It's hard to be cool. Then why is it so hard to get out of it?
March 11, 2008 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I want to hear about "anti-cool".

So I've been tasked with the assignment of researching new trends at work. And boy, is it depressing. I'm drowning in a sea of cool. I knew people's livelihoods depended on finding out what's cool and what's not, but it rings a little pathetic to me to see the ridiculous new levels to which some people have taken it.

For me personally, I want to hear from people who don't like "cool". Hate the very idea of it. Think it's stupid. Do not want.

I have no idea what "cool" is so yeah, this is a pretty broad question. Run with it.

I'm sure there are writers, lyricists, documentary filmmakers, etc. out there who are much cleverer than I at getting this concept across. I'm looking for people who don't like cool, I'm looking for smart pieces that make fun of the rest of us for even buying into the concept. The cleverer, wittier, and snarkier the better, but it should be firmly placed in the "I don't want to be a part of this anymore" camp. (Doesn't count if the piece in question lambasted cool, and the writer/etc. is now more popular because of/despite it.)

The only thing I've been able to find so far that approaches what I'm looking for is this, actually. I should note that I'm not looking for uncool things as much as I'm looking for things about uncool. I also don't mind the overwrought scholarly deconstruction of cool itself. And any interesting takes on the subject would be great too. TIA.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh and I'm not sure if The Uncoolhunter would count either, since it's supposedly updated by coolhunters?

I can't even tell anymore.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 11:22 AM on March 11, 2008

I'm not trying to be scholarly, but couldn't one make the case that anti-cool is almost bad as cool hunting because it involves discovering what's cool and doing the opposite? Which is to say: if you're really zen about not caring about cool, whether or not anything you're wearing or doing is cool wouldn't even show up on your radar.

Anyway, I suppose this shirt pokes fun at cool hunting, although it too is an attempt at cool.
posted by sharkfu at 11:24 AM on March 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Vice magazine's dos and don'ts can be like this sometimes. Although once something becomes a do maybe it becomes cool, so it's kind of a catch-22. Here are two that I just found.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:29 AM on March 11, 2008

Response by poster: I'm not trying to be scholarly, but couldn't one make the case that anti-cool is almost bad as cool hunting because it involves discovering what's cool and doing the opposite?

Pretty much sums up how I feel. Why is it so hard to get out?
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 11:30 AM on March 11, 2008

This sounds a little bit like stealth wealth - discovering something that no one would consider cool, spending a lot of money on it, so that other similarly-minded people would think it was cool; but more importantly, the mainstream doesn't know it's cool.
posted by meowzilla at 11:40 AM on March 11, 2008

The Uncoolhunter has produced a hideous website that crashes your browser, so I'd have to say they've found what they're looking for.

William Gibson played around with these ideas a bit in his novel Pattern Recognition, which is three or four years old and assuredly "retro" by now.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:41 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Surely the opposite of 'coolhunting' or, as it used to be called, trends, is simply staying the same, or doing your own thing? I've had the same haircut since I was about 12, because I have absolutely no interest in male fashion haircuts. It's not a conscious thing, it's just what I do. Similarly, I know people who wear the same jacket, or the same boots, or play the same board game, or whatever the hell you like, for years, because they simply don't care what some self-appointed arbiter of fashion is deeming 'in' or 'out' in any particular 'season', and they're perfectly happy with what they've got. You know, the kind of person who quite likes fashion cycles because, regular as clockwork, it means you can get cheap clothes every year.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:41 AM on March 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

I think this was an FPP a while back, but the Story of Stuff contains a fairly scathing analysis of the consumption patterns that drive fashion and coolhunting.
posted by Happy Dave at 11:43 AM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Devo? Mothersbaugh et al have certainly achieved a prominent place in the culture, but I don't think they did so by being "cool"; throughout their career, they've made a lot of concerted efforts to look as unromantically moronic as possible. I can't imagine a whole lot of people who saw Devo wearing spandex and flowerpots on their heads, or forming a "2.0" marketably child-friendly band, and thought to themselves, "Man, those are some cool guys."
posted by Greg Nog at 11:44 AM on March 11, 2008

Best answer: The problem with what you're looking for is that anyone who eschews coolness intentionally eventually ends up with a following that thinks they're incredibly cool. I've been over this before with others, although casually, and the example that always comes to my mind is Weezer. I mean look at these guys. And they were singing very anti-cool songs about being insecure, emotionally needy, and introverted. Their second album tanked, got horrible reviews, largely references an opera and empathizes with that opera's most personally-unlikable characters, B. F. Pinkerton, who is typically identified as deeply flawed and cowardly. Their lead singer sported a bowl cut and looks like a Jehovah's Witness kid I knew in high school who got beat up weekly.

And now "Weezer fan club" has 653,000 hits on google, and Pinkerton is widely listed as one of the best albums of the 1990s. Anyone who is earnestly, sincerely genuine is going to be uncool to a lot a people, but a significant minority can't think of anything cooler than being uncool to those other people, and eventually a subculture will form. How many introverted, emotionally needy, "emo rock" bands have sprang up after Pinkerton came out (or whatever emotional touchstone album you want to identify)? 20 years ago these kids would be getting smeared into the sidewalk, and now they're fronting bands that have 80,000 friends on myspace and enough indie cred to get... whatever indie cred gets you.

It would take one post of "Mr. Rogers has a posse" on boingboing to set of a tidal wave of coolness around him, at least online. In three week's time there would be Mr. Rogers knit patterns, homebrew Mr. Rogers chatbots, and a steampunk Mr. Rogers train that ran on biodiesel and coffee grounds.

I realize I've veered off topic, but I started and got ranty.
posted by Benjy at 11:46 AM on March 11, 2008 [11 favorites]

Two (and a half) come to mind, though both obliquely.

The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank talks quite a bit about Cool and where it Comes from and how it is just another way to sell things. He kind of says its a mug's game and that it shouldn't be worried about. (though honestly I think he starts veering into the "I'm Above Cool which is So Cool." now and then) Its sort of an expanded version of a few essays in Commodify your Dissent.

Snobbery by Joseph Epstein can really have Snob replaced by Cool-dude and approach your point pretty well. His chapter(s) on Anti-Snobbery being the worst sort of Snobbery is pretty funny in a dry Northwestern Professor sort of way.
posted by Wink Ricketts at 11:46 AM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There is no such thing as uncool. I'm a nerd. Always have been. After spending most of my life socially awkward and fumbling with computers, it turns out nerds are cool. I didn't change but cool did. Since rebellion itself is cool, being uncool makes you cool. This is not a game you can win.

More importantly, it is not a game you should take seriously or even spend any brain cells on.
posted by chairface at 11:59 AM on March 11, 2008 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Adbusters issue this month might be what you are looking for.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2008

If you like the Conquest of Cool (linked to in the OP, Wink), you may also be interested in The Rebel Sell, another book that critiques cool as a marketing notion.
posted by ManInSuit at 12:09 PM on March 11, 2008

Best answer: Search Metafilter, AskMetafilter, and Metachat for comments by jonmc, a noted opponent of cool (who many people think is cool).
posted by matildaben at 12:15 PM on March 11, 2008

Response by poster: the example that always comes to my mind is Weezer

Ha, I totally wanted to link to them in my OP too!

about Cool and where it Comes from and how it is just another way to sell things

What creeps me out is that even if you totally abstained from buying things, you would still have bought into a lifestyle because that's essentially what's being sold these days. Not the goods, the pace of being. The goods have lost one consumer, but the lifestyle still keeps them hooked in. They're still part of a crowd of people that can lead or follow (thus making any trend even bigger) in tastes and popularity.

For example, that Urban Scout guy stops buying things. Great, one consumer lost (for now). But does anyone truly think this guy is hooked into a different way of life now?

He also got mentioned in the same breath as "hipster". But how did these cool/uncool groups even start to form? How were a bunch of people suddenly singled out by taste and preference and identified as "hipsters"? I've never even heard someone describe themselves as such.

I remember reading about this Spanish anarchist group that realized that since companies were trying to sell you a lifestyle, the only thing they could do was "sell" you a lifestyle in return. And so they made patterns for a shoulder bag that made it easier for you to shoplift.

The anarchists sold you a new "dangerous, magical, outlaw life". I need to find that link and post it.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 12:19 PM on March 11, 2008

The answer is always Dave Eggers. I love love love this piece because he--with incredulosity intact--efficiently rips into the anti-"sellout" coolness police. (I think it's been featured on MeFi before and everyone hated it, but...whatever. That's cool.)
posted by kittyprecious at 12:22 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Huey Lewis - Hip to Be Square.
Pixelated, odd video
Lyrics (probably opens popups)
posted by Jorus at 12:28 PM on March 11, 2008

"Cool" mean "popular with young people"
posted by dydecker at 12:30 PM on March 11, 2008

Just dropping in to recommend the Eggers response, too, but I see kittyprecious beat me to it.
posted by cocoagirl at 12:30 PM on March 11, 2008

I'd say anti-cool is very much related to kitch. Of course nowadays kids are just trying to out-kitch each other (ugly 80s neon shoes.. ugh). The anti- is what sets this apart from merely being a dork.. so it's actively trying to be not cool versus just being not cool 'cause you don't give a damn (truly cool).
posted by hobbes at 12:35 PM on March 11, 2008

The problem with cool is, it has two meanings that are easy to conflate.

It can mean "popular." The opposite of that sense of the word is just "unpopular." But as others have pointed out, every few weeks someone changes their marketing strategy, and what used to be unpopular becomes popular and vice versa. So cool, in that sense of the word, is unavoidable. Eventually, something you do or wear or eat or say will have a little spike of popularity and you'll be stuck in the middle of it. But fortunately, there isn't really much to be gained by avoiding cool in that sense. Maybe you'll save some money — unpopular stuff is sometimes cheaper — but that's about it.

It can also mean "obsessed with what's popular." For that meaning, the opposite is "sincere." The nice thing about sincerity is, shifting trends can't take it away from you. If you sincerely love oatmeal, it won't matter when next week a bunch of food bloggers start hyping it as the Next Big Thing. It will still taste just as good to you no matter how many other people are eating it. Despite its popularity, your love for it will stay sincere.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:36 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might be interested in this interview with the two South Park Guys. They get into coolness towards the end:

A big key to us is that we both grew up in Colorado in the ’80s, and we wanted to be punk rockers. When you were a teenager in Colorado, the way to be a punk rocker was to rip on Reagan and Bush and what they were doing and talk about how everyone in Colorado’s a redneck with a gun and all this stuff. Then we went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and everyone there agreed with us. And we were like, “Well, that’s not cool, everyone agrees with us.” And then you get to Los Angeles. The only way you can be a punk in Los Angeles is go to a big party and go, “You can say what you want about George Bush, but you’ve got to admit, he’s pretty smart.” People are like, “What the fuck did he just say? Get him out of here!”
posted by JanetLand at 12:40 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

The problem with opting out of coolness is that one of the components of coolness is rejection of the status quo. So the harder you try to be cool, the less cool you are, and the harder you try to to be uncool, the cooler you are. So if you want to enjoy your life, you kind of have to forget about the whole concept.
posted by bricoleur at 12:46 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know enough about the subject to be helpful, but my understanding is that cool - in the jazz sense - was someone who was un-phased by what was going on around them. This got distorted somewhere along the line, where the "cool" were the ones who tried to be cool, who tried to impress.

from the free online dictionary:adv.
Informal In a casual manner; nonchalantly: play it cool.

That's what I think of when i think of cool. Not much time to vet it out, but a different root then i've read here.
posted by jeffe at 12:59 PM on March 11, 2008

Best answer: Since you mentioned in the OP that you don't mind academic perspectives on cool, here are a couple that I find insightful. They both look at the roots of hipness/cool in black/white race relations surrounding bebop:

Somewhere/Nowhere: Hipness as an Aesthetic by Phil Ford
The Musical Quarterly, 2002

The Problem with White Hipness: Race, Gender, and Cultural Conceptions in Jazz Historical Discourse by Ingrid Monson
Journal of the American Musicological Society, 1995
posted by umbú at 1:06 PM on March 11, 2008

Best answer: As people have mentioned, the "uncool" train runs somewhat parallel to the "unpopular" bus, but sometimes "cool" changes tracks and tries to hit you when you're not looking for it, so watch out. A great movie to see might be American Splendor.

I'm avoiding work, so why not ramble on and make a list:

- Grab any magazine off the stand near the supermarket checkout and read a few random pages. If you can make sense out of anything that is going on, it's too late.
- You cannot just be a teetotaler, you must also refuse to be a DD, even though you showed up at the party and have ranted at everyone who can physically hear you about how boring it is.
- Be a curmudgeon at all the wrong times, such as at weddings, baby showers, etc. Make sure you were not invited in the first place, and bring random people with you as guests.
- Be annoyingly perky at all the wrong times, such as at funerals, Monday mornings (Someone's got a case of the Mondays!), and sentencing.
- Do not waste time on hygiene or grooming. "Unkempt" is a start, but aim for "untouchable."
- Do not wait for your opinion to be solicited, and try to find captive audiences on which to unload your latest views. Make sure you are uninformed about the topic in question.
- Invade personal space.
- Suck up to people who appear to have more than you. Ask them for favors.
- Be condescending to everyone who does not appear to have more than you. Ask them for favors.
- Take credit for everything and responsibility for nothing.
- Do not become a rock star. Otherwise, everything above becomes "cool." In which case, sell out immediately, and try again.
posted by krippledkonscious at 1:16 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: He also got mentioned in the same breath as "hipster". But how did these cool/uncool groups even start to form? How were a bunch of people suddenly singled out by taste and preference and identified as "hipsters"? I've never even heard someone describe themselves as such.

No, no one describes themselves as a hipster. Hipster is a wholely meaningless word used to describe anyone a person doesn't like; it's the twentysomething equivalent of middle-school kids going "You're a fag!" "No, YOU'RE a fag!" "No, YOU!"

The underlying mechanism that allows "hipster" to perpetuate itself as an insult is how it deals with questions of authenticity:

So, part of what's largely considered "cool" is embracing an individual aesthetic that's at odds with a mainstream one -- the idea being that a person becomes more respectable, or gains more "cred," through nonconformity.

If one is perceived as genuinely embracing that nonconformist aesthetic, one gets labelled "cool," but if one is perceived as only embracing that aesthetic for the sake of fitting into a smaller but still recognizable cultural niche, one gets labelled a "poseur" -- a dude who's replicating the same sheeplike attitude of the mainstream, just on a smaller subcultural scale. One is either authentic (good!) or posing (bad!).

The evil genius of the meaningless all-purpose insult "hipster" is that, unlike the cool/poseur divide, it makes no attempt to distinguish between genuine dislike of conformity and cleverly-disguised yearning for conformity, while simultaneously slyly implying that such a distinguishing exists: If you ask someone what a hipster is, you might get "(person who listens to indie-rock)" or you might get "(young person living in metropolis)" or you might get "(white Brooklynite with moutache)" or you might get something as weird as your linked example -- "(luddite pining for the end of civilization)". Whoever calls someone else a hipster is usually implying that the object of their derision is less authentically interested in stuff than the derider is, but if they're called out on it, they don't have to defend their claim (compare this to use of the word "poseur," which raises the question: is the poseur actually posing, or acting authentically? What is our evidence?), because the word has no solid referent to begin with, only an ever-changing syndrome of unrelated personality traits and fashion choices that no one ever really agreed upon in the first place. Nevertheless, no one will call themselves a hipster, even if they, say, wear trucker hats and listen to Arcade Fire and I don't know maybe starting a blog about freak-folk and mixed drinks or something.

Again with the junior-high analogy: no twelve-year-old genuinely thinks the "fags" on his playground are boys who go down on each other, or who have crushes on each other; they don't spend time thinking about what defines a person's sexuality; "fag" is just an all-purpose insult that means "Everything you should not want to be".

The same's true for "hipster" -- it's a wholely meaningless insult that recognizes what could be called "cool" about a person and affixes negativity to that potential coolness without explicitly passing judgement about the person's reasons for participating in said coolness.

Generally, I second what bricoleur said, appended by a "scoff not lest ye be scoffed at".
posted by Greg Nog at 1:20 PM on March 11, 2008 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The authors of Rebel Sell also wrote an essay which is pretty compelling.
posted by naju at 1:30 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Cool" is more about exclusivity than anything else, and being at odds with another cultural segment. What's "cool" for youth-at-large is going to be that way because the rest of the population, namely adults, aren't at all interested in it. Likewise, there will be groups of kids who backlash against popular youth culture and find their coolness in a particular niche.

If you want what's genuinely uncool, then you want what's instantly accessible, uncontroversial among its core demographic, and derided by a much smaller segment of the population as something that gets on their nerves. Even then, NASCAR is still cool to some people. I don't think too many people glamorize eating at Applebee's, driving a run of the mill car, living in a suburban apartment complex, listening to adult contemporary rock, or working a 40 hour / week job. Mundane isn't cool.
posted by mikeh at 1:40 PM on March 11, 2008

Nation of Rebels attempts to dissect "cool." I think it would argue that the opposite of cool is subtle low level activism, like trying to convince your local government to mandate recycling.
posted by drezdn at 1:54 PM on March 11, 2008

Adbusters did an anti-cool edition last month.
posted by nickerbocker at 1:59 PM on March 11, 2008

I'm surprised no one has mentioned "quirky" which is an anti-cool sort of trend ...

Quirk may risk turning into an affectation for some, but at least there is an implied interest/engagement in something more so than with the "cool as in detachment" part of cool.

My best antidote to worrying about cool is to find something that I really like, and find people who really like it too. For instance I was really into swing dancing for several years. I never could get any of my co-workers to join me--I guess they didn't think it sounded cool.
posted by markhu at 2:10 PM on March 11, 2008

True cool and true anti-cool paradoxically are both about the same thing: rejecting trendiness and the approval of others.
posted by jonmc at 2:20 PM on March 11, 2008

Sheryl Crow.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:35 PM on March 11, 2008

Sub-prime mortgages.
Paying your bills on time. Every time.
Farmer's Markets.
Corn syrup. It just tastes good.
Silence, confidence, practicing it over and over until you get it right.

Truly Uncool:
Long lists.
posted by Dizzy at 2:51 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

which is three or four years old and assuredly "retro" by now

Hardly. "Retro" means something which was once fashionable, and has now been so far out of fashion that it's cool again (that is, if you can find any -- mostly, the retro things were all destroyed while they were out of fashion).
posted by Rash at 2:56 PM on March 11, 2008

Best answer: "Nathan Barley" is a six-episode TV series (fiction) from 2005 set at the time of the dot com/new media boom, which explores these sort of issues.
posted by Jabberwocky at 2:58 PM on March 11, 2008

I can't find it, but there was a Time article about how (1) Hollywood films, as well as responding to, are a significant driver of popular culture, and so to a large extent define what is cool, (2) Hollywood is really all about box office and merchandise sales (3) The demographic with the most disposable income is the uncool - geeks, nerds, etc. (4) hence the (oft commented) rise of geeks as "the new cool".

It noted things like how common it is these days to see models and movie stars almost tripping over themselves in interviews to say they were the unpopular girl at school, totally uncool, etc, and similar marketing aimed at the geek demographic.

It's not directly the ahip-rather-than-unhip, but the cool pandering to the uncool for $$$ is producing some interesting somersaults as to what is uncool these days.

I guess that means that "poor" is still uncool.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:33 PM on March 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I just wanted to second the works of Thomas Frank, who has written pretty compellingly on the consumer aspects of coolness. His flagship essay on the topic is Why Johnny Can't Dissent. His prose style bugs some people I know, but I personally find him to hit the sweet spot of snarkiness, enthusiasm, and anger incredibly well, and he's one of my favorite contemporary essayists.

I think it's true that there are a lot of different meanings of "cool" which are often conflated, and which also change confusingly over time. I also think Greg Nog is completely on point talking about notions of authenticity being at the core of coolness, and that these notions are also tied to coolness's historical relationship with social class.
posted by whir at 3:58 PM on March 11, 2008

Nick Saloman is an amazing songwriter/musician who has been flying under the mainstream music press radar for years and years and years. Just thought I'd throw that in there.
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 PM on March 11, 2008

Seconding "The Rebel Sell".
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:41 PM on March 11, 2008

Best answer:

TISM's "The Birth of Uncool." They're an anonymous rock band consisting largely of teachers (hence their anonymity), so I suppose they'd know a thing or two about being uncool.
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:40 PM on March 11, 2008

A lot of andrew cooke's rants here in AskMe are worth checking out.
posted by Chuckles at 7:00 PM on March 11, 2008

Response by poster: derail/

Found the link to the anarchists. It's in Spanish, but there's a Wired article covering the same.


Awesome answers, worth chewing over. I've also added book/books tags just for future reference because a lot of these sound like genuinely good reading/watching/listening.
posted by twins named Lugubrious and Salubrious at 7:30 PM on March 11, 2008

"I can't find it, but there was a Time article about how (1) Hollywood films, as well as responding to, are a significant driver of popular culture, and so to a large extent define what is cool, (2) Hollywood is really all about box office and merchandise sales (3) The demographic with the most disposable income is the uncool - geeks, nerds, etc. (4) hence the (oft commented) rise of geeks as "the new cool"."

i immediately thought of bruce willis' sidekick in die hard 4.0 when i read this.

if you ask me, cool is just about asserting your socio-economic background and/or asperations. "i am a white upper-middle class male with parents in acedemia, or i wish i was rather than growing up in a lower-middle class family. therefore i will listen to bands who's singers sing out of tune. i have trained myself to like this, because i know you wont. and if you arent another white upper-middle class person emersed in acedemia, you're entirely welcome to leave this party cause you can't stand listening to dudes singing out of tune." you can apply this dynamic to almost any group and their fashions - inner city black kids in bapes listening to crunk, rural teens with their oversized ford trucks jamming out to limp bizkit, london bankers in saville row tailored suits and opera (or whatever those guys listen to) etc.

perhaps people who are "anti-cool" resent their socio-economic backgrounds, or perhaps just their families or something. i mean, given all the things beeing "cool" can get you (friends, jobs, laid, etc) there must be some reason to turn your back on it. though i suppose it might just be sour grapes for not being socially adept enough to pull off being cool?

one other thing - that rant of dave eggers... he described himself as no longer subscribing to that whole "hating sellouts" thing. i felt a lot of empathy with his pov, and realized we both probably have one big thing in common:

we're getting older.
posted by messiahwannabe at 9:58 AM on March 12, 2008

Anticool = not watching TV

TV watchers can't talk to you about stuff that they consider to be normal conversation fodder. And when you tell people that you don't watch TV, you sound like a pretentious hipster. There's really no "coolness" upside to the situation.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:59 AM on March 12, 2008

It's all relative.

One man's cool hipster is another man's douche bag.

One man's uncool geeky gamer is another man's charismatic guild leader.
posted by JakeLL at 5:39 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Overwrought scholarly discussion of a group of girls who don't like "cool" by Mary Bucholtz: "'Why Be Normal?': Language and Identity Practices in a Community of Nerd Girls"
posted by holympus at 10:59 PM on March 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

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