Tuesday, December 11, 2007

B.J. and the Bear, Coolness and Essentiality

I present here a representation of a chain of associations that occurred to me recently. It’s not anything like stream of consciousness writing, but perhaps a representation of a stream of consciousness.

Lately, my partner and I have been truly enjoying the VH1 “reality” show “America’s Most Smartest Model.” It’s mindless entertainment, but unlike all but a handful of other television shows, it actually is entertaining, even if we can’t figure out exactly what it is about the show that makes it so while other shows just seem bad.

In any case, most television is just plain bad. That’s something that most everyone I know agrees with. We may disagree on which are the few shows that are entertaining or have some redeeming qualities, but most everyone can agree that most television shows are not worth watching.

But television has always been bad. Take, for example, the late 1970s program “B.J. and the Bear.” I was quite fond of the show at the time, but I have the excuse that I was eight or so years old when it first came on. Looking back, I wonder how such a show was ever made; I wonder who ever thought it was a good idea.

It’s a show about a man and a chimpanzee who drive an 18-wheeler (painted in the same red-with-an-angular-splash-of-white color scheme as the car in “Starsky and Hutch”) around the country and get into adventures. Just to confuse matters, the chimpanzee is named “The Bear.” And when ratings eventually flagged, the “Seven Lady Truckers” were waiting in the wings.

Actually, the existence of “B.J. and the Bear” is not so mysterious – it’s the product of the convergence of two of the more improbable pop culture phenomena, the man-ape buddy show (see also the highly successful and slightly earlier Clint Eastwood film Every Which Way But Loose, co-starring the orangutan Clyde) and trucker-chic.

As many might remember, there was a period of time in the late 1970s when truckers were in, e.g. the success of the Smokey and the Bandit movies, or Convoy.

Truckers may be many things. Most are honest and hard working – certainly anyone who manages to make a decent living driving trucks works hard.

Even more, truckers are essential. In any modernized society, we’d starve to death without truckers.

One thing truckers are not, though, and which makes the late ‘70s trucker-chic phenomenon so inexplicable, is cool. (I’ll grant that the combination of two components of American ideology were behind the trucker-chic thing – the allure of the open landscape and open road, and the idea of making one’s way in the world through one’s own individual labor. I can see where “trucking” could be almost cool, but I’ve also been to enough truck stops to see that truckers are not – with that not in any way intended as a slight. Again, truckers are essential. Further, some individual people who are truckers may be cool, but their coolness is separate from their “trucker-ness.”)

There are many other people who also perform occupations that are essential, at least essential to the functioning of modern society, e.g. sanitation workers, secretaries, factory workers, bus drivers, etc. One thing these essential occupations have in common is their lack of coolness.

(I’m resisting precisely defining coolness here; perhaps I’ll do that at some later point. What sorts of things or occupations are potentially cool? Some examples often thought cool: musicians, especially in some genres; some types of writers and artists; athletes; clothing styles associated with youth and/or social detachment.)

I suspect there are many qualities to coolness, but I’ll conjecture here that one component of coolness (in the sense of “hipness,” as opposed to the sort of coolness of being “cool under pressure”) is inessentiality.

Occupations, activities, or things that are cool are in some way inessential, even superfluous (though not to say useless, for some use can be found for anything).

The reverse doesn’t hold so clearly, though. That is, inessentiality doesn’t make you cool. (Put another way, inessentiality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for coolness.) Academics and scholarly types are generally neither essential nor cool. Jazz musicians are cool (or at least were in days when jazz was associated with youth dance halls in the swing era or with dank clubs in seedy parts of town in the bebop and hard bop periods – nowadays, with highly professionalized musicians often playing jazz as repertory [not necessarily bad things] which is increasingly thought of, like classical music, as music to be edified by, jazz musicians are less clearly cool.) Jazz critics, no matter how interesting their musings, are not cool. (Like truckers, some individual critics might be cool, but their coolness relates to personal factors other than their “critic-ness.”)

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