It used to be easy to be cool (or at least fake it). It usually implied just adhering to a counter-culture mindset and taste, whether that be through fashion, music, art, etc and disavowing that which the general popular enjoyed. However, by its very definition, counter-culture needs a culture to be counter to. Cool's existence relies on a pop-culture to rebel against, but sadly, due to an ever-increasing individualized entertainment experience, we are losing any sense of a standardized pop-culture; without pop-culture, it will be impossible to be cool.
Recently, The New York Times posted an article called "What It Means To Be Popular (When Everything Is Popular)" and took a look at what our pop-culture landscape looks like today. And thanks to the NSA, I mean advanced-metric tracking, we can pretty much determine exactly how popular anything is with any conceivable demographic almost instantaneously. But with such an influx of data, there is no real result anymore. As the article notes, "When everything’s popular by some measure, it’s impossible to keep up with everything that’s popular."
Did you know that Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta was one of the five most tweeted-about TV shows or that some a song called "Let Her Go" by a band called Passenger is the fourth most streamed song on Spotify this year?* There is too much going on in the constantly-expanding realm of entertainment for one to even be able to wrangle it all in, let alone actively rebel against it.
We can stream almost any TV show or movie whenever we want, we can discover artists that less than 1,000 people have heard at the click of a button, and we can create Pinterest boards that borrow from endless sources of inspiration to curate our individual styles. But all of those experiences are entirely personal. With the exception of breaking news, live sports, and award shows, there is nothing we as an entire society experience and process in real time. Even last week's penultimate Breaking Bad episode, which seemed like a premier cultural event, only had 6.6 million viewers, or less than 1% of the population of the United States.
And even when things do seem to reach truly "popular" numbers, they aren't relevant enough to rebel against. No one is going to applaud you for saying you didn't get the whole "Harlem Shake" thing or that you don't shop at Walmart. Cool, in order to survive, has to evolve, or at least our notion of it.
The NYT article tries to bend optimistic by arguing that this "micropopularity" might be okay because it allows creativity to see even minute praise and followings as benchmarks for success, and that is all well and good, but I'd argue that it comes with an even more impactful, if not originally cheesy message: Being yourself is the coolest thing you can be.
Maybe those kids shows had it right all along…
*After listening to "Let Her Go", it rings a bell, thus proving there is still some, if even subconscious, cultural ubiquity out there.