The Culture of Cool
So, something Rochelle wrote in my comments last night struck a chord with me, and I've been mulling it over all day. Strap in -- this is a long one.
I'm going to muse out loud on the keyboard for a little while about the subject of coolness. I believe it's a mistake to conflate pop culture with coolness -- in my mind, they are totally separate things that happen to overlap sometimes.
That which is cool is blase, aloof, elusive, and unreachable for those who want to reach it. You (I don't men you personally, by the way. You are fabulous. This is the global you I'm talking about) can't try to be cool, because trying is the mortal enemy of coolness. Being cool is specifically about not trying, about saying "whatever" when asked what you think about something, about being utterly devoid of enthusiasm, and about appearing never to work at something and yet effortlessly achieving it, anyway. Scoring the most beautiful girl without even saying hello to her, wearing sneakers nobody's ever seen before ("oh, I got them in Harajuku. Have you ever been there? No? Oh, that's too bad -- you'd love it there."), releasing a handful of multiplatinum albums posthumously -- all of these are cool.
Oh, and for the record? Cool doesn't necessarily equate good. Things and people that are cool are frequently off-putting, largely because they appear to lack any enthusiasm for their achievements, possessions, looks, talent, or whatever it is about them that makes them so darn cool.
Pop culture is not necessarily cool. Neither does popularity instantly confer goodness on a thing, person, trend, or product.
Here are some illustrative examples I came up with:
Example Set 1:
Johnny Cash: Cool (and also good).
Johnny Cash's 40-year romance with June Carter Cash, which caused them to break with their respective partners, involved June's efforts to break Johnny of his scary drug habit, and caused a great deal of trouble for June's very respectable Country Music Royalty family: Profoundly uncool, but also amazing, inspirational, impassioned, and beautiful. Double also: Coming to a screen near you. Triple also: named by Sarah Vowell as the Greatest Romance of the 20th century. Strangely, Johnny's uncool, enduring romance with June actually makes him cooler. Such is the math of coolness.
Example Set 2:
Beyonce: Uncool. Think about it: she is constantly in our collective face. She's recorded a solo album! She's performing at the Grammys with Prince! She's had 4 top 10 singles in the last year! She toured nonstop in 2004! And then, she released yet another Destiny's Child album, which has spawned 2 Top 10 singles so far! And they're going to tour this summer! This is a woman who lives for success and recognition. Such naked ambition, while laudable, is simply uncool.
Example Set 3:
David Bowie: Cool. Will never, ever not be cool.
Brazilian singer Seu Jorge singing bossa-nova versions of classic Bowie songs in Portuguese for the soundtrack to Wes Anderson's recent film The Life Aquatic: Even cooler. Because who comes up with an idea like re-recording grimy glam rock of the early 1970s in a jazz-inflected style made popular a decade before? Wes Anderson, that's who.
Me, for being an obsessive fan of Bowie, Brazilian music, and Mr. Anderson: Abysmally uncool.It is certainly not cool for me to put on a crazy Strongbad voice when talking with a teen. It's actually very, very dorky. It is, however, fun, and more importantly, it sends the message that I am aware of and engaged with stuff that interests that teen.
And this is the point. You knew I'd get to it eventually, right?
Libraries are not cool institutions. What we do, and what we are here for, is not to be cool. It is to be of use. We should not be focused on coolness, not only because it is something we will never, ever achieve, but because it is antithetical to the point of our existence. We are too earnest, too helpful, and too square to be cool. We are too focused on others -- the public! -- and their needs -- what do they want to read? Or listen to? Or watch? Let's ask them! Let's find out what they care about! -- to be cool. Libraries, and everyone who works in or for them, should be focused on making ourselves and our services not cool, but indispensable.
My continuing interest in & reporting on popular culture is not to prove how cool I am (this would be a total waste of time, because I'm not cool -- I'm enthusiastic.) but to help me find a way to be indispensable to my particular constituency -- teenagers, their families, and their teachers. I ask my library's teens what materials they want, and I make sure to have them on the shelves. I ask them what programs they want, and I figure out how to run them. I want them, when they think of places they're welcome to hang out and just be themselves, to think of the library in their top 5 list of places like that.
The thing is, we can do this with any (and every) slice of the demographic pie we choose -- senior citizens, families of every description, singletons & quirkyalones, every ethnic group you can imagine, Christian homeschoolers, radically progressive unschoolers -- you name it. By schooling ourselves in the cultural language of whatever group we're interested in, we gain credibility and insight. In short, it makes us better librarians.
Indispensability is the key not merely to libraries' survival (a paltry goal), but to a future in which we are thriving. How were your library's collections or services indispensable to one of your patrons today? Tell me all about it & I'll be happy to write it up right here, quoting you warmly & accurately. It doesn't have to involve pop culture, but it'd be nice if it did. :)