In 2013, What Does "Cool" Even Mean?

What "cool" meant, and what it means now.
Sept. 30 2013 11:55 PM

Cool Story

What does "cool" even mean in 2013?

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This is part of what makes it so easy to appropriate, to market, and even to manufacture, in a process that’s grown ever more rapid—nothing wants to be cooler today than a corporation, and digital media erase the need to wait for lifestyle and aesthetic innovations to make their way from the outré to the mainstream. As critic John Leland has put it, “In a society run on information, hip is all there is.”

That’s the trouble with trying to point to cool’s center today. It is everywhere and nowhere. It is noise-music cassettes and K-pop, adult male My Little Pony fans and Maker Faires, alternative comedy podcasts and Holy Hip Hop, the feminist Twittersphere and even creepy pickup artistry, depending who you are, and most of all it is being coolly aware of all of the above. Mind you, most claims about a new balkanization of taste are nearsighted: Contrary to sentimental legend there never was a pop “monoculture.” So the issue now is not so much cool’s fracturing as its evanescence: Cool is what’s on BuzzFeed or Reddit in the morning, but it’s not cool by end of the day. The more ephemeral, the cooler; Snapchat is cooler than Instagram, which is cooler than Twitter, which is cooler than Facebook, which is cooler than the Web, which is infinitely cooler than print.

As a result, today’s celebrities, by definition overexposed, seldom can hold on to any 20th-century-like appearance of cool. Kanye West’s endurance as a superstar is owing to the fact that cool was never exactly what he brought to the table—he has more in common with the revenge-of-the-nerds, hip-to-be-square tide that’s elevated the tech geeks. Beyoncé is an old-fashioned showbiz gal under the surface, while her 1990s-holdover husband vacillates unattractively between flirting with avant-garde artists and flaunting ever-more-venal materialism. Anonymity and disappearing acts (cf., Daft Punk or Earl Sweatshirt) can be effective gambits to extend a bit of mystique past fruit-fly timelines.

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Jennifer Lawrence arguably has attained “it girl” status partly through displays of uncoolness (the Oscar-steps stumble, the zany motormouth, the gormlessness when encountering her acting heroes) that only set her actual suaveness as an actress in a more flattering light. In another register, Lady Gaga and now Miley Cyrus push themselves beyond fashionable eccentricity into the deliberately grotesque. Lena Dunham shoots herself in awkward nudity on Girls in part to knock herself off any possible pedestal. This pattern prevails even among fictional characters—the anti-heroes in 21st-century serial “quality” drama aren’t chill Eastwood or Brando types but panic-attack-prone Tony Soprano, or Walter White, whose scheming intellect is undone by his pedantic-nebbish emotional insecurity. The likes of Omar are the exceptions that prove the (white) rule.

High-profile uncoolness comes as a relief to today’s audiences, I believe, because the stakes of cool for so many of us have become disastrously high. “Knowledge work,” the main alternative to subsistence-level service jobs, demands a performance of knowingness, and the transitory instability of employment requires everyone to operate as free agents marketing our own “personal brands.” In this situation—the deregulation of everything (except pot, so it remains universally hip) and the disorganization of the labor market—coolness becomes all but mandatory, even as we break into a sweat.

For a wired generation, cool’s markers aren’t tough to acquire, but maintaining them can become a frantic preoccupation. Young aspirants in cultural fields often come off to me as fairly confident that they are cool and profoundly unsettled about whether they’ll get to be anything more. The much-maligned hipsters (a cultural bogeyman I’ve avoided mentioning till now) expand that syndrome to a parodic, near-pornographic level—their apparent overidentification with the laws of cultural capital and embodying rootless mobility exposes, consciously or unconsciously, the unspoken edicts of post-industrial cool apathy, as if to say, “All the emperor has are clothes.”

Is coolness a trap, then, a nightmare from which we need to awake? Compared to the scale of the world’s real problems, it’s a frivolous, even malignant distraction, a cul-de-sac of endless and servile adolescence. Yet once it shielded African-American culture and pried open space for Jewish, gay, and other repressed perspectives. How then does it shift when the president of the United States, a conspicuously cool customer, is black and advocates gay marriage, and when black artists (rather than white imitators, though those still abound) tend to dominate the pop charts? The post-racial society is a myth, but perhaps it is a myth of cool—the one that spurs, for instance, MGMT to cast Williams as a shaman-assassin, or Vice magazine to dabble in hipster racism, or kids at electronic music festivals to dress up in faux Native American headdresses and face paint as clueless “tribal chic” even in front of a real live Native American music group that condemns it as “redface.”

So, just as the camp aesthetic inevitably has been diluted by queer mainstreaming, maybe cool is finished as a distinct category and is now just a generic hook on which to hang hierarchy. And yet … I owe cool too much (e.g., Krazy Kat, Gertrude Stein, Thelonious Monk, Frank O’Hara, Agnes Varda, The Slits, Outkast, David Foster Wallace [despite his protests], etc., etc.) to give up willingly on its legacy of canny, impassioned skepticism and its capacity to slip the strictures of propriety and social segregation. It’s not like we’ve run out of boundaries that want crossing: What about, say, the ones that drew the rules of cool with minimal input from women, non-city dwellers, or non-Westerners? Perhaps some elegant sidestep remains around the present sensation of being hornswoggled into a symbolic-status Hunger Games in which the scramble for cred is a top-down bloodbath of “creative destruction.”

Yeah, man, that’d be coolsville.

Carl Wilson is Slates music critic.