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March 21, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Considering Coolness

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Do you want to be cool? Sub-question: do you think that a person’s taste in pop culture can signify their coolness or uncoolness?

COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES

Twenty-five years ago, I’m pretty sure that almost everyone would have said yes to both. People from before the Internet took over used to identify themselves using now-defunct subcultures like “punk” and “nerd” — or so my parents tell me — and if you were part of one subculture and not part of another, that was considered cool. This is what spawned movies like The Breakfast Club, which divided teen culture into five easily recognizable and incredibly reductive stereotypes. Were people in the eighties really that one-dimensional? Maybe not, because if you haven’t seen the movie, it ends with a ringing rejection of those stereotypes: “Each of us,” narrates a fresh-faced Anthony Michael Hall, “is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” The idea was to fight the idea of coolness as a function of membership in a group. But do those groups even exist any more?

Let me back up. The occasion here is that LCD Soundsystem is reuniting and playing Coachella this year. The single most critically-beloved band this side of Radiohead, Soundsystem were (are?) the Brooklyn-based product of aging hipster James Murphy, and they blended electronic and rock music into a catchy and addictive stew. But their real calling card was Murphy’s self-aware, self-conscious, painfully post-cool lyrics. On songs like “All My Friends” and “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, Murphy questioned his cultural relevance and general hipness. The lyrics to “Losing My Edge”  are a good case study: “I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties,” sang Murphy, his three-day stubble complemented by a vintage suit.

In other words, few bands in recent years have written so openly about grappling with the idea of coolness and cultural relevance. But the paradox here is that they became arguably the most acclaimed band of their generation — the Pixar of post-punk — and that acclaim often centered on the idea of Murphy as the coolest guy in the room. Like a hipster alchemist, Murphy transformed a fear of appearing uncool into golden cool — at least in eyes of Pitchfork, who referred to him as “the embodiment of coolness” when reviewing This Is Happening (they gave it a 9.2) in 2010. They quoted Murphy: “I spent my whole life wanting to be cool… but I’ve come to realize that coolness doesn’t exist the way I once assumed.” In other words, he realized that by self-consciously admitting your fears of being old and irrelevant, you can be embraced by others who, secretly, may have felt the same fear. The assumption is that that fear exists at all, and the weird thing is that now it might not.

Culturally, there’s a precedent to all this. The term “post-irony” is so silly-sounding that it invites mockery; I can think of a perfect word to describe that, but I’ll refrain from using it. But post-irony has a basic definition: where irony can be used to point out how something is absurd, ridiculous or hypocritical, post-irony aims for sincerity. The reason it’s called “post-irony” and not just “the regular way human beings look at things” is because post-ironic writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace self-consciously pointed out their own sincerity: a lot like Murphy openly admitting he was worried that his records weren’t cool enough.

To those of the Breakfast Club generation, this message makes a lot of sense. But to a generation who grew up friends with everyone they knew, unashamedly posting selfies and instantly accessing the entirety of recorded music on-demand, why would it even matter? I haven’t stood on the quad polling people about this or anything, but I think 99 percent of millennials just don’t care about this stuff. Murphy’s tactic — pointing out that you might be outdated to deflect accusations that you’re outdated — has become outdated.

However uncool it might be to quote the Bible, a proverb is in order here: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Watching Murphy agonize over his own relevance might be fun, but constantly worrying about this stuff means you have less time to think about, you know, actual issues. My guess is that a new generation of writers, having grown up on post-irony, will write in a way that reflects the knowledge that this stuff ultimately just doesn’t matter. Freed from self-examination and anxious hair-pulling, they’ll then be free to write about the fun stuff — corporate culture, government surveillance, and romantic drama.

So what I’m really saying, I guess, is that James Murphy is old and irrelevant. Worrying about losing your edge no longer constitutes edge. The peasants used to storm the castle with pitchforks, now the kids storm Coachella with Pitchforks. I hope Soundsystem puts on a good show this summer, but once you start doing reunion tours, it’s the beginning of the end. (Ask their co-headliners, Guns ’N Roses.) The new generation just hasn’t considered the questions Murphy wrote so much about. Each of us is neither a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess nor a criminal, and not one of us has ever bothered to wonder which we might be.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mvanzile@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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