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The Japandroids and the end of The Cool War

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July, 2042. The former Minneapolis Rock Music Examiner reminisces on a landmark rock show from his youth....

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“Siddown, lil’ guy, and lemme tell you a story about rock music”

“Balls, Grandpa. Not another Guns n’ Roses, story.”

“Not today, ‘Lil Izzy. This one’s about a band called The Japandroids, and the end of the Cool War.”

“You said the last story was about the Cool War, and I asked about Kurt Cobain and you started screaming and cursing, and Grandma kicked you out of the house.”

“Promise. No Guns n’ Roses this time.”

“Okaaaay.”

“So, after that whole that whole Cobain thing, the Cool War took on a whole new tone. We all realized it didn’t matter who won this little grunge vs. metal spat—if it became cool it would also be instantly hijacked and turned into over-produced commercial crap. If your band was good, the only way to keep that from happening was to openly reject money and sabotage your music (a.k.a. The Pearl Jam Fake Your Own Death Trick), or to honestly want to kill yourself (Cobain). The other option was to be Hootie and The Blowfish.”

“Hootie and the what?”

“Exactly.”

“So what did people do?”

“Well, a bunch of people, like your Grandpa, just started listening to rap.”

“Rap was cool?”

“For a couple years. But that turned to crap even faster than rock music.”

“So what happened to rock music?”

“Well, that’s when the war really started. Rock music needed to be saved. All the music geeks, all over the country, had a meeting to decide what to do.”

“All of them? Where did they all meet?”

“A weird new place called the World Wide Web.”

“What’s that?”

“Another time, Izzy. So the music geeks realized the only way to stop the music industry from ruining rock music was to change the meaning of cool. They had to actually go to war with cool people all over the world.”

“So, what does ‘cool’ mean again, Grandpa?”

“Well, that’s what the war was all about. At the time, cool people did fun things—they had sex and booze and did drugs and went to parties, and they went to rock concerts where there was music about sex and booze and drugs, and they didn’t feel guilty about it any of it. And it had been that way since the first Cool Revolution.”

“I think I read about The Cool Revolution. Was that the one with that funny Elvis guy?”

“Yes! Way to do your homework, little guy. So the geeks realized the only way to fight the bad music was to make fun itself uncool. Cool is rock music’s oxygen. It can’t survive and make money if it isn’t cool. If your band looked like it was having fun, drinking and getting laid, they called it uncool. If your band played in big arenas and looked like it made lots of money, they said it wasn’t cool.”

“Wait—so if you had fun and were successful, you weren’t cool?”

“Precisely, pal.”

“So what was cool?”

“There were a lot of different ways to be cool. You could be depressed and look like an IT guy and play arty acoustic stuff. You could be really neurotic and serious about not having expensive equipment or playing more than two chords, and sound like you recorded in your basement. You could even be a self-destructive, nihilistic jerk, as long as the one thing you cared about was making rock music that wasn’t commercial. But whatever your music sounded like, being sad about not being cool was the coolest thing you could do.”

“This is a weird story, Grandpa.”

“Tell me about it.”

“Why did anyone listen to the music geeks? Were there THAT many of them?”

“Really good, question, Izzy. A lot of people didn’t care at first. Kid Rock made so much money they practically renamed Detroit after him. But, like terrorists, the geeks were very committed, very angry, and willing to destroy stuff. And they controlled all the music reviews, which the cool people depended on.”

“But why did that matter?”

“Well, the crappy bands needed the cool people’s money to keep sucking and filling arenas, and after awhile some of the cool people started to actually feel bad about spending all their money on crap. And they started checking out the new stuff, which was cheap or even free on this whole Interweb thing.”

“But was the sad geek music any better, Grandpa?”

“Another good question. Most of it was still crap. But so many broke kids spent so much time jamming in their garages and dank little bars in the ruins of Midwestern cities, that simply by virtue of the odds, some good bands started to pop up. And because the geeks had concocted this big, frightening, holy war dogma, no matter how big the bands got they were terrified of seeming happy or satisfied or commercial.”

“They were scared of being happy?”

“Oh, it wasn’t all bad, kid. Yeah, they had to act weird and always sing about how success had made their lives miserable and made their art more difficult and give interviews about what anti-anxiety meds they were on, but they were so scared of seeming satisfied or lazy that every time they put out a good album, they spent two years freaking out about how to make the next one better and not be ripped to shreds by the geek terrorists.”

“That’s a lot of pressure. Maybe they were actually depressed.”

“More importantly, they convinced themselves they were—and it worked. Believe you me, there was still gobs of musical garbage. But if you knew where to look (and all you had to was ask the geeks), there was a decent chance you’d find good, creative rock music, about real human feelings. Some of it was so killer, even the original cool people couldn’t argue with its coolness. Can you believe that? The geeks started winning. They had the tickets to all the cool shows, and all the cool music hidden in their macbooks. They got themselves a team uniform and started calling themselves “hipsters.” And if you showed up at one their shows all drunk with girl who had a tan and acting like an old school cool guy you felt like an idiot. The kids at the shows didn’t even smoke pot, Izzy.”

“What’s a macbook, Grandpa?”

“Mac was this gadget company, and the mac gadgets contained something like The Force for Hipsters.”

“So what does this Japanese band have to do with everything? Are we ever gonna get to them?”

“They were called The Japandroids, and they were actually from Canada.”

“They were from here?”

“Sorta. Canada was different before we all fled up here, Izzy.”

“So how did they end the war?”

“Almost there, Junior. The geeks were winning, and they knew they were winning, but there was one BIG problem: they weren’t having fun.”

“Because they made fun uncool right?”

“Exactly. And having fun would make them war traitors. That’s the problem with being a terrorist. So you had one group of people that still had fun, and drank and did drugs and had sex, but their music wasn’t cool, and the geeks made them feel bad about it, and it made them sad inside. And the other group had made rock music good again, and they had all the cool points and all the good music, but they were still human. Deep down they just wanted to get messed up and dance and sing songs and tell stories about fooling around with pretty girls. And they were sad inside, too.”

“This story is tragic, Grandpa.”

“It was, kid, lemme tell ya. The old cool people wanted to listen to good music, but they didn’t know how to be this new kind of cool, and they didn’t really want to. Who wants to listen to cool music if you have to be all bitter and angsty to listen to it? Who wants to go to a show where nobody drinks and does drugs, there are only five girls, and nobody really even dances?”

“So maybe the hipsters were sad, but they were a little better off?”

“Not really, Izzy. First, they had to do fun things in secret, so they wouldn’t be called traitors. Then one genius hipster invented ‘irony,’ which gave them all an excuse to listen to “bad” music and watch “bad” movies, and allowed them to sort of have fun together, but they had to ridicule the bad music while they did it. There were a lot of rules. And on top of that they felt guilty when they listened to fun music, like a person on a diet eating a donut.”

“Music is really strange, Grandpa.”

“You haven’t heard the strangest part. It was actually the musicians themselves who saved everyone.”

“No way.”

“Yep. The same clowns who helped flush rock music down the toilet to begin with were the ones who came up with a way for everyone to be happy.”

“How did they do that?”

“Well, for years, the musicians had been so scared of seeming inauthentic, or unoriginal they’d been studying the history of popular music like law students studying for the BAR exam.”

“So what did they figure out?”

“They started to troll through stuff from before the Cool War, and they realized something crazy: you could have fun and still make good music. And the cool musicians, who had been beaten into submission in terms of taking their craft seriously and living in abject fear of being called sellouts, started borrowing the fun sounds and fun subject matter from past decades, like the 1980’s, but producing it with the utter anality of Hipsters.”

“And what did it sound like?”

“It sounded really cool. To everyone.”

“What style was it?”

“When it started to pop up, it was all over the map. There was electronic stuff, there was blues-based stuff, there was rock guitar mixed with electronics or synth, there were references to metal and punk but all produced with nerd seriousness. There was even this guy named Andrew W.K. who studied classical music in college and then made an album of glam metal but was more serious about it than a brain surgeon. This new stuff had fun by referencing stuff that we vaguely remembered was fun, and what it all had in common was you could dance to it, and girls liked it too—not just dour dudes.”

“So the war was over then?”

“Not quite. You still had to kind of be in on the gag to get why it was cool. You had to read the all the nerdy reviews and understand the 1980’s references and talk to other people about why it was okay to like it. And the musicians still sang self-consciously about being uncool, and fantasizing about real fun and happiness. They were still singing to the hipsters, and old party people were still scared of going to the shows.”

“So when did you know the war was over for real?”

“July 3rd, 2012.”

“What happened that day?”

“I saw the Japandroids perform their album ‘Celebreation Rock, at 7th Street Entry in Minneapolis.’”

“They called their album ’Celebration Rock?’ So were they hipsters being ironic, or were they from the old Cool Era?”

“They were neither, Izzy. They were pale, they had the tight little hipster jeans, they had the stripped down, two-piece stage set-up, but they weren’t singing about being sad or uncool. They were honestly celebrating.”

“What was the music like?”

“Like Springsteen on ecstasy.”

“What’s ecstasy?”

“Oh, that’s the drug that all the kids did back then. What do you guys do now?”

“It’s called M.S.”

“That used to be a really bad disease, kid.”

“Disease? No, I think it means Martha Stewart.”

“You kids are crazy.”

“So what does ‘Springsteen on ecstasy’ mean, Grandpa?”

“It means they rocked the old fashioned way: big guitar sounds, fist-pumping hooks, sing-a-longs, lyrics about girls and parties and hopes and dreams and not wanting to grow up. But their rocking was also shiny and driving and relentless, like a sonic happy pill, and it was specifically designed to make people sing out loud and dance. Even the most dour hipster couldn’t help himself.”

“The hipsters started dancing?”

“They were dancing and rocking like it was 1988, Izzy. The Japandroids did everything the way they were supposed to: they wore the uniform, they took the music too seriously, and they looked like they ate ramen a lot. So when they started to rock—and they really rocked—the hipsters jumped right on without feeling like traitors. The Japandroids weren’t just giving the hipsters a soundtrack to a party, they were putting a fun-house mirror right in front of them. There was no special reference to get. No irony. The Japandroids were just this little band with a big rock sound, and they said ‘We’re gonna have fun tonight.’”

“And everybody did?”

“Every last person.”

“And the war was over?”

“Anyone who was there knew it, Izzy. There was nothing left to fight about.”

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