It used to be that when something got really popular, it was because people liked it. The Rolling Stones. Star Wars. Hamburgers. There were certain cultural touchstones you had to know, or else conversations left you behind. In grade school, I begged my parents to let me see Jurassic Park. It wasn’t even that I cared about the movie so much. I was a little too old to be going crazy for anything with dinosaurs. It was that everyone else was seeing Jurassic Park. If I didn’t, I’d have nothing to talk about. I’d be lame. And nobody wants to be lame.
Similarly, there has always been a subversive, anti-establishment version of popularity. While my mom grew up listening to The Beatles, my dad dove into the druggy weirdness of the Grateful Dead. Both groups, to their fans, embodied “cool.” The Beatles for their ability to release a zillion perfect pop songs and continue to evolve musically even amidst the maniac throng of their worshipers; The Dead for their refusal to conform to the idea of radio-friendly song structure and insistence on putting their intense, noodly musicianship at the forefront of their concert experience.
It’s always seemed like the defining feature of “coolness” is not caring about seeming cool. You’re known for catchy, standard pop music? Throw a sitar on that next album. If it’s still good, people will go double crazy. You’re a band in the pre-internet era where bootlegging wasn’t just something everyone did from home every day? Encourage your fans to tape your trippy live shows and trade with each other in person.
The iconic images of coolness always seem unconcerned with being observed. James Dean smoking casually in jeans and a white t-shirt. Miles Davis aggressively blowing his trumpet. The cool that has stood the test of time is the cool that seemed unconcerned with being cool. Punk? Still good. Disco? Yuck. Disco tried too hard. Well, punk did too, but disco let the seams show.
Traditionally, there have been two kinds of cool. There’s what I’ll call The Coolness of Numbers. That’s anything that is cool by virtue of overwhelming public support. Grease. Michael Jackson. The Dallas Cowboys. The Coolness of Numbers is jock cool. Then there’s The Coolness of Isolation. That’s an iconoclast that comes to represent the counterculture in a really forceful, visible way. The Velvet Underground. Marilyn Manson. The Sex Pistols. Niche cool. Some people have bridged the gap. Eminem, for one, started as niche cool and ended up as jock cool. Quentin Tarantino is a guy who brought his oddball interests into the mainstream. You get it.
Nowadays, it’s harder to parse. Justin Timberlake is cool, but he has the disadvantage of having been super popular for something super unhip in the past. Lady Gaga is pretty cool. Immensely popular. Eccentric in her public appearances. Thoughtfully strange. But don’t look down even a millimeter. You’re sure to notice the shoulders of the giants her feet are planted firmly upon. How’s it feel down there, Madonna and Bjork?
Here’s the weirdest part. Things that used to be niche cool are becoming jock cool in huge numbers. Batman is pretty big right now. But who’s more of an outcast than Batman? He’s an aloof costume-wearing billionaire with massive psychological scars who can’t stop beating people up. He’s not Tom Brady, is what I’m saying.
And more and more jock cool institutions are becoming totally unapologetically bananas. NBA player/maniac Ron Artest (or should I call him by his recently adopted handle Metta World Peace?) has lost his mind in more ways than I thought possible for one person. He’s now on a stand up comedy tour. What? Stop that, Ron Artest! That is not for you!
In an interview I did with comedian (and Nerdist) Chris Hardwick for Time Out Boston Magazine, he claimed, “nerd culture has become popular culture.” He went on to explain, “Nerds make the coolest stuff. Nerds make the coolest movies. Nerds make the coolest gadgets. Nerds make the coolest digital content. Nerds make the coolest games. Nerds make shiny things, and so it’s good.”
While that explains how outsider culture has come to dominate a large sector of mainstream entertainment, how do you explain how massively successful musicians such as Nickelback, Taylor Swift, and the Jonas Brothers have all the cultural capital of a piñata?
Here’s my theory. We have zillions of hours of entertainment programming and analysis. From old, boring stalwarts like Entertainment Weekly to new, boring internet outlets. They take the things we like about music and movies and boil them down to their component enzymes, which aren’t always that interesting. We hear too much from people who have nothing much to say. So the ones who stick out are the thoughtful weirdos. The people who say interesting things about their art.
But here’s the catch. There’s nothing “cool” about self-reflection. So we’re left with two groups of people: We’ve got the boring people with nothing good to say. And that’s not cool. And then we’ve got the interesting people that think too much about everything. Also not cool.
So who does that leave us with? Who do we look to for that effortless, innate sense of hipness? Who fills the James Dean/Miles Davis void?
Guys, I think we’re down to Rebecca Black.
I know. It hurts me to say it. Believe me, it does. But recent events have made me reevaluate my opinion of her. If you are reading this on the internet but don’t know who I’m talking about…first of all, how? Secondly, here’s a recap: Rebecca Black is a 14-year-old girl whose mother paid $4,000 to have a single and video produced by ARK Music Factory, a company that is probably a scam.
Here’s what happened, though. What should have been less than a footnote in the history of music became an enormous runaway “success.” A song that by all accounts was terrible (with a video that was barely better) became the year’s most inescapable earworm thanks to over 160 million (MILLION!) YouTube views.
Now, the YouTube traffic does not indicate that the music or musician has any artistic merit. Just search “dog fart” to find out how many people will watch a video with no redeeming qualities. For real. Do it.
But, what’s crazy here is that after the irony-fervor around the song peaked and diminished, the video was pulled from YouTube. Great, we all thought, she’s gone. She’s retreated into the relative anonymity of her middle school where she will hopefully exist beneath the radar for four years and then go to a college where she will only have to endure sporadic taunts of “Fun fun fun fun!”
But nope. Last week, she released ANOTHER SINGLE. And it wasn’t like a William Hung cynical snark-embracing cash grab. It’s a legitimately tepid song about seizing the brass ring in spite of adversity. And people do not like it. Because it’s not very good. But that doesn’t matter. It has over seventeen million (MILLION!) views already. Rebecca Black did not learn from her mistakes. She is making the slick, unselfconscious music you’d expect from an 8th grader. She’s making it unapologetically and exuberantly. When people told her she had no talent, she regrouped, returned, and PROVED THEM RIGHT!
Caught up in a whirlwind of people who listen to her music under the auspices of superiority, Rebecca Black returned with exactly what the public expected. She didn’t overdo the camp (well, beyond her previously established level of cheesiness), and she didn’t change up her sound.
She kept plugging along despite her lack of talent, critical acclaim, and popular support. She’s doing things her way. Sometimes bands leave their massive record label to “make the album [they] want to make” instead of producing something radio friendly with mass appeal. Rebecca Black has only one speed. It is radio friendly. It is mass appeal. But it’s exactly what she wants to do.
And what’s more punk rock than that?