The style we’ve come to know as “being cool” used to be something only a few teenagers ever achieved – on the outskirts of the law, embodying a kind of radical-chic that challenged the status quo, living fast and dying young. Now – and you can blame it on TV, the internet, or whatever you like – the pursuit of cool never ends. Now everyone has to be cool, relentlessly, all the time. We all have to be out here, acting cool and making people like us, constantly.
You used to age out of being cool around 22; then it became 25, then 30, then 50; now there are cool senior citizens. Certain jobs used to take you out of the running – involvement with any kind of law enforcement, for instance – and then 9/11 changed that. Probably last to be admitted to the race to cool are our elected officials and politicians. And yet now they have to be cool – or try to, and fail miserably. Because now they’re going to be judged on that too, the worst possible metric to judge anyone in government.
Here’s a roundup of a few examples of NJ elected officials trying to be cool, and my take on how they do.
Example one: Eh, not really cool: Phil Murphy in Pride gear
I am probably an outlier here, but whenever I see cis-gendered, heteronormative guys piling on the rainbow crap during Pride month, it bugs me. A lot. It doesn’t have to be a sign of “pinkwashing” – it could be a genuine expression of support – but it makes me uncomfortable. It immediately makes me question whether the person in question has any actual substance.
Murphy is by all indications a gay-friendly governor. But we don’t exactly know that just yet. He hasn’t been actually tested – there hasn’t been a contentious issue involving LGBTQI+ rights come before him where he gets to use his influence and show what he really believes. Wearing a cheap rainbow lei during a parade is cute, but that’s all it is. He doesn’t get to be cool until he has to make a stand. It’s fun to show up at the Asbury Park parade, but in this case, “being cool” means really fighting for what’s right.
Example two: Pretty Cool: Steve Sweeney’s pot story
Look, absolutely none of this happened. Sweeney never smoked weed, he didn’t eat an entire pizza, and he definitely didn’t do both of these things and then crash out for 12 hours. But it’s a cute story. It shows he thinks of marijuana as something ultimately benign, but also that he’s aware that you can overdo it.
Here’s the thing: Sweeney is attempting to do a very particular move that we can think of as so-uncool-it’s-cool-again. Music writers have been known to talk about Taylor Swift as being “a-dork-able” – Swift (gorgeous, wealthy) appears in the You Belong With Me video with nerd glasses talking about how the boy she likes won’t notice her; in doing so, she becomes relatable to her tween audience, even though everyone knows the glasses are fake and boys generally like her. She’s not actually a dork, but she pretends to be a dork – and we go along with it because it makes her more loveable. And in the end, we think she’s way cooler because she was willing to lower herself and be a dork like we are.
Sweeney is similar in this regard. The NJ state senate president could snap his fingers and have the best weed delivered straight to his desk whenever he likes. We all know this; this is New Jersey. But what is he going to do? Say, “oh yes, I get the top shit – the really expensive, pharmaceutical grade stuff that your dealer hasn’t even heard of – delivered to me every day – three times a day, actually”? That would be what a “cool” person would do. Instagram is overflowing with pictures of “cool people” flaunting their weed. Instead he gives us the opposite – he says, in effect: “I – a dork, like you, the average person – haven’t smoked too much weed, but enough to know it sometimes makes you hungry, so I’m going to fold that into a regrettable – but terribly familiar – story where I ate too much pizza and my blood sugar crashed out and made me tired. That, I think, we can all relate to, which allows me to dodge this question and still come away looking good.” Brilliant. In terms of a personal narrative unfolding in real time, this is about as good as a politician can get.
Example three: Really not cool: Cory Booker
I picture Cory Booker as William Carlos Williams “This Is Just to Say” poem come to life.
He’s the cool senator. Good-looking, well-dressed, and vegan, even – I should be swooning over him. But, I’m not.
Booker aims for the same adorkable territory that Sweeney occupies with his pot comment, only he overshoots it and ends up in twee. And while Sweeney’s comment is so charming because it’s a break in his otherwise very grownup exterior, twee is Booker’s entire brand.
Twee is “excessively or affectedly quaint”, and is characterized by a kind of sweetness that chooses to not engage with the cruelty of the world. If there are mean people out there somewhere, twee stays in its bedroom listening to vintage vinyl and wearing a comfy sweater, because the world is just too much. It is, at turns, refreshing and also exasperating and frustrating. It’s quirky and cute, until you remember that you have a job to go to and real life responsibilities to tend to, while somehow this person skates through them all.
Like a character from a Wes Anderson movie come to life, the sweetness and the quaintness that emanates from the twee person seems endearing at first, and later like they’re terrified of being an adult – stunted, in a way, in their emotional development. Milan Kundera called kitsch “the absolute denial of shit” – kitsch and twee are closely connected in this way.
And is any of this real? Does the twee person actually believe this stuff?
The more serious a situation you’re in, the less likely twee will seem charming. If there’s a blizzard outside and you’re somewhere safe and warm, curling up in bed and getting cozy seems like a perfectly great option. If the house is burning down, doing the exact same thing would be suicidal.
Well, listen: if you side with the Democratic Party or, like me, long for something to the left of it, you really believe that the house you’re living in is burning down right now. And while Booker’s antics as Newark mayor (personally shoveling snow after a blizzard; saving a woman from a house fire) could be seen as a kind of good-hearted denial of the systemic problems facing the city, now it feels as though he’s dealing with our shared reality as something to be ignored, or possibly cured by some amorphous sense of “love” and “being nice.”
This is grating. It’s a mix of feeling like you’re being told your concerns don’t matter and the sinking sense that we’ve elected a greeting card as senator. It’s meant to differentiate him from all the other cynical politicians out there, but it feels dismissive and callous, as if he lives in a bubble. It’s out of step with what’s needed now, and seems to get slightly worse every day. And it’s not cool at all.
Digging through Booker’s Twitter timeline in preparation for this article, I found many tweets – the vast majority, like 95% – that were perfectly fine. They were talking about policy, or reflections on things happening in the world, or thoughts about his family – normal things that grownups tweet about. I don’t know what’s happening in that other 5% of tweets. But it makes me cringe, deeply, and wonder what on earth is happening there.
Example four: Painfully, abysmally uncool : #HanginwithHugin
Oh, for the love of god. Imagine having all that money and all those resources and the best hashtag your team can come up with is “#HanginwithHugin,” and you only come up with it days after the primary. “Hangin” – with the “g” cut off, to make it look more cool, which it absolutely does not. Delete your account, smash your iPhone into a million bits, pick a direction and just start running – the world we have created is utterly uninhabitable and we should all be ashamed of ourselves.
Look, cool is best attempted by the very young and genuinely rebellious. If we could get grownups to cede cool to teenagers for once and for all, life would be a lot less painful. And, good lord, the very last people who should be attempting it are NJ politicians.