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The Illusion of Cool

Ultimate cool: Robert Plant in his prime. Photo by Henry Diltz.

Hello Troubadourians! Musicians are cool, right? Everyone thinks that their favorite musicians and performers are the ultimate in cool. We accept as a given that we’ll never be as cool as they are. That doesn’t stop us from trying to be cool, and some of us can and do achieve some semblance of coolness. I try, and at one time I actually thought I might be cool too. Then I would catch myself saying or doing something so completely dorky that in an instant it erased any coolness credibility that I might have built. Kind of like the old “atta-boy, aw shit” paradigm where one “aw shit” wipes out five “atta-boys.” (Or ten, or 20 depending on the level of offense…). I’ve always walked that line and I would submit that the concept of coolness is completely contextual. When I was in high school, I was both a “jock” and a “band Freddie” to use the vernacular of the time. It was an ongoing challenge to fit in with the two opposing groups. The expectations were overblown and unrealistic, as most teenage things are, and I found that eventually I just had to choose one. My reasons and path to choosing musician-cool over athlete-cool are boring and convoluted and wouldn’t further the narrative I’m presenting here, but once the choice was made it became my mission to be as cool as I could be.

We all learn how to be cool from observing other people and emulating their actions and behaviors. Remember standing in front of the mirror checking out how low—or high—your guitar should be, how you’re standing, how your clothes look, all with almost complete disregard to how well you can actually play while following this self-imposed image? Sucking at playing didn’t matter as long as you looked cool while you were doing it. Eventually, we arrive at what actually works for us as players and we adapt it to our own version of coolness. Or not. There are some things that never feel right, or look right, and we just have to accept it. With saying all of this you might think that I believe that coolness is achievable. You would be wrong.

I submit that every musician is essentially a dork. We start out that way—remember walking around school with your instrument case, having to not socialize with friends because you have to practice or go to a lesson and all of the grief you endured because of it? And even if we find ourselves in a band and learn to play and perform well enough to have some measure of success or popularity, we still are dorks on the inside and we never forget it. If you don’t believe me, just observe your heroes with a critical eye and you will recognize the inherent dorkiness lying beneath the polished surface they present to their adoring public. I’m resisting naming names for good reason. You might believe your faves are immune and it’s not my place to dissuade you. Yet even legendary musicians and performers have been criticized about one thing or another many times in their careers. And even if the description was more eloquent, they were still being accused of being a dork. Everything is fair game when assaulting one’s coolness is the intent and nothing seems to be off limits.

A good friend once told me that a proper stage outfit was one that you would never wear in public anywhere except on stage. If you were to wear it on the street you might be in fear of getting your ass kicked, ironically by some of the same people who would celebrate your wearing it onstage. Weird. Outrageousness is often a reaction to how inadequate we feel, and the attention helps us to feel accepted. On the other hand, coolness can manifest as a tribal phenomenon. A prime example is the grunge movement in the ’90s. Everyone dressed in jeans and flannel, musicians and fans alike. It’s how we expressed our membership in the tribe. And trust me, those who weren’t in the tribe viewed that as totally dorky. This isn’t anything new, of course. Those of us of a certain age remember getting hassled for our hair. Long or short, if we didn’t conform to the expectations of the group, we’d hear about it from them.

As I mentioned earlier, I was well aware of how coolness was perceived differently in the different groups of which membership was important to me and I will make one exception to my deference to explain my choices. At some point it became clear that women were much more intrigued by my ability to play their favorite song than they were by being told stories of how I scored this or that touchdown. Music goes a long way in promoting intimacy and it never gets old. A performer can connect and identify with the audience—or a specific member of the audience—whenever they perform in ways that an athlete never can. Why is that significant in the context of this article? Musicians, for all their desire for coolness and to be perceived as being cool, can still acknowledge and accept that they are dorks. It’s an inside joke with us. Conversations, topics, and humor that would earn you a punch in a locker room are commonplace backstage and in rehearsal rooms. Male or female, we all go there and we’re accepted for it. We know who we are. We want to be cool and we work at it constantly, but we recognize that it is an illusion. It feels good when we are cool for our brief time in the spotlight. Most of us live for those moments, and they are fleeting at best. For all the work that we put into our playing, our time performing is microscopically short. In those moments we’re free and bigger than life. How cool is that? We’re forever grateful that our audiences and fans think we’re cool and we don’t want to disappoint them. It’s that knowledge that keeps us humble, or at least it should… Stay cool my friends.

Need to know? Just ask… Charlie (ask.charlie@hotmail.com)

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