Courtesy of Stephen Yang '21

October 4, 2021

YANG | The Self-Branding of the Cool Kids

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I first began to notice how coolness manifests at Cornell when I became a frequent visitor of the Green Dragon Cafe. When I was a freshman, I would flock there almost every day to avoid spending time in my double on North campus. For a freshman still in search of his communities on campus, the student-run cafe was the space where I felt the most at home. In the dungeon-like cafe, I spent my formative college years pretending to study, missing my 11:59 p.m. deadlines and meeting some of my best friends at Cornell. 

A huge part of Green Dragon’s appeal is to not only see people there but to be seen by these people. Such visibility gives me a platform to express myself. After all, self-expression is fundamentally contingent upon the presence of an audience, and Green Dragon precisely offers that. It was a liberating experience to feel that I can be authentic with my self-expression and that it’s absolutely fine not to like the same things as the rest of the campus.

With three years of observation under my belt, I can say with confidence that I’m not alone in my experience. Trust me, no one goes there just for the coffee. It’s about the vibe, the music (it can be hit or miss depending on the barista), the aesthetics and most importantly –– the people. These people are essential to shaping the space into an inclusive enclave, a rarity on Cornell’s campus. That’s the primary reason why I became a regular, but I also can’t deny that the coolness associated with the space plays a role in my constant visits. 

People who go to Green Dragon are cool. That’s what many people probably think. But more importantly, it’s also what many who do go to Green Dragon would like to think is true. Yet proving yourself as cool is not as simple as just being in the same space. You might be cool if you go to Green Dragon, but you’re actually cool if you can prove that you belong there.

Now back to the question –– how do we prove that we’re cool? We kind of know that, and we are already kind of doing that, yet we are somewhat at a loss when we’re asked to explain why we do what we do. 

The public has always struggled to articulate what it means to be cool. The amorphous quality of coolness often becomes its very mystifying aura. This has in turn made the concept under-discussed in our cultural discourses despite its pervasiveness. Yet this layer of perplexity makes total sense; coolness is inherently elusive as it is rooted in our expression of youth subcultures. These are symbols, tastes and styles that are never meant to be widely circulated. These are cultures that are supposed to be on the margins and away from the mainstream. Proving that you’re cool is essentially proving that you’re “in the know” of these youth subcultures.

Articulating coolness essentially means being youthful, deviant and rebellious. These qualities are manifested through the expression of your tastes. Being cool essentially means being tasteful; the music you listen to has to be underground, and you have to make a statement of resistance with your fashion choice.

You have to dress your part, be in the right space and know the right people. Your taste is manifested not only through your own tastes but also through the tastes of others. If you’re friends with those who are already deemed as cool, then you’re infinitely cooler than the rest of us. And here we are with this vicious cycle of clout chasing. 

Cool kids continue to gatekeep to maintain their power and status within the communities, and aspiring cool kids do whatever it takes to prove to the cool kids that they’re worthy of a place in their communities. And that’s how the hierarchy of coolness is perpetuated by the tension between two classes –– people who are already deemed as cool and people who want to be deemed cool. 

Sounds a bit like Greek life rather than youth subcultures, no? It saddens me to witness how this is happening even within safe enclaves on the margins. Sociologist Sarah Thornton coined the term “subcultural capital” to describe the hierarchical logic of differentiation happening within youth subcultures. What we are witnessing now is the exploitation of subcultural capital as means to elevate ourselves. 

We’re losing everything if we don’t dismantle the subcultural hierarchy in these spaces. We have nothing to lose for being inclusive, yet we will lose everything if we continue to perpetuate the self-destructive hierarchy rooted in the exploitation of alterity and marginality.

So yeah, before it’s too late, tell the newcomers there’s no need to prove to anyone that you’re cool. Tell them they’re inherently cool if they’re being authentic already. 

Stephen Yang is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.