For millennials who grew up with older siblings who were into grunge, excitement was something Kurt Cobain would never feel. His relaxed face never seemed to smile as he gently strummed with passion from within. Millennials grew into teenagers themselves with MySpace, and emo music glaring from their friends’ profile pages. In college, we were all put on antidepressants and went to therapy, where we felt most like Kurt Cobain.
Eventually, we began to have families and subsequently posted pictures of ourselves, our partners, and our babies onto Facebook, where we felt the love of our unit and from others, but deep down hated our corny smiles. The social pressure to be happy took over, and even a global pandemic wouldn’t shake our wrinkly grins.
I learned in a Postmodernism class at Columbia University that this current era is defined by preferring the sign to the thing signified. People prefer wearing their headphones to look music savvy to actually enjoying the music. People prefer owning a library of cookbooks for other people to see more than they actually enjoy actually cooking. And people perhaps may prefer looking happy to actually feeling happy, certainly in the case of millennials, because some of us still don’t want to feel happy at all. We’re wearing Ann Taylor but would rather feel like we’re wearing threadbare flannel and skipped a shower, laid in bed until 3 p.m., and be somewhat calmly listless inside in a hip, scene, existential way.
Personally, I loved my poker face in my early 20s. It started in high school, when adults accepted that we were going to be depressed teenagers, because that was normal for teenagers. I wasn’t depressed at all, though. I loved my family, my friends, every subject in school, all of my teachers, sunshine, NPR, classical guitar lessons, and so much more. But I loved relaxing my face as well. I liked to imagine myself wearing ‘90s JNCO jeans in 2002, even when I wore low-rise flares. I went to a thrift store the first time senior year, around the time I cut my hair into a rocker bob, and got into Bard College, which is a traditionally hippie liberal arts college and very cutting edge hipster in 2005.
My poker face was cemented at Bard College amongst all of these incredibly talented students who were all breathtakingly beautiful in a nontraditional way. When I transferred to community college in New Jersey, my poker face was further cemented by being around the most diverse crowd of all time. After a few semesters at Columbia University in New York City, nothing could shake the horizontal nature of my mouth, which was in a non-smile and non-frown at all times. I felt like a real New Yorker, and nothing could surprise me anymore.
Now, as a 34-year-old, I still keep my face still to be a polite listener, when I am concentrating on something like writing or when I am alone and pensive, but it looks different. Basically, much like a Pokemon from the ‘90s, I’ve evolved into something new. I was always happy, but I express it in a new way. I am excited.
I am actually excited, and I love the feeling. I love barely being able to sit down from waiting for the new magazine to come out that I have been writing for. I like leaping out of my seat when the postal worker arrives. I like basically skipping to the mailbox.
In the past few years, I have been working on standup comedy, comedic cartoons, fashion design, and more, and my face is always full of laughs. I am constantly thinking of jokes. I rarely, if ever, now speak in a flat voice, to say something soundly neutral to barely optimistic in a way that your friend would slightly nod their head as a response. I am making wacky noises and wacky faces and speaking in accents for my friends, doing impressions of the parrot from the ‘90s Aladdin movie.
I feel my transition from what we perceived in the ‘90s as “coolness” to my current state of constant excitement really happened through social media. It’s always been hard for me to have a neutral frame of mind about social media. It’s so gosh darn exciting. I love every time I have a suggested friend of somebody I haven’t seen in years. I love seeing my friends’ kids grow up. So many times, I was wondering, say, on the last day of camp, if I’d ever see my friends again. Now, sometimes, I get to hear from them practically every day.
I don’t mind my corny smile. I don’t mind that now I feel the urge to smile at strangers. I don’t mind feeling what is sometimes perceived as more suburban. I don’t mind speaking with overt friendliness in my voice. When the holidays start rolling around and I get more excited every day, I no longer feel like a loser like I did in the ‘90s. The only thing is that I can’t really play poker anymore, but I was never that great at it anyway.