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The Noisey Guide to Being Cool in College

Here's everything you need to know about music to major in being cool.
September 5, 2014, 1:00pm

Congratulations! You made it to college! You no longer have to worry about SAT scores or parents telling you what to do. You just bought a mini fridge and new set of extra long sheets, and there's an orientation ice cream social that you're headed to later. This is it. You're in a new place surrounded by new people and you have a chance to totally reinvent yourself. You have a chance to be cool.

Over the next few weeks, you'll meet all kinds of people and have all kinds of opportunities thrown at you. You will go to parties and get fall-down drunk. You'll play weird improv games on the quad with the other kids in your dorm. And, through it all, you'll figure out who you want to be as you parse the nonstop flow of social interactions. How will you differentiate between the people who will go on to be lifelong friends and the ones who will go on to be pre-med students who you no longer wave hi to when you pass on the sidewalk? Music, obviously.


As everyone is trying to make sense of the social maelstrom you've just entered, there's no better way to stand out from your peers than by showing off your excellent taste, your inimitable talent (if you have it), or at least your ability to have a set of speakers and multiple handles of dirt-cheap vodka in your room. You'll be meeting hundreds of new people, all of whom are the most interesting people ever, and music is the way to show that you are the most most interesting of all. Just follow these easy tips, don't throw up on your neighbor's futon until at least week three, and watch as you become the cool person you always wanted to be.

Put up music posters and wear music shirts that anyone with taste could love

You're in college now, which means that you're a person with class and taste and erudition. First impressions are everything, and you don't want your new classmates thinking that you aren't smart enough to keep up with them because you only listen to top 40 radio or that you're a hipster because you love experimental ambient music. Where you came from and where you're going in the long run, you will be cool for actually loving those things, but right now the way to make friends is to go full-on, broad strokes middlebrow and embrace stuff that anyone who is remotely into music will have to at least respect.

No matter what your tastes, there's something you like that falls in this sweet spot. You want acts just obscure enough that people who like it will feel like they probably have something in common with you and just mainstream enough that at least one other person in a random selection of ten people your age will definitely know about it. Get your older brother to give you his A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt, hang some of your mom's Fleetwood Mac LP covers on your wall, or pick up a Clash poster at the bookstore. You're looking for something that as many other people as possible will want to bond with you over because that's how you're going to make friends around these parts. That cute girl who lives down the hall will be intrigued when she sees the Daft Punk Discovery sticker on your laptop. That cool guy at the salad bar will definitely want to strike up a conversation when he notices you're wearing an N.W.A. snapback. And that's all it takes! Showcase your just-hip-enough taste and watch the new Facebook friends coming rolling in.

Get a radio show

Now that you've established that you have unimpeachable taste, it's time to put that taste to work by subjecting everyone in a five-to-ten-mile radius to it at three in the morning. You have an obsession with grunge music? Force it upon your unwitting fans! Want to be the first person to play Yung Lean on the radio? You can be! How fun is that? Sure, this one isn't quite as foolproof as it was back when people actually listened to radio and being part of the station was the only way to get free music. On the other hand, now that those things are history, there's not as much room for college radio to be hopelessly pretentious. It may still be. There will almost definitely be some douchey senior who has an annoying drone show right before you and makes snide remarks whenever you come to take over for him. But you also have the benefit of access to your station's record library, which is a bigger physical repository of recorded music than you will probably ever again find in your life. Plus, you'll find a pre-existing community of other people who like music, possibly develop an in for meeting artists when they visit campus, and maybe impress your normal friends who listen to your show. Just tell them it's a drinking game, and they'll all be on board.

Don't do a cappella

Upperclassmen who do a cappella will try to convince you that it's a cool activity, and they'll have a story about the time they performed some quirky song like “Trapped in the Closet” that makes it sound fun and totally normal. You'll want to believe them because everyone else in your year will be so amped about a cappella and because at least one person in your dorm will make out with someone in an a cappella group in the first couple weeks. But a cappella is objectively uncool, and you will realize this by around the second semester of your sophomore year or whenever you reach the point where everyone in your dorm has made out with someone in an a cappella group.

Get into instrumental hip-hop

This isn't so much advice as a warning that this will probably happen. Smoking weed and listening to MF DOOM beats is a great combination that feels just enough like a smart, college thing that you will inevitably do it.

Avoid obvious college music

There’s going to be a guy down the hall who went to like seven “Dave” concerts this past summer and will tell you about how awesome and life-changing it was. It wasn’t. There will be a girl who offers you weed, and the catch will be that you have to listen to her tell you about how interesting moe. are for the next hour. They aren't. Your floor will all decide at some point that they should go to a Pretty Lights concert. Don't go. It's great to have an open mind, but there is some music that only exists for the purpose of entertaining college kids, and that stuff is better off left alone.

Don't assume you know everything

You may have been one of the smart kids in high school, but so was everyone else here. Being an asshole about all the things you know about music doesn't prove anything; it just makes you an asshole. For all you know, the person you're talking to is an expert in free jazz and that's why she got into this school. You're here as much to learn from your peers as your professors, so stop acting smug about all the Sonic Youth b-sides only you know about or ostentatiously wearing your Beat Happening shirt. Instead, take as much music off your classmates' hard drives as you possibly can (maybe I'm dating myself here; do you kids still listen to music that isn't streaming?) and use the opportunity to learn about the unique stuff they love. You'll probably meet at least a few people who grew up somewhere else, and they can teach you all about whatever music that's cool in their hometown and help make you worldly and sophisticated. You can totally pass over that folder on their desktop of Bassnectar albums, though. You will definitely never listen to those.

Learn all the words to “Wagon Wheel”

No matter how lame you think this song is, there is a 4000 percent chance you will eventually end up at a bonfire where someone has an acoustic guitar and everyone decides to do a “Wagon Wheel” sing-along. And do you know who will be lame then? You, for not knowing the words. Study up now:

Join a band, start a rap group, or become a DJ

Never again in your life will the barrier to entry for performing some type of music be as low as it is now, so take advantage while you can. As long as there is an option to either get wasted or show up wasted, your peers will do anything, including come to your terrible show. There are entire offices dedicated to coming up with activities, bars with no standards looking to draw a crowd, or, at the very least, scummy houses where no one will notice if you set up a stage in the corner of the basement.

Basically all you have to do to launch a performance career in college is decide to have a performance career, which means that if you've ever remotely dreamed of doing something musical, now is your chance. Even if your rap group never gets off the ground, the thrill of performing for 20 people in the hot dog restaurant where your friend works can be yours at least once. If you want to have a punk band that only writes songs about weed, well, people are going to hang out wherever there's a keg whether or not you guys are playing. By just going so far as to make the effort to stand behind a table with a computer on it, you're probably qualified to DJ a few parties where people end up partially naked. People will react like they're at a Girl Talk show if you do anything more advanced than put on an iTunes playlist. In fact, people will still react like they're at a Girl Talk show if all you do is put on an iTunes playlist because that's what people do in any environment where jello shots are the classiest type of alcohol on hand.

Listen to Wu-Tang Clan

At America's most elite colleges and universities, they won't even give you your degree until you've sat around in a dorm room and nerded out over a random GZA verse, but even at the lesser institutions and “Ivies” of the world you'll find that it's frowned upon to not at least occasionally pay lip service to liking Wu-Tang.

Don't bring your fucking ukelele

Inevitably, there will be someone at your school who sits in the dorm hallway playing ukelele covers of pop songs and attracting the attention of other people on the floor who can't believe that they've ended up at a place where everyone is so interesting. You might be tempted to be this ukelele person. Don't be. Ukelele covers of pop songs are not quirky and fun; they are a way for boring people to convince themselves they are smart and ironic when in fact they are joyless and incapable of enjoying pop on its own terms. Any friends you meet by playing the ukelele will instantly leave you as soon as they find someone old enough to buy them alcohol anyway.

Make a dope weed playlist

A good #lifehack to remember is that weed makes music better. In fact, weed might as well be a corollary to every item on this list. College is a great opportunity to smoke weed for the first time if you haven't already, since there are no parents and an endless supply of Radiohead MP3s. Getting stoned and listening to music can be a valuable experience for developing friendships, so having a playlist that is guaranteed to make a couch full of bros go “whoa, dude!” multiple times or that will make your crush from down the hall want to make out with you while you guys stare at the ceiling and contemplate the fleeting nature of time is essential. College is also a great opportunity to get into Sigur Ros for the first time if you haven't already. If you're already too stoned to do this yourself, we have a playlist of 420 songs about weed you can use.

Go to a Dillon Francis show

You do want to have friends, don't you? All your potential friends love this shit, guaranteed. You are in college.

Don't worry about listening to "cool" music

Considering that this whole list is about using music to be cool, you may be tempted to only admit to liking music that will make you look cool. But if you spend your whole time in college pretending to like James Blake and FKA Twigs and Travi$ Scott when you'd rather just take a deep dive into learning about Motown, you're not going to be very happy, and you will end up being less cool. One of the best things about college is that you can reject what authority figures tell you, maybe for the first time. So if you want to ignore Pitchfork or Noisey or the Fader and just listen to Van Halen wail on guitars, go for it.

Learn some factoids

Gone are the days when hanging out with friends meant any form of physical activity. Get ready for a lot of standing around a beer pong table commenting on said game of beer pong and on whatever music is playing. This is where factoids are key. Nobody knows anything anymore because they can just look stuff up on their phones, which means trivia is at a premium. If you can mention that Iggy Azalea is the first artist since the Beatles to simultaneously have the number one and number two song in the country when “Problem” comes on or point out that Childish Gambino picked his name from an online Wu-Tang name generator, you will be marginally more interesting than everyone else there. Not only will this increase your odds of a steamy makeout session in a stairwell (because your roommate's sleeping) later, it may even save you from listening to some biology major complain about his organic chemistry class. Just kidding! There is no way you will ever not hear a biology major complain about his organic chemistry class. But factoids are still essential.

Download at least one Sublime song, probably

It's a known fact that Sublime is the worst band of all time, but it's also a known fact that everyone in college is an idiot who loves Sublime and that they will flip out if “What I Got” comes on at a party.

Don't buy the RA's hype

Within the first couple weeks of school, your RA will probably try to boost floor spirit by having everyone team up to make a Beyoncé parody song or a viral video for whatever song goes viral this fall. There is a 100 percent chance this will be lame and that the afternoon could have been better spent playing frisbee golf or doing literally anything else.

Keep an open mind

You're going to be exposed to more new music and ideas in college than ever before. Let yourself be exposed! That's why you're here. Chances are good that if someone else likes something it's not terrible, so give it a shot. You may discover that what you like is completely different from what you thought you liked or used to like. And more importantly, recognize that even though things like music taste are often the shorthand you'll use when making friends in this giant morass of a social scene, they ultimately are meaningless. Go out, have fun, and listen to whatever music makes you happy.

Kyle Kramer graduated magna cum laude. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer



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