On “YOLO”

There are some phrases I just don’t use, even ironically. “Yolo” is one of them. Well, I used it once, a couple of weeks ago when trying to convince a mate to go out on the town and stay up until his bus arrived in the early morning. It just slipped out into my text, though on reflection it did suit the situation.

I first heard said acronym on a flight to Sweden two years ago. Just as the plane took off, the curtain rail dividing the first and cattle class sections slipped from its fastening and slid down the aisle, stopping with a dramatic crash in the middle of the cabin.

“Yolo,” whispered one of my travelling companions, with a nervous giggle.

Since then, it’s been ubiquitous. I’ve seen it on T shirts, number plates and even heard it in perfect seriousness. At first I did think “yolo” sounded a bit like “Rolo”: perhaps, I thought, it was an exhortation to kindness, suggesting that in our limited time on earth you should share the love by giving your last Rolo to someone. But I quickly realised it’s the sort of phrase to be taken ironically or as a flimsy excuse: “Come on, we’re going to do something stupid and possibly life threatening, but might as well”.

polo - yolo

“Polo: Yolo” would not be a good slogan.

The sentiment “you only live once” is admirable in encouraging one to take chances. However, this phrase is only used to refer to things you’ll try and possibly get a story out of (at best) or broken bones/an STD/being mocked (at worst). Why does the definition not extend to acts which make the world a better place? “You only live once, but then so does everyone else, so recycle your plastic, buy the Big Issue and don’t shout at the person making your coffee.” Such an interpretation hasn’t caught on, because, frankly, where’s the fun in tackling social injustices? Encouraging your mates to get mashed and skateboard behind a car is likely to be a better story than when you helped out at the local homeless shelter (and you’ll come across as a loveable muppet, instead of making others feel self-conscious that they’re not keeping up with your tireless charity crusade).

To analyse further the phrase Jack Black described as “carpe diem for stupid people”, the actual expression is commonly attributed to Mae West, although variations have appeared for over 100 years, according to Wikipedia. For example, Johann Strauss wrote a waltz called “Man lebt nur einmal!” (“You Only Live Once!”) in 1855. Maybe it’s due for a re-release? Other musicians have used this as a title, but the acronym only became popular with the rapper Drake’s song “The Motto” in 2011 (never heard of it). YOLO was the name of his album (still no clue here), so he repeatedly said the word in his tracks just to promote his album. Funny how a phrase repeated out of self-publicity became ingrained in popular culture, but the album doesn’t appear to have had the same impact. Drake seems to regret his addition to popular culture, though, apologising for his use of the phrase in his introduction to Saturday Night Live earlier this year.

I fancy putting this into context with western culture. On a basic level, “you only live once” seems to disagree with Christian doctrine as it disregards everlasting life after death, in heaven.

Woman Talking on Cell Phone During Movie --- Image by © image100/Corbis

Or hell,if you’re one of those people who talks in the theatre.

If you only live once can you just do what you like, or should you be storing up good deeds to reap the benefits? Perhaps a more theologically sound acronym would be “yolt” – you only live twice, so be good now and enjoy your reward in the afterlife. Sadly this has already been taken by James Bond, in the title of one of his adventures, and in a haiku he comes up with in chapter 11 of the novel:

“You only live twice: Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.”

A slightly different philosophy, although perhaps a “yolo” act (like taking a selfie with a lion) could well result in looking death in the face, and thus experiencing “yolt”. Or perhaps it’s not that different, as maybe the stereotypical “yolo” daft act allows someone to experience the same thrill of being alive that Mr Bond regularly encountered in his dangerous missions. “Yolt”, however, is a rubbish substitute for “yolo”. Look in a mirror and say it. The sound has perhaps more of an impact, but sounds a bit like you’re shouting “halt” in a failed Russian accent. Tried it? It’s a good way to alarm housemates when they least expect.

So on one hand, “yolo” is part of the vocabulary of the annoying, gap-yah-style idiot who pops his collar and “got so lashed I chundered all over the Magna Carta while riding Jeffers as a horse through the BL reading room”. It is a bad justification for funny, but ultimately stupid, ideas. Nevertheless, it is a sentiment I can endorse. Whatever your views on the afterlife, we can all be sure that we have at least this one life to live on earth, and we might as well make the most of it. This has to include all the daft stuff, because otherwise where are your strange stories and jokey memories going to come from? As I am demonstrating, overanalysing things can be a headache and you don’t need to justify everything.

As for my friend, he was unfortunately not persuaded to party till the sun came up. And fair enough; it’s hard to appreciate life and all its beauty when you’re nursing a hangover on a hot coach for ten hours. He got some sleep and I stayed up watching Game of Thrones and eating chocolate. Because yolo doesn’t need to be all parties and daftness – you need quiet nights in to enjoy your own company too.

As it is, life’s too short to overanalyse popular culture. But if that’s what you enjoy doing…?

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