On being a try-hard

Fake Out

Justin Knight_Online

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Confession: I am a try-hard.

I’m not a very good try-hard. I’m definitely not engaging with a particular image or entering a particular scene successfully. Still, I try really hard, and it shows.

Urban Dictionary defines the try-hard as “a person who puts a large amount of effort into achieving a certain image, or a counter-image, to the point where it is obviously contrived.” A try-hard attempts to achieve an image through “deliberate imitation, forced style, or scripted behaviour.” A try-hard, in essence, tries way too fucking hard.

Growing up, I wanted more than anything to live a life unlike any that had ever been lived before. Being trite was my greatest fear. I was sick of the lives everyone else had lived. Everything that ever happened before I was born felt small, weak, stale.

Everywhere I looked in movies, songs and in my own life I saw clichés. Everything was hackneyed. Nobody ever seemed to be doing anything new.

In all sincerity, the potential of dying a boring person was infinitely scarier to me than coming out in my Louisiana high school. Being scared of coming out in and of itself was such a hackneyed trope in popular culture that I consciously decided against it.

Suck a dick, every movie about a gay in high school. I’m gonna do the opposite.

I started from the ground up. I became a self-conscious observer to everything, acting upon new things I perceived and scripting myself away from anything that felt vaguely like a trope. From everything I learned, I felt sure I could never be boxed in. I would defy definition. I would escape every timeworn pitfall and tired lifestyle.

In junior high, there was a distinct subset of self-conscious “hipster-adjacent” kids. Most of them were deeply uncool, and they covered it up with contempt. I don’t think I was actually lumped in with that group, but I desperately wanted to be. They’d all hiss at people for calling them the H-word. I’d pathetically follow suit, gleeful at the chance to leer menacingly and grimace with that same fervor if anybody deigned to call me a hipster, too.

When the hipster movement broke into the mainstream seven or eight years ago, it was easy to point out try-hard hipsters and laugh. In a bitter twist of irony, band-tee-and-flannel hipsters that were desperate to break out of common molds formed a cohesive, homogenous subculture.

Now it’s not so easy. The hipster’s sensibilities have ingrained themselves deeply into modern life. In this decade, plenty of average people engage with their lives in a very similar way to those early try-hards, with their performed identity and aesthetic perceptions coalescing into self-conscious, layered presentation.

It’s seven years later, and I’m still trying hard in my own distinctive little way. I don’t think you’d really conceive of me as that obnoxious of a try-hard. I blend in reasonably well with the sea of people engaged with contemporary life.

My style is self conscious, ironically engaged with historical context. My tastes are wide-ranging, disinterested in being pinned down or understood in full.

I’m some meticulous, overwrought aesthetic pastiche of post-ironic ‘90s resortwear and half-price-at-Goodwill uncle-core chic. I tell you I’m obsessed with the Coen brothers but I never really took the time to understand their work, and I probably only ever watched half of “Barton Fink” anyway.

I listen to the highlights of every artist you love and do a good job of convincing you I know more about them than you. Oh, do you love Patti Smith? I only listened to Horses once, but let me go ahead and mansplain her work to you right now!

Is this embarrassing for me to write about? No sincere try-hard wants to discuss how many levels they’re operating on, how meticulously they tend to their look, how actively they’ve crafted their own identity.

John Stuart Mill called this “the cultivation of the self,” but modern forms of personal development are about more than that. How honest can cultivating yourself be when you’re that focused on outside perception and the levels of context your personality is engaging in? To be well-cultured in the 21st century is to be a mirrored refraction of post-modern sensibilities.

What does that actually mean? Who fucking knows.

Do I sound like an asshole? Good, that’s what I’m going for. I need you to know how absurd I feel talking about this and, even worse, how absurd I feel playing along with it.

There’s nothing inherently dishonest about being a try-hard. Everybody is engaged in cultural consumption in one way or another. Maybe I’m taking the power away from mainstream cultural forces in deciding how to dress, act, think and cultivate myself. Maybe I’m still just as much of a dupe either way.

For me, trying hard never helped me get out of being a cliché, not really. I wanted to escape my own humanness. There’s no cure for that.

Still, I’ve become myself through my try-hardery. Being a try-hard is something I’ve come to be proud of. It enters into everything I do.

Even this piece is trying too hard.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.