I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Geek Chic: How The Concept of Cool Was Turned On Its Head

What is the deal with Michael Cera? I mean, everyone loves this kid. Everyone. It's not just little kids. It's everyone. And the strange thing is that women really love him. Not in that, Awe-he's-adorable-because-of-how-poorly-adjusted-he-is kind of way. No. Women want to have sex with Michael Cera.

This essay explores how it came about that someone like Michael Cera could become a sexual icon. In the next several paragraphs, I will investigate the series of events that were necessary in order for geek to become chic.

In 1988, in the town of Brampton, Ontario, a son was born to Linda and Luigi Cera. They gave him the name Michael and began to dream of a bright future for this boy. I could go into more depth about Cera's childhood and acting success, but these facts have surprisingly little to do with Michael Cera's popular appeal. It was not the Canadian birthing scene in the late '80s that set the stage for the rise of Michael Cera, but rather, I contest, a completely different scene that was beginning to form in the Pacific Northwest town of Seattle. You may have heard it called grunge.

It's kind of hard to trace the beginning of grunge. Soundgarden was formed in 1984, followed by Nirvana and Alice in Chains in 1987, and finally Pearl Jam in 1990. These were the heavy hitters. While grunge was forming as early as the mid-1980s, it wasn't until the early '90s that this strange fusion of hardcore punk, heavy metal and indie rock became commercially successful. This is largely due to the success of Nirvana's second studio album Nevermind and Peal Jam's debut album Ten in 1991. Some might declare that grunge died on April 5, 1994, the day Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain committed suicide at the age of 27, but the fact is that it existed in some form for the next several years.

What does grunge have to do with Michael Cera? To explore this connection, we first have to understand how previous decades imagined the concept of coolness. From the 1950s through to the beginning of the grunge era, the single most important artifact of cool was the leather jacket. The tough kids in rockabilly bands wore leather jackets. And sometimes they had knifes! The jocks wore them when they got older and started realizing that it was just sad to continue wearing a letter-man jacket at the ripe age of 40. People like Springsteen and Arthur Fonzarelli wore leather jackets. And they rode motorcycles.

The leather jacket wearing public was not Cobain's demographic. In fact, Cobain was looking to light up a fire inside of everyone else. The freaks who didn't go out to parties. The losers who got their butts kicked for listening to Pixies records. These were Cobain's bread and butter. Cobain poked fun at cheerleaders in the music video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit," whereas pre-Cobain cool kids were happy just to poke the cheerleaders. Cobain was a freedom fighter, a Robin Hood of sorts, robbing from the leather jacket and giving to the flannel.

As grunge's influence in America began to dissipate, its response in England began to grow in strength. The second step in the creation of Michael Cera's sexual appeal is the rise to power of Radiohead as the most popular band in America. The world first met Radiohead with the release of the single "Creep" in 1992, followed by the album Pablo Honey in 1993, early work that had not yet distanced itself from popular influences such as U2 and REM. But the band got its name from a Talking Heads song, and perhaps it was the spirit of David Byrne himself (still living) that brought about Radiohead's turn away from pop.

Starting with the 1995 album The Bends, Radiohead's trend was to stray further and further away from popular sounding music with each album. Some critics had even begun describing Radiohead's music as anti-pop. Strangely enough, every time the band took another step away from popular music, Radiohead became more and more popular among listeners. As a result, Radiohead was capable of doing much more toward turning the concept of cool on its head than the entire grunge movement. Grunge questioned and protested old forms of coolness, but Radiohead made it so coolness was defined by its exact opposite: uncoolness. Cool now means "interesting and obscure, different from the rest." It's no wonder that the '90s gave rise to such an intense surge in indie music in the 2000s.

Why is Michael Cera a sexual icon? Because the '90s primed us to view everyone who doesn't fit in as the epitome of cool. Throw in the story of Bill Gates' rise to fame and it's obvious. Geeks, freaks, nerds, dweebs and losers, the world belongs to you. Michael Cera is scrawny, soft-spoken, nervous and introverted. He likes music that other people either haven't heard of or stopped listening to decades ago. He's the definition of dork and yet women want ot throw their panties at him like he's Justin Bieber. (I don't know if I'm more unsettled by Michael Cera as a sexual icon or Justin Bieber, but that's another discussion.) And it's not just Michael Cera. There's Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. There's Jonah Hill. There's McLovin, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a nerd that we chose for stardom. And if you include brilliant actors, there's Jesse Eisenberg and occasionally Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (I recently saw J G-L listed as one of the most important geeks. I also recently saw him being all debonair and well-dressed in Inception. I, for one, am not convinced for a second that he's a geek.)

Should Michael Cera be a sexual icon? By all standards and measures, definitely not.

Do I have a problem with Michael Cera being a sexual icon? Of course I don't.

I'm writing a blog about Michael Cera, for God's sake. It's posted on a blog that caters to comic book readers and video gamers. Of course I think women should love the geek.

Geeks deserve love, and I should know. I'm a full-on geek myself!

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