The Delusion of Cool

The morning after Steve Lamacq played Shampoo, the conversations in school were reminiscent of an infiltrated Resistance cell. No one wanted to let on that they knew there was a problem, but nor did they want to be perceived as part of it. No one wanted to make a statement, only to elicit statements from others. We were the indie kids, and like every group bar maybe the rugby team we saw ourselves as at once the coolest set, and an embattled minority. Now, all of a sudden, there was a verse in our Bible that looked a lot like heresy. Sure, Blur had gone fairly poppy recently but they had form, that was allowed. Who were this new band playing what sounded suspiciously like, well, a pop song?

We came to some form of accommodation in the end. I forget the details, but liking Shampoo turned out to be permissible. Whatever the details were, it should be immediately evident now that we all wasted a great deal of time, energy and anxiety on a meaningless question. Not whether we liked the song (a valid question, albeit usually an easy one to decide) but whether we ought to like the song. Right there you have the pernicious delusion that is ‘cool’.

You may think we’ve moved on from times like that; after all, these days Q has articles on Duran Duran and it’s a rare indie club that doesn’t play some eighties classics and even a few modern hip hop hits. And to some extent, perhaps things are better. But I still find myself from time to time arguing with people who, while they’re not too keen on nu-metal themselves, prefer The Kidz being into that than ‘manufactured crap’. Now, even leaving aside for one moment that Linkin Park are every bit as manufactured as Phixx, and without (in my opinion) anything like the same quality of music, when did that ever become a reason in the first place? Answer: it was always a reason, but it’s only ever applied in the present day. We’re all long acclimatised to Motown being taken seriously in spite of its ‘hit factory’ ethos; nowadays Stock, Aitken and Waterman have been rehabilitated too. In fifteen years time whatever music magazines survive will have Simon Cowell retrospectives in which they’ll (quite rightly, if belatedly) praise some fine records with which he was involved, while glossing over all the rubbish ones. Just as the Establishment proper tends to reward longevity, even in rebels, with an OBE, the music establishment will give the once-derided their Lifetime Achievement Brit so long as they stick it out. Does time actually change anything? It may change the artists, true, but it won’t change the art. If the early records form part of a ‘lifetime achievement’ now, they were always an achievement and should have been treated as such at the time. All time confers is respectability.

For whatever reason, what used to be ‘the indie scene’ seems to have adapted itself better than most to these realities. You’ll still be hard pressed to find indie or post-indie kids who like Liberty X, true, but for all its faults (and it has many) NME will happily give good reviews to Jay-Z or Guns’n’Roses. Conversely, it’s unlikely that Kerrang! or The Source would notice a Hefner retrospective, much less praise it. There’s perhaps an element of bandwagoneering to such behaviour from the indie, but if that’s what it takes for people to swallow their tribal allegiance, well, better that than the appalling excuse for a philosophy that is ‘keeping it real’. It’s ironic in a mildly upsetting way that a music like hip hop, whose greatest strength lies in the ease with which it can plunder whatever it likes of other genres to feather its own nest, should have become thus preoccupied. There are honourable exceptions – Outkast being the obvious example but still a fine one – but when so many rappers give interchangeable interviews about the streets, the ‘hood and so forth, it becomes clear that here pandering to the cool template is as important as ever, maybe more so.

In a Verona cafe I once saw a girl singing along to the Celine Dion track on the cook’s cassette with tears in her eyes. My position on Celine Dion was, and remains, that I’d rather listen to roadworks than ever hear her warbling insincerities again. Nonetheless I recognised that that girl was looking in music for the same things I was looking for, just finding them in very different places. And that deserves so much more respect than all the cool kids hunting down obscure tracks for the kudos, or listening to the unlistenable to prove how alternative they are. I’m sure some people do get a genuine buzz out of those 7″s, or even out of Linkin Park, and good luck to them; I just wish the others would stop kidding themselves.

Alex Sarll | Spring 2004