Pentatonic Ponderings: I Was Never Cool in School

I Was Never Cool in SchoolBy Magellan

Prelude

Here at Pop Modern, we occupy ourselves with talk of popular culture and worthwhile media. It’s the mission statement of this site, really, to lay our feelings about movies, television, music, video games, and all that other stuff out in front of ourselves, so that we, as well as our readers, can see it and take stock of it. We choose to bury ourselves in diversions and entertainment in the hopes of finding some sort of connection, speaking to each other through the filters of “what-did-you-think”s and “oh-did-you-see”s. I don’t mean to speak for my co-writers, nor do I mean to disparage nerd subculture, but sometimes it’s valuable to look a step beyond the pop parlance to figure out what drives this modern fascination with geek chic.

Track 1: “Underground” by Ben Folds Five (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqADHn7SWlA)

Right there, the first line: “I was never cool in school/I’m sure you don’t remember me.” Geek culture tends to mythologize high school rejection, turning it into a badge of honor. For us (if you’ll allow me to be so bold as to use that pronoun), the idea that “I got a pain in my heart, that’s all” or “There was a girl that passed me by/She gave a smile but I was shy/I looked down, so down” is an intrinsic part of our identities. I remember forcing that narrative onto my own high school experiences, even if I was never shoved into a locker or laughed at by some toe-headed debutante. When the underlying message of the sub-culture is that “I’m still wondering who to be/But I’d love to mix in circles, cliques, and social coteries, that’s me” it makes you think about what we’re doing here. What’s the point behind perpetuating a social storyline in which we’re the lesser presence, in which we comfort ourselves that “Everything’s happy underground”? See, Ben Folds Five make a deft point in this song. There’s a reason they oscillate between saying that “everything’s heavy” and “everything’s happy.” Playing the “woe is me” card gives you a comfortable spot in pop culture, but it also means that you have to shoulder the burden of that woe, affected as it may be.

Track 2: “Charisma Potion” by MC Frontalot (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RL9afO27Kg)

But there’s another side to this story, this nigh-mythical image of the kid who wasn’t cool in school: power. Not only, as was true in “Underground” is the message “Hey, look us losers now, we found a cool thing of our own!” It’s also “Hey, look at us losers now, we’re much cooler than you dickheads!” Again, I’m not trying to be a wet blanket (I do love this song), but it seems interesting to me that those who were abused are now leveraging their talent as license to abuse in turn. I’m not even talking about Frontalot when I say this, since he’s somebody I deeply admire. Rather, I’m talking about the larger story that he’s having a hand in telling, the story about how “INT increased always and didn’t start low/Now it got so high, I get to fake the flow.” We, as geeks, are convinced that brains and taste are a free pass to gloating, and are proudly saying “To the kids who arbitrated on the topic of cool/Look at my cool hat and fuck you.” It seems like our cultural output is fighting a war that ended at the graduation ceremony.

Track 3: “High School Never Ends” by Bowling for Soup (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jrxI_euTX4A)

Then again, perhaps I’m being too harsh and over-analytical. After all, it’s not as if geek culture is the only part of society stuck in the past and mired in stereotypes. There’s truth to the statement that “The whole damn world is just as obsessed/With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex” as it was in high school. Things don’t really change, they just get different labels, and it “Doesn’t matter if you’re sixteen or thirty-five.” It’s easier that way, really, to have a story and a mold for everybody. All that “woe-is-me” and “we’re-smarter-than-you” crap that I derided earlier is just what we’re doing with the niche that society has asked us to fill. If I may make a blatant Star Wars analogy after so disrespectfully putting Frontalot’s feet to the fire: the stagnant geek culture narrative is not so much Han Solo frozen in carbonite as it is just his left arm. The “I was never cool in school” mantra is a piece of a larger, more rigid whole.

Track 4: “Take It Outside” by Barenaked Ladies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2y9uUWcQCc0)

So what is the essence of geek culture, exactly? After all, there’s got to be something more to it than just superhero movies and 8-bit platformers. I think it has something to do with that other “eek” word: meek. In this larger narrative, geeks are the ones who “watch it all go down/Closed eyes; pretend no one’s around,” who would “Rather say goodbye” than let things come to blows. We’re people that, for one reason or another, cannot effectively deal with confrontation, be that because we are bad at it or we simply choose to avoid it. And, again, I do not by any means speak for everyone; I’m just trying to make a statement about myself and about the pop culture fanatics that I know personally. We’re meek. Not weak, but meek. Because of that, we glom onto the societal role with the least chance of confrontation: the outcast. We build palaces of the mind for ourselves, and we look down from them with the confidence that we will one day inherit the Earth. But, it’s hard to inherit something when you “Leave town and never leave a trace.”

Track 5: “The Underdog” by Spoon (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7v0KCoPMTdU)

We want so desperately to frame the story that society has outlined for us, to say “Sure, you can push us off to the side, but it’s gonna bite you in the ass!” We want to sneer at the people who “don’t talk to the waterboy,” who “got no time for the messenger,” and “got no fear of the underdog.” In this story, we’re unsung heroes given a chorus’s voice. We’re able to stand up and say to everyone who treated us the way we didn’t want to be treated that they “will not survive,” that we’ve got the cure to insignificance. It’s a crutch, that’s all it is. A bedtime story and a placation. We all love a good underdog, but we can’t all be one. At some point, someone has to roll up their sleeves and start running the show; it can’t all be sideline booings and smug satisfaction. Sorry to be blunt, but Spoon’s saying it best here, so I’ll let them speak for me: “The thing that I tell you now/It may not go over well/And it may not be photo-op/In the way that I spell it out.”

Epilogue

I know that this has been a rambling, hypocritical piece of writing, but such delicate points usually are. And, really, this as much an exercise in self-reprimanding as it is in cultural observation. What I’m trying to say here is that, as pretty as the image of the wedgied nerd who grows up to be Bill Gates may be, it’s nothing more than an empty fantasy that helps perpetuate “the cool divide,” if you’ll allow me that term. Geek culture and pop culture are slowly becoming synonymous, and for that I’m simultaneously thankful and apprehensive. We here at Pop Modern, myself included, love all sorts of media, but it troubles me that so often the success of someone who wasn’t “cool in school” is tinged with retribution and self-satisfaction. More than anything, discussions of geek culture should be about inclusion and humility. Nobody gets to be the “underdog” anymore. It’s time everybody, and I mean everybody, got out from underground.

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