they were cooler than the other three networks.

And it wasn't just television, if you boil down a lot of movies from this time, it's really just about trying to be cool. "Pulp Fiction", "Clerks", "Swingers", "Clueless" were, at their cores, movies about the main characters trying to be or keep some semblance of coolness. These movies wouldn't have worked in the 1980s as audiences weren't prepared to see adults try to be cool.

* The one thing that’s odd about coolness in pop culture is that it is always evolving. If you jammed Fonzi in a sitcom today, he wouldn’t be cool because mores have grown and changed. However, the nerd or uncool character never changes. Potsie could change places with Urkel who could exchange roles with David Silver who could have been Will Smith’s dorky cousin on “Fresh Prince of Bel Aire” all of whom could be uncool character X on the latest FOX sitcom. Since the dawn of time, the nerd has stayed constant. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy for a person to be an outcast. Being cool is hard and an always-evolving role, being uncool is easy in comparison.

Suddenly it wasn’t fashionable to be the cool fish in a pond of dorks. Each cool person needed to find other cool people in which to hang out. As we grew up, we were completely and totally immersed Alex DeLarge-style in this never-ending, never-blinking loop of what cool is. It wasn’t just kosher to be cool, we had to be part of a cool subset too. Because of this maturation of coolness, we subconsciously learned that being cool is the only thing that really matters.

And this is why I wear a Public Enemy t-shirt, with blue adidas Gazelles and a throw-back baseball cap. It’s why my friends, most of whom are approaching 40, still play in a band, or will scour the Internet for the latest underground band or watch Adult Swim or stay up until 3 am drinking beer and playing video games and then drag their asses to work the following day. Because all of those things are pretty cool things to do.

I think back to my father and members of his generation. None of them wore sneakers and band t-shirts, hell, none of the ever wore t-shirts at all—if it was a weekend, it was polo shirt time. None of them were in a band or knew anything about the latest music or even knew how to turn on an Atari. And while I can blame this on the perspective of being young, most of the adults that I knew were responsible. Yes, there were a couple that were completely irresponsible, but even in that fashion, they were irresponsible in an adult way.

Why is that? Because while coolness was a factor when they were teens, it never seeped down to their days of impressionable youth. The line delineating entertainment for older and younger kids was clearly marked. If you were born in the mid to late 40s, you watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” or “Howdy Doody” and aside from Annette Funicello’s tits, there wasn’t anything cool about either show. They starred a bunch of dorky white kids doing dorky white stuff. At the same time Marlon Brando and Jimmy Dean, the Rat Pack and tons of jazz and blues heroes were emerging and taking coolness to a new height, but rarely did that move into the collective subconscious of this generation.

As the baby boomers grew older the hip touchstones began: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and what signified cool became more and more defined. As that was taking shape, the lines of what was suitable for young kids were being erased. The second decade of television brought with it a familiarity so strong the TV set wasn’t considered immovable furniture—like a kitchen table—anymore. As technology improved, mobility improved too and now one could roll the TV into the kiddies’ room and you could have a baby sitter for the afternoon.

It’s this constant exposure to mass media that causes a 36-year-old to look in a mirror and ask, “Does this look cool?” when there is no one to impress. And these questions of coolness inhibit our interactions with other people. The other day I was walking to the cafeteria for lunch and I saw a coworker walking through the foyer wearing a bright blue shirt. Emblazoned on that shirt was about 30 different Marvel Comics characters. If you’ve ever read this Blog, you know that I dabble in comics, but my first thought was, “Jesus, what’s wrong with this guy?”

The lesson in this story wasn’t that I was being a judgmental prick because obviously, I was.* But the lesson was much like I was when I was a teenager, I’m still conditioned to make instant generalizations on people that I don’t know solely based on how they dressed. And while I take no solace in knowing that I’m not the only Generation Xer that does it, I have to wonder when will it end.

* I mean seriously, I wear a Public Enemy t-shirt—when will the revolution be televised, Gramps? And on that particular day I was wearing a t-shirted version of a 1970 Houston Astros baseball shirt.

Is there ever going to be a day where I don’t give a shit about what someone’s wearing, watching on TV, listening to, driving around in or talking about? Because really, when it comes down to it, who gives a shit? Haven’t I learned from shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared” and the myriad of Paul Fieg/Judd Apatow movies that the cool kids are usually the most shallow, the most insincere, the most boring?

Why would I want to be like that? Especially now.

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