There were a lot more laughs than political discourse, but one statement made me blow a gasket. Professor Mary Corey was discussing the history of cool. She had it right for the most part. It began in the mid-50s with movies such as The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. Marlon Brando put the motorcycle-riding WWII vets on the map, and then James Dean defined teenagers as an independent demographic with its own set of rules. Since then, we’ve had these ten-year blips of subcultures where kids invent new music and fashion and have a great time sowing their wild oats.
The anger began when Corey brought up Normal Mailer’s essay “The White Negro,” where he talks about cool culture pre-40s as white people mimicking blacks, but I became enraged when Corey twisted it into a smug attack on the “bourgeoisie” and how youth culture was always about ripping off the poor. I interrupted her by asking if there was anything more bourgeois than being a professor—being paid to pontificate about leisure movements and then taking off every seventh year to go ruminate in Paris. Hearing today’s kids called mindless consumers drives me nuts. They get their clothes at secondhand shops, and the ones they do buy have fewer logos than when I was their age. They don’t buy music. They steal it. They can create their own band out of nothing by mixing samples and genres and new instruments, and they get these songs to their fans without a record label. They’re not stealing anything from blacks. They are black. Mailer’s essay is a half-century old, and today’s incarnation of cool is more inclusive than any before it. We all know how misogynist the hippies really were. The Free Love movement was only a groovy way to take advantage of women. Punk pretended to be open to everyone, but an Afro Mohawk was about as common as a well-respected white rapper. Today’s kids couldn’t care less who’s black, gay, rich, or poor.
“Which brings me to my next point,” I said. “Where did this theory begin that hipsters are all rich posers?” I’ve met thousands of them over the years and have yet to meet a soul who lives off a trust fund. (I’ve met plenty of trust-fund kids, but they’re more into being fabulous in Monaco than going to see a punk band.) They have the same amount of money young people have always had—barely any. They don’t drink Pabst because they’re trying to appropriate working-class culture. They’re drinking it because it’s cheap. They drive track bikes because they don’t get stolen. They listen to iPods because it’s the most musical bang for your buck. When you look into modern youth culture and examine all the criticisms, one truth becomes impossible to ignore: Today’s kids are the best. They are savvier, better connected, more informed, less consumerist, and more capable of everything—including partying—than my generation or yours.
As I keep screaming: We like to pretend things are getting worse and our entire civilization is on the verge of collapse, but the opposite is true. We’ve never been wealthier. Food’s never been cheaper or more abundant. Water’s never been cleaner. The air’s the least polluted it’s been in 100 years. We’ve never lived longer. It only makes sense that cool would follow suit. Instead of griping about it and trying to find ways to rain on their parade, it’s time academics and culture critics stood aside and let the kids have some fun. Being cool has never been cooler, and if you think their shirts are too loud, you’re too old.
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