The Absolutely True Story about How I Discovered I Would Never Be Cool
The Fact of the Matter is: It Comes Down to Music
You need one thing to be Cool: you need to know the right bands. That’s it. Fact. Proven, incontrovertible, Fact.
Someday I need to explain how I understand the relationship between “Facts” and “Truth.” Some of my opinions would be easier to understand then.
No need for that now. Mission for another day, eh, wot? Pressing on.
I knew this instinctively when I was a kid. You could always tell the Cool Kids because they knew the names and lyrics of the right music. And that’s how I knew I wasn’t Cool. I only knew about four bands, and two of them were The Beatles — the Mod Beatles and the Hippy Beatles.
All four of the bands I knew were Legendary.
But none of them were Cool, not in the only way that mattered: the Getting the Girl way. Not when you’re eleven.
When I was a small child — six or seven or ten — I was proud of knowing legendary bands. I didn’t need to be cool. I had Culture. (Notice the capital letter.) If I had Culture, what did I need with Cool? Cool didn’t get you into Valhalla. Culture did. That’s what I knew for certain. There’s enough stuff in Culture to get you into Valhalla. The best you can hope for with Cool is “Halls of Fame.” None of my heroes ever cared to get into Halls of Fame.
For my heroes, and therefore for me, it was Valhalla or bust.
I learned, about when I was twelve or so, that it seemed as if none of my heroes had ever had a girlfriend either. Sure they had Culture. They had Culture leaking out of their ears. So much Culture you could paint the walls. Some heroes probably did paint the walls with it.
Something funny about Culture, I surmised back then: the color it paints in is Friend Zone.
I can picture it now…
Somewhere in the cosmos, I imagine there’s a bar. It’s somewhere near Valhalla, perhaps down the street and around the corner. It’s a gloomy place. The jukebox only plays early Mark Knopfler and late Eric Clapton. There are no peanuts on any of the tables. Only empty bowls for them. Everyone who goes there is too depressed to ask for peanuts, and just lively enough to wish for them. All the drinks are strong, and none of them are fruity. All the patrons sit around the bar, barely acknowledging that there are any other people present. They’re all nursing amber liquids and aching hearts.
It’s called the Pub of Legends.
Check your Ancestral Sword at the door.
If you happened upon this pub, and wended your way through the people there — all just distant enough from each other to feel as if they were Alone in a Realm of Deepest Misery — and asked the bartender about the place, he’d have only one story to tell you.
“Oh,” he’d say, “I keep telling them: just be yourself.”
And what do they say to you when you suggest that? You might ask.
The bartender frowns at that. “They all say, ‘That’s the trouble. I am.’ ”
Then what do you tell them? You might ask.
“I’m about out of suggestions at that point,” the bartender says, with some regret, to his credit. “I pour them another drink and tell them that’s how it goes sometimes. They can take a lot of drink, here. Hearty folk, the folk that come in here.”
When I was getting into my teenage years, I felt mortally afraid that’s where culture got you. Valhalla sounded all well and good, if you could stick it. But it didn’t sound very, well, jolly. At least in this epoch of history, such as it is, displaying Culture, with the capital letter, gets you about as far in life as a big sign around your neck that reads, “ask me all about my…problem.”
Legends, of course, are populated by ladies who do approve of and seem to be attracted to your average Heroic Behavior. Perhaps these ladies exist in real life too. They probably do. All I know is that my twelve-year-old self never found any of them. Heroic Behavior and displaying Culture did nothing good for my love life.
I had to decide which I preferred: Leading a life where I could use phrases like “Paladin of The Olde Ways” to describe myself, or a life where I had a better view of women than from the wrong end of the long stick they conveniently had on them to keep Paladins at a distance.
It came down, objectively, to one question:
N*SYNC or Backstreet Boys?
Not that anyone liked either of them when I was becoming aware of the dichotomy in my life caused by this conflict between Cool and Culture. Early in life, though, when I became aware that there are more bands than The Beatles, The Other Beatles, The Ramones, and Mozart, N*SYNC or Backstreet Boys was The Question. It was the dividing question. The only question with an answer that effected the opinions of peers.
The conflict arising from that question lingered as a vague fug behind the more important aspect of my much younger days. When I was a child, and spoke as a child, and thought as a child — about important things like Honor, “A Hard Day’s Night,” and Pokemon — I noticed that you were allowed to either like N*SYNC or Backstreet Boys. You could choose your friends that way, and you most certainly never admitted anyone from the other side into your circle. And, if you happened to like that one N*SYNC song, but you were in the Backstreet Boys camp, you kept it to yourself.
I firmly disliked both sides. Culture. That was the thing. I had more important standards to uphold, and no time nor attention to spare for the Boy Band Wars of the 1990s. I recognized, even then, that made me strange and difficult to include. Disliking both sides, neither side knew quite what to do with me. I just sort of floated nearby, like an awkward secret that everyone knew and no one admitted to knowing.
N*SYNC and the Backstreet Boys did not directly impact my decision (to be…Cool…or not to be…Cultured) when I exited adolescence.
The memory of the conflict surrounding them did have a decided impact.
The Boy Band Wars of the 1990s made one thing clear to me: There were Facts that decided whether you were Cool or not.
And what music you liked was chief among the Facts.
Again, I wish that I had somewhere explained how unrelated I believe “Facts” and “truth” to be. Grumble. Story for another day.
What with one thing and another…
I learned about music.
Give a good brain fifteen years and it’ll solve anything. Those are some words to live by, and no mistake. I shan’t claim to have the best brain, but I can safely claim to have both good genetics and good grades — precedent and evidence, that’s how you Prove, right? I can claim to be clever, at least, and feel like I’m saying a true thing. I may not be your next David Bowie, but I’ve got a fair head on my shoulders and I know how to use it.
After fifteen years of hard thinking, I learned the measures of music. There are objective measures. Music is a performance of physical coincidences which, when balanced, produce aesthetics to cause various emotional or experiential effects. The skilled musician knows, either instinctively or by training, how to perform those physical coincidences to produce the aesthetic that will cause the emotion they desire.
Angry music makes you angry. Pleasant music makes you feel pleasure. Happy music makes you cry — I still don’t get that one. We aren’t always aware of the diverse arrangements of coinciding circumstances that draw out these effects from us. If you believe in the science, though, then it is possible to describe the chemistry and physics involved in what makes music “good.” A lot of medical studies have been done on this. Since humans are the product of chemicals interacting with environments, and since music is a way to adjust a physical environment, I’m inclined to trust the objective descriptions of “good” music.
There. I found a formula for Cool music, and therefore the secret code to get into the Cool Kids Club.
Or so I thought.
So, like, I knew The Ramones when I was a kid,
The Ramones are Legendary.
When I was a little older, I discovered that the Cool Kids like the Sex Pistols. Which baffled my little imagination. The Ramones, I thought in my early to mid teens, were an objectively better band. They produced better music, they produced more of it, they seemed to love what they were doing. They embodied an entire cultural movement without the help of some branding specialist or the vast reach of becoming a world-shaking phenomenon.
They were, in my mathematical mind, and in every technical sense, a better band. A Truth.
Yet, somehow, they weren’t that Cool. A Fact. My measure of this was the experience of saying, “Hey, I’m into punk,” to other kids who seemed to be into punk. Then they’d ask if I was into The Misfits — no — or the Buzzcocks — no — or at least the Sex Pistols — no. And these other kids who were into punk would get this discouraged look on their faces, like I must not really be into punk.
Then I’d say I was into The Ramones. They’d say, “Oh, I heard one of their songs. They did ‘Brain Stew’ right?”
No. That’s Green Day.
But I always said, yes. You’ve got it.
That’s how I knew I still wasn’t Cool.
Which just created a new puzzle…
What was this last dimension of Cool that eluded me?
Simple answer: cultural impact. That by itself is easy to study. Continuing the theme here of The Ramones vs. Sex Pistols, it doesn’t take much studying to figure out that The Ramones never got out of the indie scene in North America till they’d nearly finished their careers. They had long, successful, steady careers, and they impacted the music industry, and they did it all in near complete obscurity. They opened for White Zombie once fairly early in White Zombie’s career, but The Ramones had been around for fifteen or twenty years at that point. They were still openers after they’d been at their business for half their lives.
The Sex Pistols, on the other hand, exploded. They were together for less than a year, but they blew up the world. They forced an international punk scene into existence by rude force. Even when the band broke up, the tidal wave of their cultural impact hasn’t finished sending its ripples around the ocean of reality. That wave might never completely fade. Nor should it.
Okay, so I had some objective facts to help me understand this Equation of Cool better. There’s objectively “good” music in the world, but that’s not the only truth to consider when determining Cool music. The larger question to consider is the cultural impact of the music.
I stopped myself there before I got too lost, because I learned that all the significant British punk bands started their bands after this particular small concert they attended. The band that they all saw was The Ramones.
You don’t get any more bloody impactful than that. Every band that got famous for being vaguely punk did it, in part, because they saw The Ramones once and realized that there was someone out there helping them find a voice.
That is the Coolest thing that music can do, right?
That’s the wrong question.
The right question:
Who is Cool?
I did something intelligent that helped me save a lot of time: I learned the difference between “Induction” and “Deduction.”
I’m a natural deductive thinker. Deduction is the process of coming to conclusions from clues. Gather information, then conclude something. That’s deduction.
That’s a good way of researching something. It’s what I had been doing. But it doesn’t work as well in real life, not compared to its whimsical brother.
Induction is the process of finding a finished product and discovering its sources.
Discovering the ingredients of music that makes Cool Kids was taking me years. I figured that out and turned the question around.
I wanted to speed up the process. So I found some Cool Kids, and figured out what they like. It was so simple, I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t done it sooner.
By this process, I found The Offspring. A good starting off point, as it happens. They’re intelligent enough to understand their own heritage and Cool enough themselves to understand their context. By their secretly nerdy initial tutelage, I really started into the world of listening to music for pleasure. I downplayed my desire to know the Culture that went into bands, and I lost myself in guitar riffs and good lyrics. I slowly forgot that I wanted to be Cool, and learned that I wanted better drum solos.
Until Tamara Borisova and Dopes to Infinity.
You ever met one of these people who walks into a room and you can just tell they’ve got a thousand facebook friends?
But not in the annoying way where they go out and just add anyone they’ve got the vaguest connection to. I don’t mean like that. I mean the type of person who never sends out friend requests. Ever. She’s got a thousand friends on facepalm because everyone knows by magical instinct, as soon as they see her, that if they’re associated with her then that will increase their Cool quotient. They’ll be more Cool by mere association.
Tamara’s like that. She’s pretty and witty, and irritatingly intelligent, annoyingly stylish, and she commits that most cardinal sin: she’s actually very likable.
When I met her she went on the Cool Kids list without hesitation. We’re facepalm friends, and she says clever things about grammar on there sometimes.
And that’s the extent of our friendship, really. She’s Cool, and I know about her in that distant and elemental way that we know facetube people who are objectively Cool.
The other day, she reminded me of my quest to be Cool by liking the right music, and she did it quietly and by simply reminding me that there are Cool people in the world.
See, my journey into Cool Music that started with The Ramones — loosely — took me deep into the realms of guitar and bass and drums and howling. Through The Offspring and into Coheed and Cambria, till I have my opinion about Megadeth vs. Metallica, and I know the place of DragonForce in these realms. I know punk is an ideal, metal is a map, country is a root, and rap is a rhythm. I know what’s cool about The Eels and Beck, and I know the two lame things about Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I know I should respect Eminem and the Beastie Boys, and I know that I should appreciate Tupac and Run-D.M.C., and I know that if you want to understand rap then you have to understand Blondie and Aerosmith. I know that being a fan of Muse, in spite of evidence to the contrary, does not make it impossible to be a fan of Queen, and vice versa. I know now that Cool Music culminates with bands like The Heavy and Firewater, even if you don’t always want to listen to them; and I know that rock and roll started in the gruff throats of Johnny Cash and Tom Waits, and not as much with Chuck Berry as sometimes people say. I now understand that The Rolling Stones are like a skin over the huge insides of the world, and that Robert Johnson is probably the deepest down part of the world.
I’ve gotten well and blissfully lost in these wandering worlds. So much that I’ve quite forgotten why I wanted to understand music.
Until my adventuring led me to post this on facespotz (via tweeterz):
Something funny happened at that moment. A bunch of clues fell into place and a conclusive calm elevated the moment. I’m sure Sherlock Holmes feels the same way whenever he solves mysteries, like a whole line of events leading to an inevitable conclusion suddenly conclude. It was a real harmony of the spheres moment.
I really like the album Dopes to Infinity by Monster Magnet. It’s good music, according to the measures of well-arranged coincidences I talked about above. It seems to set out to make you angry, thoughtful, and ready to laugh all at the same time. I think it accomplishes that. I’m cognizant that other people might react differently to it, but that’s one of the beauties of music: it exists on an objective level, where technical facts apply, and it exists on a subjective level, where people can have true opinions about it.
Whether I like it or not, Tamara — probably without even thinking about it — demonstrated something about Dopes to Infinity: The Cool Kids like it.
Which means, in my meandering, slow way, I finally picked the right music.
I’m finally Cool.
Which is sort of cool, I guess, except…
Valhalla seems more important than ever.
Funny thing…it doesn’t seem to matter how much I think the be-all of living is being Cool. The truth is, while I drift to sleep, the ailing question that requites my attention is not, have I been Cool today?
The question that ushers me to, or wrests me from, my dreams…
Have I been noble?
Do I walk the way to Valhalla?
My favorite song off of Dopes to Infinity is “Negasonic Teenage Warhead.” I don’t know what was up with the lyricist while writing it. I will look it up someday, but I feel less urgency to do that than I used to. You don’t have to look up the world of the poet to get meaning out of the poetry. You can quote me on that.
The song says:
I can tell just by the climate, I can tell just by the style, I was born and raised on Venus and I may be here a while.
The lyric isn’t the epitaph of John Keats (one of the profoundest lines of poetry ever writ, in my opinion), but it’s heartfelt words. It’s as much an attempt to say something real as any of Keats’ pleas for connection.
I can learn something from that. I do, in fact, strive to learn something from that. Words that come from someone who’s lived a different life than I’ve lived have value.
See? Even when I’ve found something Cool, I read it like Culture.
Never going to be Cool enough for the Cool Kids Table.
The truth is, Culture and I have a terminal relationship.
I got the girl in the end. She is lovely.
You ever been so sure you’re cool you can feel your bones turning into carbon fiber? Only to realize, on reflecting, that you’re only yourself but that’s okay? Have you ever thought about the difference between truth and facts?
Cleverer than he appears, but not quite so clever as he thinks, Oliver arranges words into pleasing orders, sometimes on purpose. He plans to be reckoned by future historians the David Bowie of Novelists, but expects to be reckoned the Pepe the King Prawn of twitter trolls.
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