It’s simple. There are people who get it, and people who don’t. Though almost everyone thinks they get it, it’s actually those people who understand they will never get it who get it the most. A matter of self-awareness, basically.
Also a matter of understanding things. Ephemeral things like where the best late-night dumplings are—invariably up or down a darkened staircase in the centre of the city, at a restaurant with a faded logo and a long and complicated menu featuring far too much seafood considering the establishment’s lack of proximity to the ocean. Or how to make friends at a party without becoming a burden on anyone, without becoming someone who must be politely ditched for the bar or the toilet queue. The art of discussing politics insightfully. The ability to slip your way past an argument and instead place everyone at ease.
Getting it involves instinctively picking what song to put on in the car, without more than a moment’s thought confidently plugging the auxiliary cable and playing a perfect track—perhaps new, perhaps old—that somehow everybody in the vehicle knows and loves. Arranging the books on one’s bookcase properly and buying the right books in the first place. Taking drugs in order to have fun but not become an object of fun. Becoming only so irritated by someone’s lack of thoughtfulness as that particular moment requires. Paying attention. Forgiving and forgetting grievances because forgiving and forgetting is ultimately kinder to the self. Standing out on the internet, curating a profile to create envy but also adoration. Living a life that creates one thousand funny anecdotes accidentally, and then delivering those anecdotes succinctly and at the perfect moment for the perfect audience. To get it is to give a fuck only when truly compelled to do so.
All of this stuff seems subjective, except it isn’t. There are, at any given time, strict rules as to what is and isn’t cool. Some people get to decide on those rules, but those people are probably not you.
I’m not saying that I get it. Unfortunately, I’m the worst kind of non-getter. Because I know what I should get—get what I should get—know all about it, in detail, have studied, have thought about it in great depth, and just listed some of what I know of it for you above. But that doesn’t mean so much. The great dilemma of coolness is of course that it should be effortless, or at least appear so. To have an academic understanding of what is cool and what is not cool during a certain cultural moment does not, unfortunately, mean that you get it. To be too studied is a problem. You know who knew an awful lot about music? Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Every boy or man I’ve fallen for, and most friendships I’ve made, have been attempts to commune with the zeitgeist of cool. To either connect with someone who gets it in the same way I get it, or someone who gets it in a way that I want to eventually get it. Our relationships when we are young are all like this. Of mutual benefit or bust. Never are they of the slower, kinder kind. Relationships with somehow more and less obligation—a different sort of effort required. The first time you fall for someone and stop caring what music they’re into, that’s a moment. Refuse to understand their particular moments of uncoolness—a penchant for Doctor Who, a bad haircut, a Pinterest board dedicated to DIY projects—as deal breakers. That is a truer kind of getting it than getting it, perhaps. Recognising the slowburn cumulative dangers of prolonged nonchalance.
There are some experts who can explain. According to Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist whose unfortunately candid Wikipedia photo I’m gazing at right now, depicting him looking surprisedly at a camera and lurching to the right with mouth agape, a reader’s personal background and context will change both their ability to access a text—we are talking literary theory so unfortunately I will call it a text—say this essay, or a piece of art, or a tweet—and their interpretation of that text. What they get from it. Whether they get it. Assuming of course that there is anything to get, which, also of course, there always is.
The ascertaining of meaning, so says Bourdieu, who is dead by the way, and I’m sure undelighted to be paraphrased in this way by this girl, is dictated by a rigid set of external factors over which you have very little control. Except, of course, if you do have control. Which, after reading these sentences, you maybe do. Because, as any limp Group of Eight liberal arts degree teaches, understanding the influence of someone’s class, race, and gender on their reading of anything will change that reading. But then, you have to be studying the liberal arts in the first place to get this. And there are a set of rigid external factors—such as race, class, gender—which will conspire to put you in such a position. Getting it is entirely political.
Corporations are closer than ever to finally getting it and coming for us all with their market-researched coolness. Luckily, if you yourself get it, you’re less susceptible to their tricks. On my commute home from work every day I pass a new luxury apartment block being built in Fitzroy, Melbourne. It is almost a temptation, but something is off. You can picture the dystopian aesthetics of the development, which is evocatively called Lyric, a disconcerting reference to the suburb’s musical heritage. Its working class roots, its former life as a place where young and poor people could congregate in pubs. These apartments are expensive—by anyone’s standards overpriced. They are blocklike and “open plan”. In the promotional pictures they are stream-filled with natural light. Absolutely bathed in it. And, although they capitalise on the idea of cultural capital, living in these places wouldn’t get you any. Because residing in a preplanned apartment filled with silent white furniture isn’t particularly cool. Although it is perhaps close enough for many people, and no doubt very comfortable and conveniently situated and easy to clean. All that.
You can try and hold onto your personal taste and shape it organically over time, adding a penchant for this and that, cultivating an air of this and that, but someone is already doing it all for you whether you like it or not. Taste cannot exist in a vacuum. All of this, all of your preferences—for black coffee with a dash of milk, for gardening, for authentic Italian gelato, for memes about mental illness, for the books of Michael Chabon—all this has been predetermined. This system operates below the level of consciousness, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by willpower.
I used to be cooler than I am, and that’s a fact. A combination of factors—new city, time-consuming job, anemia-induced constant tiredness courtesy of my ethical but ad hoc vegetarian diet—have conspired to produce the most introverted two years of my adulthood, during which I’ve skated around the edges of scenes and events and influences instead of engaging. At a house party, on the dancefloor, I don’t immediately recognise a Kendrick Lamar song. At work, I develop a reputation I haven’t had since high school: quiet, introverted, and a little dull. Instead of fighting back, I revel in it.
Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps the secret is to live life anyway. To exist without hesitation, to watch the cars slow and cross the street in anticipation of the pedestrian crossing light turning green instead of waiting. The older I get the more comfortable I am with hating things. I don’t have time for what I dislike. I can see my twenties, the golden decade of getting it, disappearing —and I’m not very keen on spending the rest of them with things that dissatisfy. This is me getting myself, finally, I think. No longer being open to all things but rather increasingly wary of them. Knowing when to close and open. Not accepting the assumption of openness as virtue. Creating a self-specific coolness.
Kat is a Melbourne-based writer, editor, and law school drop out. She tweets @kattgillespie