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NONFICTION: Are We Cool?


Ted Gioia, The Birth (And Death) of the Cool (Fulcrum/Speck, 2009)


            “The cool is dead,” says Ted Gioia.  Instead, “the future belongs to a different personality type, marked by earnestness, sincerity, skepticism, simplicity, and hard-nosed assertiveness.”  Postcool is replacing the cool’s “reliance on image and irony…its artifice and playful fluidity…[its] outward focus on trends and fashions.”  Emotional distance is out; the real, the authentic, and the plainspoken are in.  Gioia’s is a thoughtful addition to the chronicles of the dominant twentieth-century emotional style, but its thesis is—well, uncool.

            As a jazz historian, Gioia naturally thinks the cool took its cue from the jazz musicians who invented the cool style:  Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, and the coolest cat of them all, Miles Davis, whose midcentury release of Birth of the Cool is a pivotal moment.  Bugs Bunny was an early forerunner, and the Beats exemplified it too.  Hollywood accelerated it, as the new prosperity made possible the notion of a lifestyle (nonexistent for the generation of Gioia’s parents), as personified by James Dean and Marlon Brando.  Cool ruled until recently, when commoditization by companies such as Nike created a backlash.  Gap, going out of style, spent $100 million on advertising branding itself cool, only to find its sales plunging.  When the perky woman on the television commercial for a communications company asks, “How cool is that?” even kids know it’s anything but.  Evidence that the country is losing its cool is everywhere:  bombastic radio talk shows, reality shows where the uncool win, the surge in organic foods, passionate Internet advocacy.           

Certainly, there has been a postcool tendency.  But if the cool draws sustenance from deep structural reasons—namely, the globalized economy—then only their cessation will herald the end of the cool.  Two of the definitive histories of the cool are Dick Pountain and David Robins’s Cool Rules:  Anatomy of an Attitude (Reaktion, 2000), and Peter N. Stearns’s American Cool:  Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style (NYU, 1994).  Both complicate Gioia’s assertion; for him, the cool eases national discourse, lubricates personal friction, yields artistic innovation.  Pountain and Robins visit the dark side of the cool:  the undertone (or at least tolerance) of criminality that has always defined its icons. 

Pountain and Robins explore twentieth-century cool on both sides of the Atlantic to argue that the style supports the imperative for depoliticization in late consumer capitalism—it keeps the lid on public emotion. Moreover, “each succeeding generation feels that ‘real’ Cool is something pure and existential known only to them—it started in their time, in the jazz clubs of the ’50s, or the hippy festivals of the ’60s, or the punk explosion of the ’70s.”  They do recognize that recently its rebellious status has weakened; but why?  Why would global consumer capitalism suddenly feel the need to replace its successful emotional style with its antithesis?  All historians of the cool agree that jazz was a dominant inspiration, but the range of sources is greater than Gioia covers—this erodes his thesis, because he sets himself a narrower target to demolish.

            Stearns places the arrival of the cool much earlier than Gioia, discussing how such primary emotions as fear, anger, jealousy, and grief started losing their Victorian intensity and expression as industrialization and urbanization necessitated a revised emotional style, and work, school, and family were reorganized to expunge feelings which had been rendered obsolete.  By the 1920s the transformation was well under way.  The magnitude of factors Stearns identifies as causing this major shift—an earlier shift occurred in the seventeenth/eighteenth century—is missing from Gioia’s argument for a recent shift from the cool to postcool. The key rupture for Gioia is the discrediting of the corporate culture which sponsors the cool.  As Thomas Frank explains in The Conquest of Cool:  Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (University of Chicago, 1997), however, corporate culture has always worked hand in hand with the cool; to doubt its omnipotence, as Gioia does, seems premature.    

Is Barack Obama cool?  How we answer this question helps decide where we stand on Gioia’s proposition.  Gioia thinks Obama is the antithesis of cool, while Bill Clinton was the embodiment of cool.  Michelle Cottle of The New Republic is of the opposite opinion (http://www.tnr.com/article/the-cool-presidency).  We might mediate by claiming that the cool has the capacity to absorb tendencies of postcool into its penumbra, and therefore Obama is a variant of the cool—perhaps even postcool—but not sufficiently different from it in public expression to constitute a new phenomenon.  Regardless, the cool as a rubric to understand politics and culture holds far greater explanatory value than any number of traditional social science frames, and still seems insufficiently chronicled.

Contributor

Anis Shivani

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