Once upon a time, being called ‘nerdy’ was every kid’s greatest fear. Today, that fear has been replaced by an even greater fear of appearing cool. In the past ten years, youth culture has skewed toward the nerdy, the nebbish, the defiantly uncool–so much so that the idea of ‘coolness’ seems like a relic of a past era. Or at least, the idea of ‘cool’ that Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) thought Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) represented in True Romance, that classic of Cool Kid cinema.
Where’s the evidence to indicate this slow but steady demise of cool kids? First and foremost, the recent closure of iconic Harajuku street style magazine FRUiTS. And no, we can’t blame Gwen Stefani and her fairly exploitive 2004 track, “Harajuku Girls,” for this unfortunate collapse, so much as, to quote editor Shoichi Aoki’s blunt assessment: “There were no more fashionable kids to photograph.” What this says about the state of sartorial affairs translates, on a larger scale, to tastes and personalities completely lacking in innovation.
Even major clothing chain stores once thought to be the touchstone of cool have increasingly gone the way of the dodo. While, sure, it’s embarrassing to admit now, American Apparel was, indeed, a cool kid haven for the better part of the early 00s, even spurring Tao Lin, the former bad boy of n + 1-style lit, to write a whole book about it. While the protagonist’s primary objective pertains more to G-chatting (itself a coolness relic) rather than stealing an occasional trinket from the Made In USA brand–founded, like VICE, in Montreal–it’s worth noting that key plot points in the narrative center around the nihilistic act of taking overpriced products from the store—all so he can offset at least some of his computer-oriented dweebishness.
Elsewhere, we can trace the demise of cool to the exaltation of the doughy leading man and gawky leading girl in popular culture. It began, arguably, with Michael Cera in Arrested Development and every subsequent role of his thereafter. The success of Emma Stone, thin, pale and freckled, also normalized the previously unheard of concept of being unglamorous and uncool in the mainstream. Then, of course, let us not forget the coining of the phrase “normcore” in the now immortal New York Magazine article from 2014. This epithet at last gave name to the phenomenon of “stylized blandness.” Except now, it appears, there is nothing stylized about it, no trace of irony whatsoever. This is happening—this total lack of coolness. And while, at first, these mild shifts in aesthetics were applaudable, giving hope to those previously fearful that they were doomed to a life of perpetual shame because of their geekdom, it has now gotten way out of hand, promoting banality and slovenliness at every turn. No one seems to have any damn self-pride anymore, as it were.
And so, the new Alabama Whitman chant of elation ought to be “you’re so uncool, you’re so uncool, you’re so uncool.”