Another Week Ends: Biker Church, Wrens Resurrection, Deadend Cool, Helicopter Fans, Lady Susan, Superficial Updike, and Daily Show Graceby David Zahl on Oct 11, 2013 • 4:16 pm 11 Comments
1. Right off the bat, an amazing video (on multiple levels), which happens to feature the coolest pulpit I’ve ever seen. We need more of this:
2. All evidence above to the contrary, “coolness” can be a very cruel mistress. In fact, in terms of identity markers, I would argue it’s even more oppressive than “taste” (under whose umbrella it often falls). Meaning, unless you’re Steve McQueen (or Robert Capon), coolness is nearly impossible to pin down. But that’s also what makes it so fascinating of a subject to write about, or, in Mbird parlance, so captivating of a law to observe as it zigs and zags and wreaks havoc. Slate led the vanguard this past month, bringing us two reports from the trenches, the first courtesy of the wonderfully named Carl Wilson (whose book Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is an absolute classic). Wilson asks, appropriately, “What does ‘cool’ even mean in 2013?” and his conclusions are pretty sermon-tastic:
“The issue now is not so much cool’s fracturing as its evanescence: Cool is what’s on BuzzFeed or Reddit in the morning, but it’s not cool by end of the day. The more ephemeral, the cooler; Snapchat is cooler than Instagram, which is cooler than Twitter, which is cooler than Facebook, which is cooler than the Web, which is infinitely cooler than print…
For a wired generation, cool’s markers aren’t tough to acquire, but maintaining them can become a frantic preoccupation. Young aspirants in cultural fields often come off to me as fairly confident that they are cool and profoundly unsettled about whether they’ll get to be anything more. The much-maligned hipsters (a cultural bogeyman I’ve avoided mentioning till now) expand that syndrome to a parodic, near-pornographic level—their apparent overidentification with the laws of cultural capital and embodying rootless mobility exposes, consciously or unconsciously, the unspoken edicts of post-industrial cool apathy, as if to say, “All the emperor HAS are clothes.”
So “coolness” is a bit like happiness in that its pursuit automatically precludes attainment. Unlike, say, excellence in tennis, it is a law with no possible satisfaction. Paging Dr. Goodhart! Elsewhere on that same site, David Greenwald labels it a trap and urges us not to be afraid to be uncool, and I couldn’t agree more. Of course, easier said than done! Case in point–just yesterday I experienced some serious cred-related trepidation before posting that Pearl Jam video. Still:
“The conscious pursuit of cool is a sacrifice: to win the approval of the elite or mainstream alike means the loss of autonomy, the exchange of one establishment for another. This kind of coolness is less an act than a reaction, the satisfying friction of opposition—without realizing the constant churn is merely capitalism at work. Cool is more of a dead end than ever: The same Internet that provides the shovels to dig so deeply through pop culture allows for coolness’ immediate mainstream co-option. Seapunk never recovered from Rihanna bringing its imagery to national television on Saturday Night Live, while the #menswear trends seemingly kicked off by Tumblr-savvy street photographers are already on J. Crew shelves. The list goes on. Again, that’s not to equate cool with inherent value: just with social currency. And in the case of chasing fashion trends or status-symbol smartphones, actual currency, too. Coolness, after all, is a club that always charges a cover. Shut out the roar of outside influence and you might be surprised at what you love.“
3. So how does one actually move beyond “coolness” as a concern? Or success, or happiness, for that matter? I’m not sure. Or at least, I’m not sure there’s any single surefire method. But I do know that it rarely happens as the result of decision-mking. When freedom comes, as we are so fond of saying, it seems to follow the path of death-resurrection rather than that of action-consequence. Meaning, the law of Cool eventually crushes a person–or a band–until they are forced to give up on the whole project, at which point the juices sometimes start flowing in a non-contrived (aka genuinely cool) way. The most striking example I’ve read about in recent months is that of The Wrens, an indie rock band that hit a total brick wall in the mid 90s. But instead of disbanding, they all got day jobs and kept recording intermittently in the basement of a house they shared–not with the intention of doing anything specific with the recordings but just for the fun/love of it. Then, through zero effort of their own, the band is rediscovered and the resulting album finally comes out, The Meadowlands, and is hailed as a masterpiece. That was 10 years ago, and they’re finally completing work on a follow-up–at their own pace, mind you–so Pitchfork took the opportunity to tell their remarkable story, a notable excerpt being, ht GP:
Though personally painful to both he and his brother, Greg Whelan credits the whole ordeal with [not getting signed at] Interscope [in 1996-7] with helping the band give up on the idea of having a conventional music career and freeing them to remake the Wrens on their own terms. “We said, ‘F*%$ it! We’re not going to be the next cool band. We’re a bunch of old guys from Jersey. We’ll just put out records on our own time and if people like it, they like it.’ Once we got into that mind frame where we just didn’t care anymore, everything seemed to work out great. We still have that attitude today.”
4. Speaking of the freedom to be uncool (zing!), perhaps you caught our friend Tullian Tchividjian on Morning Joe today, talking about One Way Love? I especially loved how all the hosts got excited about what he was saying (“but how do I get this grace?! what do I have to do?!”):
5. Next, The Atlantic clearly wasn’t aiming at subtlety when it crafted the headline “Parents Ruin Sports For Their Kids by Obsessing About Winning,” but the short piece is really quite good:
Parents think they want success for their kids but in many ways they want it for themselves. Their kids, it turns out, want pizza.
By focusing too heavily on winning not only do we parents fail to focus on what is important, but far worse, we refute what is important. We lose sight of sports as a vehicle for learning and, instead, convert it into a means for parents to live out their own athletic dreams or take a gamble on the unlikely event that sports will pave a road into college. I would argue that athletic competitions offer one of the very best venues for learning some of life’s most important lessons. But these lessons don’t require victories, and in fact many, like some of the following, are best taught in defeat.
Between the very permanent record created by social media and the Internet to the hyper competitive college process, kids have few places they can safely fail. Athletics is that place. The outcome of any given game is entirely meaningless and the playing field provides a place for kids to experience heated competition, losing, regrouping and beginning again, without consequence. As parents stand on the sidelines baying for conquest, they give weight to something that, realistically, has little meaning and removes this golden chance to learn from loss.
6. In humor, there’s The Onion’s “Man Panics After Reaching Age Where Parents Prematurely Started Family”. Also, Sarah Pulliam Bailey compiled some of the best tweets from #AddaWordRuinaChristianBook trend, e.g. I Kissed Carbon Dating Goodbye, or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Malfunction–I bet we could add some doozies to that list in the comments…
7. In film, I can’t believe we haven’t mentioned the news about Whit Stillman’s next project! An adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan,” tentatively titled “Love and Friendship,” is currently casting, if reports are to be believed. Homina homina homina. The news is as much of an opening for posting my current favorite jam as I’m likely to find, proof that every once and a while you come across something that transcends the whole “coolness” debate–thank God:
8. Writing for Books and Culture, Scott Gill gives us a thoughtful reflection on the virtues of John Updike’s shallowness, ht MS:
For one who comes to Updike looking for an existential defense of Christianity, as I did when I first read him, these stories may surprise in their essential playfulness… He may not convince us with weighty theology, but he does give us a grammar for praise. When our sins harden us to God’s goodness, Updike not only reminds us of it, but he surprises us with specific gifts, faithfully retrieving them for us to taste and see. In these stories, the famous chronicler of adulterous affairs (twice profiled on the cover of the magazine Time) appears less as a lascivious provocateur than as a patient archeologist, polishing each fragment of human desire for our inspection.
Also in books, the theological implications of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book may be pretty disturbing (what we might call “a theology of glory of the cross”), but it was still heartening to read the interview where he opened up about his return to faith.
9. In TV, Parenthood is off to a rather shaky start, but as with all things Katims-related, there is reason for hope. Highlight for me thus far has been Crosby wrestling with the “should’s” of being a new parent. He knows he’s supposed to love his baby uncontrollably, but right now, he’s just annoyed, and the emotional expectations are not helping things. Those waiting for the domestic airing of Downton Abbey will be encouraged to hear that the show may stand a chance at redeeming itself from the disaster of the end of last season (both plot- and quality-wise), especially if the new season continues in its current vein. On the pulp side of things, Revolution seems to have learned some lessons from the pretty abysmal second half of its first season, and Agents of SHIELD may not have quite found its footing yet (the superb Clark Gregg notwithstanding) but I’m optimistic. Finally, Daily Show viewers were treated to a stunning expression of grace this past week when 14 year-old Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai dropped by the show. The portion in question happens just after the 4 minute mark, where she talks about how she might respond to the threats she’s received from the Taliban. As you’ll see, her comments reach beyond routine pacifism, or even turning the other cheek, and into the realm of grace. Stewart’s response, both physically and rhetorically, is priceless, ht TB:
P.S. In case you missed it earlier this week, Steve Brown and co were gracious enough to have me on their radio show to talk about Mockingbird and Grace in Addiction. You can listen to the program here.
P.P.S. Halloween/Reformation Day is coming:
Or get in touch.