Why I Won't Tell My Kids It's Cool To Be Different
My friend Vinny is classically cool. Already, we're dealing in vague terms: Vinny is classic surfer bro cool. He has flowing blonde hair, talks about “getting pitted” and describes things as gnarly.
I'm sure he knows several Dispatch songs on guitar. But despite being a walking, talking cliché, he's also a sweetheart: funny, kind, affable and light.
He is all these things unabashedly and genuinely. The kid's authentic; this keeps him from being a tired cutout. If he were an awful person, he'd just be a stereotype, but since he's a gem, he's classic cool.
But when he waddles into the room in his wetsuit after a morning of “shredding killer waves,” pushes his Patrick Swayze "Point Break" blonde locks out of his face and says, “Let's chief a doobie, bro,” why is Vinny still cool?
In the world of cool (which, by the way, isn't the most important sh*t in the world), Vinny's credibility is facing a dangerous threat: uncool.
The implication of the alternative lifestyle is that there are at least two coexisting definitions of cool: a normal cool with established traditions and tastes, and a world of things that achieve coolness by being fundamentally different from the norm. These things are cool because they provide a relief from the norm.
This is one of the geniuses of alternative culture; whether it be the pixie cut you got because you were tired of only seeing women with long hair in commercials, the tattoo you got because your parents told you not to one too many times or the holes in your jeans simply because you didn't ever want to end up like that one guy who wore a suit every day in high school.
Somewhere along the line, things started to get muddled (maybe they always were?). In not conforming to the standards of conventional beauty, we discovered alternative forms of beauty.
But perhaps, in exploring alternative forms of beauty, is there a chance that we just started calling really ugly things beautiful? Ugly, by whose standards?
I remember thinking that girls looked really funny wearing dad jeans and old cutoff Levi's that they buttoned around the naval.
These days I can't walk out of my house without seeing those styles. The same thing happened with Uggs: I thought they were odd space boots, and then one day they were everywhere.
Floral rompers started as confusing one-pieces made of my Grandma's upholstery and ended up being a beautiful standard. My own fashion underwent similar changes; baggy jeans were an ideal way to hide my chicken legs, now skinny jeans are the essential way to dress them.
It was informative going to a liberal California college in the swing of hipsterdom, when basically every single rule of conventional beauty is being ritualistically torn apart as people savagely try to claim their own flavor of “being different,” usually all by doing the exact same thing.
Here, I cite the Skrillex haircut: It's not different if you all have it.
Even some of my friends in the LGBTQ community have complained about people adopting bisexuality as a fashion statement. “I'm not gay because it's cool,” my friend told me, “I'm cool because I'm cool. I also happen to be gay.”
We may be the first generation raised on “it's cool to be different” and actually believe it. One of the unintended consequences of this, I fear, is that it's impossible to be cool while being similar.
It's become a pissing contest to see who is most different, who's the most individual and who's the least like everyone else.
At this moment, I turn to André 3000 for guidance. He is one cool cat. He's an outlandish dresser whose style ranges from Hendrix to whatever we'll wear when we start trying to copy what Martians wear; he even released the Benjamin Bixby clothing line modeled after 1930s American prep fashion.
But no where is André's steez more evident than on stage, standing beside the other half of the Atlanta duo, Big Boi.
Big Boi is hip-hop's version of classic cool. When you see him perform, he's got some stompin' kicks and an incredibly clean lid. Meanwhile, André's wearing neon orange fluffy pants.
Their two breeds of cool go beyond their clothes, as all real cools do: Big Boi plants his feet firm to the ground and bobs back and forth, a stout but bouncy man. André hops around on one foot, precariously teetering on the edge of falling over in his wildness.
When the duo released the double album, Speakerboxx/The Love Below in 2003, fans saw the yin and yang of Outkast distilled in their separate components: a dirty south rap album from Boi, and an ethereal space-funk album from 3000. In the world of rap standards and conventions, Big Boi is classic and André is alternative.
The only time I've ever seen Outkast in the flesh, like many of my immediate peers, is in their recent string of reunion tour dates, the victory lap of a duo that changed the game permanently. It was during the second weekend of Coachella.
“I'll wear a bandana. I don't normally do that, that's quirky and hippy,” I said. About 30,000 other guys decided that it'd be quirky and hippy, too. My female friend wore some heart-shaped sunglasses because they would be quirky and hippy. She found 30,000 people who agreed with her.
A crowd of people all dressed differently in the exact same way. Skrillex cuts as far as the eyes could see.
Halfway through Outkast's set, the duo broke apart and performed individual solo work. The visuals behind them said it all.
Big Boi went first and his images, projected on a screen eight times bigger than the artist himself (a reference to the size of the stage, not the man), were classic hip-hop: huge booty-ed women, slow walking and pole-dancing, the stereotypical sort of depiction in the genre that has for so long garnered criticism.
After Big Boi finished his solo bit, he invited André to the stage (“come on out, Dré… come on Stacks…”), and things changed. The tempo slowed, the lights mellowed and the sexy got turned up a notch or two.
André didn't rap; he sang -- really, he crooned. In the visuals behind him, instead of pole dancers, we were treated to something far more sensual while being simultaneously far less explicit.
Over several minutes, we watched one pair of underwear being taken off without ever seeing anything between the thighs. It was literally just legs. But it was so much more enticing watching this relatively banal display compared to the full-on flesh explosion of Big Boi's.
Part of what made hip-hop so counter-culture when it emerged was its overt sexuality, which has now become a problematic staple of the genre.
While an argument deserves to be made about whether or not a slow panty-peeling really counts as breaking with tradition, it was undeniable that André was doing something different than his contemporaries, even if formally it resembled a more reserved, pre-hip-hop form of sexual performance.
Ironically, Big Boi was being classic in his continuance of the hip-hop tropes that set the genre aside as different in the first place (even if those tropes are now played out), while André was being alternative to the genre by defying the norms that set it aside in the first place.
As his wails of “I think I'm in love again,” echoed over the slowly swaying, glisteningly sweaty, erotically charged crowd, there was a consensus that this was not your normal rap concert.
Big Boi was cool.
André was ice cold.
Here, I find myself at a contradiction: How are Vinny, in his so-classic-he's-almost-a-stereotype, and André 3000, in his being-different-than-everyone-who's-already-being-different, still simultaneously both cool?
An optimist would say that with the growth of alternative culture and the perpetuation of non-traditional forms of beauty, we would have a more accepting world. If cool were still cool, but being un-cool were also cool, there'd just be more cool.
That'd be cool.
But that's not how I've experienced it. I've found the people who are most hung up on being different are the ones who are the most judgmental.
Their core identities are founded on being unlike everyone around them, on standing out, which leads to both an extremely critical assessment of everyone around them at all times and a simultaneous, deep self-absorption.
An identity founded on being different than its surroundings is inherently without its own features; it exists solely as an antithesis.
“But wait, André wasn't on stage being a pretentious hipster! He was up there grooving his ass off!” His version of being different was just dope, and none of us felt a lick of judgment for our bandanas and heart-shaped glasses.
After André 3000 finished his song, “Prototype," a slow, funky song that's almost entirely sung rather than rapped, he addressed the crowd:
I used to hate performing that song, he told us.
He used to be nervous singing because everyone had told him that rappers didn't sing. He paused.
And now they're doing it on every damn song … so there ya go.
The crowd went wild; the inner weirdo in every one of us letting loose our rebel yells.
I won't raise my children on the idea that being different is cool. I don't want them to think that there's value in trying to define yourself against someone else.
It only leaves you judgmental, tearing down other people whenever you're struggling with your own identity (which is basically all the time).
I want my children to live that moment of the rebel yell, when it no longer matters whether or not they're dressed similarly to or differently from the world around them.
“It's cool to be yourself.” I'll tell them. If you want to let your flag fly, fly it proud. If you want to fall in line, fall proudly. Gay? Straight? If it's honest, it's cool. Surfer bro? Alien rap god? Elite Daily writer?
“It's not cool to be different. It's cool to be authentic,” I'll tell them.
Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures/The Breakfast Club