The Cult of Cool

The word "cool" as a slang term for trendy, savvy, or street wise is about seventy years old. It has a gaggle of followers (hip, swell, groovy, radical, phat, janey) and spins off new variations at reliable intervals. Roughly the rule is: as soon as uncool people learn the new word for "cool", the cool people make up a new one. "Cool" itself is one of the most-used adjectives in English and, along with "okay", "hi" and "thanks", has infiltrated hundreds of other languages to become part of the world lexicon. My Webster's dictionary dismisses "cool" with a single synonym, "fashionable", but we all know it runs much deeper than that. Most Americans, particularly young Americans, long to be cool, and the notion of coolness is part of their identity. In pop music, cool is almost everything, while in popular literature it is almost nothing. Artists and revolutionaries are cool, but executives and conservative Republicans are not. Al Gore is cool now, though before he was a dweeb. What does it all mean?

Let's do a thought experiment. You're back to highschool. Who are the cool kids? They're probably not the smartest kids, and certainly not the most obedient. Nor are they bullies. The clowns and wise guys are popular, and the cute babes and handsome jocks are mostly with the "in" crowd. But the coolest kids are the ones indifferent to school altogether. Their homework, if they do it at all, is mediocre, their behavior in class tepid. But they have their own agenda. Outside of class they lead an exciting life, involving drugs, sex, wild parties or fast cars. They have little respect for teachers and though they can be kind to other students, you don't want to mess with them. Add it up, and we can define three basic traits of "cool" people:

1) They are anti-establishment

2) They are dangerous

3) Their lifestyle is romantic and seductive

Superimpose these traits over American culture, and we begin to understand why certain groups are thought "cool" while others are not. Rappers certainly qualify as cool, as do motorcycle gangs. Muslim extremists? Certainly dangerous and anti-establishment, but sharia law does not make for a seductive mode of life. Intellectuals? Perhaps, but they are dangerous only in the sense of ideas. Blacks in general are often considered "cool", particularly in a music setting. In his article "Hip-hop Planet" (National Geographic, April 2007), James McBride describes the first time he ever heard rap. "I was standing in the kitchen at a party in Harlem. It was 1980... There were no white people in the room, though I confess I wished there had been, if only to hide the paleness of my own frightened face." The message is clear: rap so embodied coolness that no white person could even be present to taint its inception.

African American culture has often been perceived as a de facto counter-culture, fascinating while also a little frightening to the European American majority. So it's no coincidence that both "cool" and "hip" began as slang words popularized by black jazz musicians like Lester Young. "Hip" is, surprisingly, the older word, derived from "hep". "Hep" was first recorded in the Saturday Evening Post in 1908, and had become part of the jazz lingo by 1915. "Swell" goes back even further, to the 18th century, when rich young English aristocrats dressed fashionably, drank riotously, and lost their family estates in the pursuit of fun. Not quite our idea of cool, but the notion of "coolness" was probably around, if not given a word, as far back as the late Middle Ages.

It was in the 14th century, most likely, when a legendary highwayman named "Robyn Hode" operated from a forest in Yorkshire. People then, as now, were not fond of outlaws, but this Robyn had his own code of ethics, robbing only rich travelers, and living a generally merry life in the forest. So enchanted were the medieval peasants with this highwayman's persona, he quickly became a hero in their stories and ballads. It was also about this time that a nomadic people known as the Rom moved into western Europe. Called "Gypsies" in English (from the incorrect assumption that they were Egyptians), they resisted assimilation in the countries where they wandered. Their free-roving lifestyle was romanticized, but they were also feared as brigands and kidnappers. And like the blacks in America, they were known for their wild music. The Gypsies were undoubtedly the cool crowd of their time. In an old ballad, "The Gypsy Countess", the lady of the manor runs off with a Gypsy king. The song is still part of the folk repertoire today:

She's taken off her high-heeled shoes
All made in Spanish leather,
She's gone down in her low-heeled shoes
And they ran off together.

`Last night I slept in a down-feathered bed
An honored and titled lady
But tonight I'll sleep in the green green field
In the arms of my Gypsy Davy.'

Even the normally stolid George Eliot was carried away by the Gypsy craze, publishing a long poem, The Spanish Gypsy, in 1868.

Robin Hood and Gypsies aside, hipness did become a major cultural force, with its own words and attitudes, until the twentieth century. Perhaps in our global but fragmented world, run by large governments and other faceless entities, an anti-establishment mentality comes across not as rebellious but strong, independent, and charismatic-natural attributes of leadership. Cool is now a billion dollar business, but corporations can't leverage cool because they are so closely identified with the establishment. Only a very few products, like the iPod, are rebellious and seductive enough to be hip. In music, even individuals marketed by the major companies (such as American Idol stars) face an uphill battle against independent bands. The problem is one of authenticity: how can you be anti-establishment when Time Warner is signing your paycheck?

In literature, there is only a small attraction to the cool and, curiously, the hip writers-like Charles Bukowski, David Foster Wallace, and Kurt (may he rest in peace) Vonnegut-are mostly white. Why? Perhaps because authors are read but not seen, race makes little difference. And most of the well-known black writers, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Edward P. Jones, are part of the academic establishment. Some literary sub-genres, like "slam" poetry and the graphic novel, have an attractive street appeal, but as art they will likely be ephemeral. Even the Beat poets are more talked about these days than actually read.

I have a confession to make. Those "cool" kids in highschool ... I was not too enamoured of them. Even now, I'm rather leery of the cult of cool-because coolness is more or less an illusion. Yet thanks to this illusion many facets of marginalized cultures and movements have entered the mainstream-like jazz, and dreadlocks, and surfing. And that is very cool.

- Joel Van Valin