I used to think I was cool. Not Brad Pitt or George Clooney cool, where you can look dashing even while eating a messy plate of fried clams (though heaven knows I've tried). But cool in the sense that I liked the stuff you were supposed to like: serious plays over musicals; indie bands no one has ever heard of; indie movies that only screen in theaters where the carpet looks like the lunar surface; modern dance over "The Nutcracker."
So why did I just buy tickets to see 1960s band the Zombies? Why is there a Backstreet Boys song on my iPod? Why am I still humming "It's Raining Men" a full week after seeing "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert?"
Slowly, surely, it is dawning on me that this coolness thing has been a ruse. Something as phony and limiting as any other label you could append to yourself. I'm too old to be a hipster, but if I were, I'd march down to the nearest gourmet food truck and announce to all the people grooving to Bon Iver on their iPhones, "I am nothing but a damn phony!"
I thought of this the other day as I was purchasing my Zombies tickets, realizing that cool people aren't supposed to flock to retro nostalgia acts. Granted, the Zombies were very cool in their day, when "Time of the Season" was a smash hit with its understated, ironic oh-so-British lyrics that introduced the phrase "who's your daddy" to the world lexicon. But that was 1968. Furthermore, the real reason I dug the Zombies (and hope I still do) was because of Rod Argent's jazzy keyboard runs. That's right, I was into keyboard solos. Long ones. I dug all the prog rock ivory ticklers: Argent, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, Rick Wakeman (right up until the time he did that Ice Capades thing). And liking keyboard solos is about as cool as liking anything with Jennifer Love Hewitt in it.
I impart this to you knowing my cred could take a serious hit. I'm an arts and entertainment editor, for goodness sake. I'm supposed to thumb my nose at anything schmaltzy, smarmy, contrived or overly populist. Don't get me wrong: I still savor challenging, thought-provoking and unique art, dance, theater, film and music. I still love the feeling of walking out of a theater, concert hall or museum realizing I've just witnessed something beautiful, startling or that changes my understanding of things. But I've also got a stack of guilty pleasures as tall as the platform shoes Elton John was wearing in the 1970s. I've always had them. The only difference is that I've reached the age where admitting this, and succumbing to my deep-seated dorkiness, feels as liberating now as it would have felt embarrassing 20 years ago.
My secret double-life started much longer ago than that.
In high school, I had a circle of friends who bonded over our love of long-winded orchestral rock and literary folkies such as Cat Stevens. One of my friends one day gushed to me about a lesser-known Stevens album titled "Mona Bone Jacon." "It's by the far the best thing he ever did," he said. I went out and bought it, popped it on my turntable -- and hated every dark, morose second of it. I realize now the album was born out of a painful collapse he had suffered from being a young artist overwhelmed by the pressures of the music business. But at the time, I just wanted to hear more catchy songs like "Wild World" and "Father and Son" -- the stuff they played on the radio. I never told my friend I hated the album. I also never told him one of the first records I ever bought was by the raucous J. Geils Band.
How deep is my reservoir of dweebdom? Here's just a minor sampling:
That's just scratching the surface. Happily, it's time for me to admit that I'm not cool, and I never was.
And admitting that is among the coolest things I've ever done.