“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fucking truth.” -High Fidelity
I was at a panel at Northeastern University the other day talking about activism (specifically talking about activism around rape. That’s the only subject I ever receive invitations to speak publicly about. It’s kind of depressing). There was a professor on panel who was head of Northeastern’s Communications department, and in an attempt to explain why people don’t speak out more about these issues, he made a salient point: “Caring about things isn’t cool,” he said. “And we desperately want to be cool.”
I could tell right then and there that I was getting old, because my first thought was, “wait, when did this fucking start?” As background, age-wise I am placed squarely in between generations X and Millennial – I think they call us Generation Y, which seems like an insulting afterthought. Growing up as the bastard middle child between two generations gave me some amount of perspective on both, and I can tell you: Gen Xers did not think caring was uncool.
Let me qualify: the 1980s and 90s offered up a lot of opportunities for activism (activism that was albeit scoffed at by narcissistic Boomers because it wasn’t loud enough for them), but that’s not the kind of caring I’m referring to here. Gen X was marked by how much they cared about their pop culture passions. Movies, music – these things mattered. They were cool as fuck, but more than that, they were important, and people treated them as such.
Author Rob Sheffield is just such a person. By his own account, Sheffield was definitely not that cool growing up. In fact, you might call this book a catalogue of his uncoolness, from his obsession with religion, to his really overbearing Smiths phase (didn’t we all know someone who went through that phase?). It is here, at this intersection of an uncool young man and his music, that we find both the heart of the story and the meaning of its title. The young Sheffield didn’t know how to be cool. But Simon LeBon of Duran Duran – that guy knew how to be cool. He was cool, and women loved him. Therein began Sheffield’s education in love and coolness, because don’t kid yourself – they go hand in hand.
The book is fantastic, just to be clear. Like his first effort, Love is a Mixtape, each chapter corresponds to a musical moment, in this case, songs from the 80s and early 90s. Each of those songs corresponds with an intimate moment of Sheffield’s childhood – nostalgic, usually embarrassing, always poignant and hilarious. The music ranges from Madonna and New Kids on the Block to the Psychedelic Furs and Roxy Music, Haysi Fantayzee to, of course, Duran Duran. There are some really good songs in here, and there are some really bad songs. What impressed upon me the most from the musical selection was that even the really bad songs (“Cars With the Boom,” by L’Trimm, for example, and don’t tell me you don’t remember that song because you’re lying) are so much better than most of what is on the radio today. Because at least they have a personality.
Dave Grohl made this point about the dearth of diversity and personality in today’s music at the Grammy’s (which was then ridiculously misinterpreted, more on that here), and I think it bears repeating. I’m not saying there isn’t still great popular music out there – though I would argue almost all of it is being made by rap and hip-hop artists – but the mass of auto-tuned shit that dominates the airwaves today is indicative of a much broader, much scarier cultural theme: the music on the radio all sounds the same because it all is the same. It’s the audible interpretation of a culture where it’s uncool to care too much, to try too hard. I’m not arguing Duran Duran’s “All She Wants Is” is some sort of masterpiece of lyrical perfection (what? what does she want??), but it’s certainly better than fucking “Baby” (“and I’m like baby, baby oh, like baby, baby, baby no?” REALLY, BIEBER?). That’s why I loved this book so much. Because it brought me back to a time when the good music was great, but even the bad music was at least trying. When, in short, people gave a shit about what they did and didn’t like.
This book is many things, but it is at it’s most basic point achingly, sometimes cringe-inducingly, sincere. In that way, it’s like the best of John Hughes and Cameron Crowe put together – two Gen X directors who taught us that it was never uncool to be yourself, and to stand up for what you like.
That’s the beating heart of the book – it is goddamn cool to care. It doesn’t even particularly matter what you care about: music, movies, liturgy (because there’s some of that in here too), the Red Sox, obscure first edition graphic novels. All that matters is that you claim something in the world as your own and love it fiercely, even if it doesn’t particularly deserve it (Duran Duran is not that good). You know the saying, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference? The same thing goes for coolness. Indifference is easily confused for cool because of its uncanny similarity to confidence. But those indifferent assholes who think Leonard Cohen is old and boring and has a shitty voice, whose taste in film doesn’t go past the top 5 box office performers of the present year, who root for whichever team is currently winning championships, who sure as hell wouldn’t be spending their free time reading and reviewing 52 books in a year: fuck those people. Those people are going to be so boring once they hit adulthood. Hell, they’re boring now, and they definitely aren’t cool. Because coolness isn’t about being apathetic and auto-tuned. It’s about embracing what you love and not giving a shit what anyone else thinks about it. By that measure, Simon LeBon is indeed cool but you know what? So is Rob Sheffield.
Recommended for: Gen X-ers for the nostalgia factor, but really anyone who loves music or a good coming-of-age story.
Read When: You’re on a bus, or somewhere otherwise tedious, like the waiting room of a dentist’s office. It’ll make the ride/wait/whatever much better.
Listen With: The book is literally a playlist, you lazy fuckers.