I learned about music, and then I learned about coolness, and became paralyzed with fear.
At first, I liked the right music at the right time. When I was a very small child, you were free to like whatever music you chose. But if you weren't paying close attention, you could end up liking the right music too long, and then it became the wrong music. The movie Grease came out the summer after I was in fifth grade, and I started to listen to the music of Olivia Newton-John. I bought some of her older, countryish albums, and also a poster, a close-up of her face as it appears on Olivia Newton-John's Greatest Hits. I put the poster up on my bedroom door, and once I practiced kissing it. Not long after, she released her post-Grease album, for which she took a page from her fictional counterpart, Sandy Olsson, and had something of a makeover. On the cover of Totally Hot, she's dressed in a black leather jacket and black leather pants. The music was a bit more vigorous than her prior output, but not enough to scare me away.
By the time Olivia Newton-John released another album, three years later, it was the 1980s. The album was called Physical, and she had once again updated her look — headbands and pastels. I was a freshman in high school, and everyone around me liked Genesis and Rush. I knew that I shouldn't still be listening to Olivia Newton-John, that it was no longer cool, but one evening, at Sears, I asked my dad to buy me the album. I opened up the record in the car on the way home and read some of the lyrics aloud in a slightly mocking voice, as though I had to make fun of it a little bit, even in front of my dad. One night I tuned into an Olivia Newton-John television special, really just a series of videos for the songs on the record. The last song was called "Promise (The Dolphin Song)," in which Olivia promised dolphins that she would spread an environmental message, and in the accompanying video she swam with a few dolphins in a little bay. The dolphins jumped and made clicking noises. I watched this video, and it made me feel incredibly happy. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning, the beauty and happiness were still with me, and they stayed with me until I got on the school bus and overheard a cool girl named Vickie say to someone else, "Oh my god, did you see that Olivia Newton-John show on TV last night? That was so gay."
Physical got sold at our next garage sale. I'm sure I trembled at the thought that someone I knew from school would come by and spot it, in the same way that I feared kids from the neighborhood walking down our street would look through our picture window and see the Lego constructions that I still built spread across our dining room table. In the grip of cool-paranoia, I bought no popular music. In conversation with my schoolmates I would reference in noncommittal ways music that I knew was considered cool but that I knew nothing about. I once tried the following conversational gambit on an older kid with whom I worked backstage at our high school theater and whom I barely knew: "Hey, I saw in the newspaper the other day that The Who's Greatest Hits is on sale at Record Town for only $4.99." He looked at me blankly.
And then I mastered coolness, in the way that people do. Some more experienced friends lent me some records and I learned about classic cool bands, and I picked up Rolling Stone and learned about new cool bands, and I bought some records on my own, and then I was finally cool. And, as a bonus, I became cool not in the way of the cool kids who liked Rush and Genesis and whom I soon discovered weren't cool after all, but in the way of the unquestionably cool kids who liked the Smiths and X and R.E.M. There were some hiccups along the way — in college, in the late '80s, I still liked the Bangles, who had once been cool and then had gone "commercial," and I was a fan of Rickie Lee Jones, who was cool but nobody else knew it, and I secretly listened to 'Til Tuesday, who weren't cool by anyone's standards — I had to wait another decade, until Aimee Mann recorded the Magnolia soundtrack and became totally cool, to be proved right about that one.
Of course, as I got older, coolness didn't seem to matter anymore. I mean, not much. I'm still a little conscious of it. Sure, there are bands out there, like jj and Sun O))), that might be perceived by some to be at a slightly higher level of coolness, slightly more recherché, than the ones I do listen to, like the Shins and the Decemberists, that have a more garden-variety kind of coolness. And I'm okay with that. Really. And once I rented a DVD of Suzanne Vega videos and watched it through, with the commentary on, and told this to a friend who likes Wolf Parade and School of Seven Bells and a lot of other bands whose names I see on Pitchfork and don't bother to click on 'cause it's too much to process, and he said, "Not many people would admit to that." But I'm telling you all, that Suzanne Vega DVD was an hour pleasurably spent. Not that Suzanne Vega doesn't have her own kind of coolness. After all, she's on that unreleased Danger Mouse thing, which is really cool. But then, you know, there's "Luka," which was uncoolness itself. Or possibly so uncool that it's now cool.
Not too long ago I wondered if perhaps coolness might not matter to anyone anymore. After the death of Michael Jackson, it has been pointed out that we'll never again live in a world where millions of people all own the same record. With the breakdown of the major music corporations and the ascension of indie culture, might there just be too many different styles and bands and songs for any one to predominate? Look at these teenagers walking down the block in my Brooklyn neighborhood, I thought. They seem like nice kids. I'm sure they all let each other listen to whatever they want. A new generation must be clearing away the snobberies of the past few decades. This idea made me euphoric. Coolness was dead!
I trotted out this theory, founded on no evidence whatsoever, at a group reading for Heavy Rotation. And one of my fellow readers, Joshua Ferris, looked across the table to me, and said, "Yeah, but you're not 15 anymore."