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The Great American Cool

In the past, taste was scouted from hip kids and sold to the masses. But in the great river of content, what does cool even mean?


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Illustration by Malaaya Adams for Vox

Ten years ago, I interned at a literary magazine, publishing imprint, and agency in Minneapolis called Paper Darts. It’s the first time in my life I had ever felt like a member of the in-crowd.

For the in-crowd, taste is all about social bonding. It isn’t developed in isolation. It’s a direct result of engagement with a peer group of other avid consumers. It was there at those meetings in my boss’ cramped, modestly decorated house that what I was supposed to like was communicated to me: tacos (one of the editors had an entire blog devoted to them, which they took very seriously); the musical act Neon Indian; Portlandia (Fred Armisen blurbed one of the imprint’s books, although, judging from his quick response to the email request, he likely didn’t read it); sans serif fonts; and clothing brands like ModCloth, among other early-2010s trends that were both things to buy and ways of being sold to.

The magazine itself, a whimsical and kitschy artifact, had a vaguely countercultural bent in the way that everything organized by young people does. Its own cool pretentiousness was modeled after magazines like McSweeney’s and the Believer, founded by the once-cool Gen X-er Dave Eggers. By the standards of the upper Midwest, Paper Darts embodied the characteristics of publications they wanted to be more like, trafficking in many of the same ideas. But I didn’t feel like I embodied those characteristics myself.

As the only non-white person there, the only 21-year-old Black woman hailing from a Muslim background, the expectation was that I was supposed to meet them at their level, not the other way around. My coworkers became a prism through which to look, filtering my own perspective through their white, supposedly rarified lens.

From the first day on the job, I knew my colleagues’ stylistic choices and musical preferences were of utmost importance to them, communicating information about who they were as consumers and humans. My journal entries from this time reflect an acute awareness of and sensitivity to the trends they talked about.

Everyone else seemed like naturally insouciant aesthetes, like they woke up with the knowledge of culture, art, and hipness, whereas everything I knew felt labored and deeply, obsessively limned. The stuff my colleagues owned and liked informed their identities, and by extension, the buyer persona of the ideal reader of their magazine. That persona, of course, was a mirror held up to themselves, a mirror that I felt couldn’t be held up to me. They couldn’t see themselves in me. I knew that; it wasn’t their fault. If they were ever going to, I knew that I would have to try harder to be legible. I’d have to assimilate.

To assimilate is not unlike being one’s self. One of assimilation’s mechanisms is its layered encryption of identity, as American or “white” versions of ourselves get awkwardly grafted onto old ones. It can’t subtract; it adds and it layers.

Through culturally white, often bourgeoisie comforts like literary magazines, I tried to accrue value, becoming a self-assemblage consisting of a simulacrum of my peers and ephemeral bits of culture for the social mobility it would afford me. I didn’t stop to consider the things I glommed onto might not have had much value at all. I wasn’t yet aware of the social machinations underpinning my existence. I was in survival mode, unconscious of even my own shadow, desperately trying to gain access in a less than accommodating industry.

According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, poor people are more practical about their tastes, prioritizing accessibility and entertainment, seeking out things for their utility more than for what liking a thing can say about their personality or pursuit of knowledge.

But middle-class people like myself have far less innocent motivations for choosing the things we like, namely, to gain social and cultural capital. Funnily enough, this contradicts developing a true sense of self and personality. Who we are is enough without commodities and other people, but in-group admission and approval — and the sense of safety and belonging that comes with it — feels like the estimable thing we need to gain in order to self-actualize.

Our tastes, though, both in the consumer-branded heyday of the ’90s and 2000s and now, lend themselves to the delusion of uniqueness. Today, our particular likes are even more than a shorthand for an identity, they are the identity itself. In the now defunct blog-turned-book Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander bills his observations as “a guide to the unique taste of millions,” winking at the inherent conformity baked into the arbitrary commodities and interests enjoyed among the white yuppie set. Of course, normies enjoy dinner parties, the comedy of Dave Chappelle, and music piracy, too, but only non-normies use these as dog whistles and mating calls to signal their own interestingness to others.

In America, we have had 30 Under 30 lists, award shows, and an industry of so-called tastemakers for the same reason: to tell us who or what is objectively important and worthy of our attention and money, hierarchizing the tastes of full-grown adults. But now the “status-symbolic power” of cool that used to facilitate snobbery — as Carl Wilson, the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Bad Taste, calls it — is in dwindling supply because of the internet’s democratization of ideas. The great American cool is nearly dead, slipping out of the grasp of Gen Z, who seem too busy being themselves to care.

Gen X used to crate-dig to acquire taste in records and beyond, and millennials like myself had to sleuth online via forums and blogs. Gen Z, unfamiliar with the concept of obscurity, has access to the smartest iteration of the internet thus far, and cheap consumer goods. The identities — e.g. hipster, etc. — aren’t as fixed, but they’re not exactly post-consumer, rapidly acquiring things via the incredibly affordable world of fast fashion, which TikTok facilitates, Ladifa, 20, tells me. “I just consume a lot of digital content a.k.a. TikTok,” she says, “and it introduced me to a side of style I had never been exposed to, really individualized personal style.”


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“There aren’t many unique key pieces and trends we can attribute to Gen Z/2020. It’s more so the fusion of trends from multiple eras that makes it Gen Z, you know?” she continues via email. “It’s coming to a point where we may no longer have names or genres in terms of style; style is so much more personalized, especially in the digital space I occupy.” The current state of alt fashion is the outcome of 2020s late-stage capitalism’s limitless manufacturing possibilities and a veritable ocean of content, inadequately sourced and dated thanks to a Tumblr- and Pinterest-inspired archival conundrum. As a result, her peers incorporate aspects of fairy, punk, indie, or “the bimbo-inspired look.” Generally, she says, “Gen Z alt is just some variation of all of these”; taking part in every trend at the same time. “You very rarely see people committing to just one.”

Now, with what young people genuinely like being harder to pin down, they’ve created a new kind of selfhood that surpasses Main Character Syndrome: hyperreal individualism. Hyperreal individualism is where the original references are largely illegible or incoherent, but the individual wishes to define themselves and create an identity around their own disparate tastes and styles anyway.

A salient example is Gen Z’s beautifully chaotic, meta, self-aware stream of skewering “rare aesthetic” articulations via TikTok and Instagram meme accounts like @on_a_downward_spiral. Sam Rhodehamel, a co-owner of the meme page, says this reference and self-definition delirium started out as a cringe-worthy attempt at claiming a specialness and specificity to one’s tastes: “It creates such a specific idea to those who understand all the words and references. The buzzword laundry lists probably make some people feel special or individual for being able to get them.”

It’s since evolved, however, into an ironic meme, he explains: “It got so popular it has become oversaturated, and because of this, a lot of the newer memes and TikToks are made in a more ironic and meta way, which I think makes it even funnier because instead of trying to paint a picture using a bunch of barely comprehensible references, they turn it around and make fun of the trend itself.”

Where Gen X and millennials were rolled into one category — the NPR tote bag and/or band T-shirt-wearing “hipster” — Gen Z has identified infinite, disparate, and chaotic combinations of tastes and consumer choices, mining from a limitless array of niche subcultures and milieus. Their eclecticism is more far-reaching and complicated than ’90s or 2000s young people, even more omnivorous, so it’s harder for corporate executives to market a one-size-fits-all youth culture to, or for so-called cool hunters to narc on them. As Naomi Klein writes in her seminal work, No Logo, cool hunters were a new industry, born in the ’90s, that promised “to cool the companies from the outside in.” “The major corporate cool consultancies — Sputnik, The L Report, Bureau de Style — were all founded between 1994 and 1996, just in time to present themselves as the brands’ personal cool shoppers,” she writes. “The idea was simple: they would search out pockets of cutting-edge lifestyle, capture them on videotape and return to clients like Reebok, Absolut Vodka, and Levi’s with such bold pronouncements as ‘Monks are cool.’”

Cool, once narrowly delineated and foisted upon us by marketing cherry-picked from hip kids, has been blown apart for the new generation. In a world where everyone, not just the most interesting youths, is under a kind of constant surveillance — where our individual information is more valuable than any short-lived idea of collective cool — demographics give way to data. Gen Z might willfully defy categorization, but each disparate bit of their bizarre taste stew can still be marketed to.

Cool — and by extension, taste — just isn’t all that useful anymore. It all feels like a case of Alice in Wonderland syndrome, like our shared experience of culture and our perception of it might be distorted. Many of the enthusiasms and affinities I once regarded as hip and cool are now nostalgia porn at best, and “cheugy” at worst. I feel like a trainspotter, noting the distinct edges and grooves that make the shared enthusiasms of Gen Z infinitely more interesting than whatever media and culture fueled my own aesthetic snobbery. Still, I can’t help but feel exhausted. Consumer identity is old news when everything is cheap and available, and everyone is buying.

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This post originally appeared on Vox and was published July 14, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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