It’s easy to blame this all on the hipsters. Too easy. Plus, greater men than this one have already done that. (To wit, I give you Adbusters and Time Out New York.) But really, in a world where anxious, arrogant, narcissistic, and numb are the growers in Western society’s word cloud of descriptors, we can’t afford to waste two good ones, funny and cool, by confusing them as the same thing.
Proof of the problem comes quickly: Moustaches in 2005 put the finishing touches on a Halloween costume. In 2011, they’re on the red carpet at the Golden Globes (I’m looking at you Johnny Depp). A kickball tournament in 2003 was something to do for high-schoolers who hadn’t yet developed a meth/drinking/pot habit, in 2008 it was the only way to pass the time between the weekday bike messenger shift and late happy hour at the neo-dive bar on the corner. And for our number-loving friends: PBR was a foundering subpremium in 2004, and in Q1 2009 saw a 25% gain in sales despite no advertising budget and higher prices. That doesn’t happen.
So what did happen? It might be that cool sold itself.
From Miles Davis to James Dean to Prince, our torchbearers for cool have been defined by a distinct commitment to vision than anything else. They unflinchingly “march to the beat of their own drum,” a phrase which, like all the other nuances of coolness, has been stripped bare of all meaning in the commodification process that has reached ludicrous speed in the last decade. But just think about it for a second. The true icons of coolness earned the badge largely through enduring a lifetime swimming the opposite direction of the majority in pursuit of their vision, a task that requires a remarkable creative spirit and strength of conviction in their belief of how to do things. That cool doesn’t smell like ours does.
Commodification has come to all corners of the West, and as it did, it eventually crept up on perhaps the most uniquely Western institution of them all: the Cool. As cool became commodity, it became packaged as a combo meal of style, symbology and vernacular, accessible to all for the right price. But to appeal to the masses, top-heavy with insecurity and anxiety and distinctly low on fearlessness, the cool needed a protective extra ingredient to survive: Irony.
Where cool did what it did regardless of the looks it got, commodified coolness gave people the chance to venture out behind a facade of codified symbols, with a shiv of irony in hand in case anybody saw behind the curtain. “It’s cool, right? And if not, I was just kidding.” All the benefit with none of the risk. It seems that over time however, in the rush of quarterly clothing lines and magazine launches, the ravenous cool machine plundered all the icons of cool it could, and was forced to move on to all things ironic and it’s closely related cousin: Humorous.
Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to remember a time when humor was the one thing that brought everybody’s guard down. Now, it seems, funny has been sucked into a new role as speakeasy password. If you don’t get it, you’re out. If you get it, you’re in, and the best feeling you can hope for is relief.
It feels like the tightening circle began when we let cool and funny be insulated from risk. What once required courage is now neurotic, cannibalising everything that passes the maven test out of pure self-preservation, as if velocity could hide the lack of authenticity.
In the petri dish of adolescence, the equation’s truth is confirmed: In high schools, the funny guy and the cool guy used to hold court at tables on opposite sides of the cafeteria. Now, the cool royalty clutches all the cards, while the envious rest slink off to drama class.
How cheated we are.
So in the interest reclaiming these adjectives in service of a more colorful life, dear reader, I leave you with one rope to grasp onto in these shifting cultural sands: Cool opens your eyes to show how things can be done differently, but only funny makes your face hurt. Unless, of course, you’re trimming that God-awful beard.