"That's AWEsome!"

September 1, 2009

We're devoting a column to "That's AWEsome!" because we love this phrase in its current incarnation.

Historically, the word awesome enjoyed a meaning as complex as a good French Burgundy. It was a word with the important role of conveying a feeling of dread mixed with veneration, that would elucidate, say, one's reaction to an encounter with a supernatural being. During the 1980s, particularly in the western United States, "That's awesome!" became an ineffectual expression of garden variety hyperbole... as if we needed yet another term to show that everything was indistinguishably "really great!" Sullied as the decade wore on by over-usage, the word awesome eventually came to be pointed at anything that simply didn't suck too much.

Now, in the late '00s, meta-observation is the main gear of a new generation of meaning-makers – the post-postmoderns. And under their auspices, the phrase "That's AWEsome!" has been semantically re-elevated, though now employed to refer not to encounters with gods or goddesses, but with humanness in all its manifestations (perhaps echoing history's trajectory of increasingly conflating the latter with the former?).

The current version of "That's AWEsome!" with its always-already infused self-conscious reflexivity, does a much greater service as part of our contemporary collection of signifiers. By resurrecting the phrase, this generation has changed not only the connotations of the word awesome, but of the whole concept of cool as well. Increasingly, cool is no longer revealed in the smug smirks of kids in-the-know, with their perma-ironic observations that are the hallmark of Gen X. "That's AWEsome!" is the opposite of the withering sarcasm that was employed to separate those "in" from those "out." The expression defines something unique to those who are ready to get over themselves; ready to stop justifying a nastily exclusive world divided up into "I'm cool, you're not" and "This is cool, this is not." This new brand of AWEsome trumps the old cool. It's now actually cooler to be AWEsome than to be cool.

Here's an example of the new AWEsome, relayed by Artocratic editor Greg Dember:

I was in a long, long line at the post office. One customer at the counter was spending a lot of time, too much time, buying stamps. 'OK... how about 9 with the flags on them and 6 with the bouquet of flowers... no make that 8 and 7... wait, I should get more... what other designs do you have? Can I see that first sheet you showed me again?' Growing impatient, I began exchanging pained grins and eyerolls with the guy in line behind me. Then my new buddy spoke out loud (but still at a polite, conspiratorial volume), 'It's actually AWEsome... it could be a scene in a movie...'

The genius of "That's AWEsome!" is that it gives us all permission to look for the cool and to find awe in everything, in everyone, and in the everyday. The deal is to celebrate expressions of human frailty and foible that are so authentic as to defy all notions of what's accepted, expected, or desirable. We now have a way to give proper reverence to those moments in which humanity is revealed to be as quirky and lovably strange, charmingly vile, base, human, as it is.

And we think that's AWEsome.

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