Why Lorde's acne is cool and Miley's twerking isn't

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 05:  Lorde performs on stage during the 2014 Lollapalooza Brazil at Autodromo de Interlagos on April 5, 2014 in Sao Paulo, B...
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - APRIL 05: Lorde performs on stage during the 2014 Lollapalooza Brazil at Autodromo de Interlagos on April 5, 2014 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)Buda Mendes / Getty Images

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By Meghan Holohan
Lorde is supremely cool because all the cool kids say so. Buda Mendes / Today

With her goth-witch make-up and clothes, pop singer Lorde stands out from the pack. When the 17-year-old posted a picture of herself without make-up and with spots of acne cream dotting her face, she seemed, well, cool. But what makes Lorde’s acne pic cool and Miley Cyrus’ twerking not?

Sure, Miley Cyrus is hugely popular but she "has blown any opportunity to be cool because she is too ubiquitous, too available,” says Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University. 

Is that why Brooklyn dudes dressed in "normcore" stonewashed jeans are considered cool, but not President Barack Obama in his mom jeans? The bigger question is, why do we care so much about coolness? In 2012, a report in the Journal of Individual Differences tried to crack the code of cool, but a recent paper by Margaret C. Campbell and Caleb Warren gives more clues.   

"Everyone knows that cool is out there, but we actually know very little about what makes something cool,” writes Jonah Berger, the James G. Campbell associate professor of marketing at the Wharton School, via email, who was not involved in the research. 

Cool has something to do with being autonomous or independent, without crossing the line of being too freaky, the researchers found. 

The researchers conducted six experiments, where they asked participants to evaluate different products and assess whether they are cool or not. In one experiment, for example, 190 subjects, ages 18 to 63, rated whether a traditional water bottle design was cooler than a new, divergent design. Most subjects thought the non-traditional design was cooler.

This means being cool requires being different and elusive. And while being autonomous seems important to being cool, it is a delicate balance.

“Autonomy helps, but not all autonomous people or things are cool. They need to be autonomous while not coming across as a psychopath or freak, which isn’t an easy thing for most to do,” says Warren, an assistant professor of marketing at Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, via email. 

One consensus: “Everyone agrees that things are cool only to the extent that others consider them cool," Warren says.

Cool appeals to the masses, but it starts as an outlying idea and then becomes more and more mainstream. 

“We think this is how coolness spreads through a culture—from more to less counter-cultural people and then to uncool status,” says Campbell, a professor of marketing at Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, Boulder. 

There are infinite ways to be uncool, but the researchers says these three factors guarantee a lunch table in Siberia: 

  • Being too normal 
  • Being too strange
  • Liking uncool people or things

Applying this theory, Comic-Con might be cool, but cosplay —actually dressing up in a Princess Leia "Return of the Jedi" bikini? Too strange. Kanye West? Once cool. After marriage to Kim Kardashian? Normal.

“To the extent that people believe Kim is uncool, then Kanye certainly becomes less cool by marrying her,” Warren says.  

And if you think the whole idea of cool belongs to the last millennium, social media actually makes more people feel a greater need to be part of the cool crowd.

“What I have seen more with young people is a lot of deviation from the norm, that they really want uniqueness," says Yarrow. "And part of that is that they are really hunting for the coolness that will define them to others.” 

When people want to be seen as individuals, they care more about being cool. Over the past few decades, there was a cultural shift — from people who wanted to fit in with the norm to those who value individuality. Coolness, we believe, is akin to creativity and uniqueness and that's something many of us desire. 

"Coolness is even more relevant and even more fleeting the more you want to be seen," she says.