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?

Gwendolyn Brooklyn, Cary Grant, Miles Davis, Justin Timberlake
From left, Gwendolyn Brooks, Cary Grant, Miles Davis, and Justin Timberlake. Cool has come a long way.

Left three photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Right photo byMerrick Morton/Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc.

Part 1 of a monthlong series on the history and future of cool.

Last month the electro-psychedelic band MGMT released a video for its “Cool Song No. 2.” It features Michael K. Williams of The Wire as a killer-dealer-lover-healer figure stalking a landscape of vegetation, narcotics labs, rituals, and Caucasians. “What you find shocking, they find amusing,” the singer drones in Syd Barrett-via-Spiritualized mode. The video is loaded with signposts of cool, first among them Williams, who played maybe the coolest TV character of the past decade as the gay Baltimore-drug-world stickup man Omar Little. But would you consider “Cool Song No. 2” genuinely cool, or is it trying too hard? (Is that why it’s called “No. 2”?)

The very question is cruel, of course, and competitive. You can praise the Brooklyn band’s surreal imagination, or you can call it a dull, derivative outfit renting out another artist’s aura to camouflage that it has none of its own. It depends which answer you think makes you cooler.

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If that sounds cynical, cynicism is difficult to avoid when the subject of cool arises now. Self-conscious indie rockers are easy targets, vulnerable to charges of recycling half-century-old postures that arguably were purloined from African-American culture in the first place. But what is cool in 2013, and why are we still using this term for what scholar Peter Stearns pegged as “a twentieth-century emotional style”? Often credited to sax player Lester Young in the 1940s, the coinage was in general circulation by the mid-1950s, with Miles Davis’s Birth of the Cool and West Side Story’s finger-snapping gang credo “Cool.” You’d be unlikely to use other decades-old slang—groovy or rad or fly—to endorse any current cultural object, at least with a straight face, but somehow cool remains evergreen.

The standard bearers, however, have changed. Once the rebellious stuff of artists, bohemians, outlaws, and (some) movie stars, coolness is now as likely to be attributed to the latest smartphone or app or the lucre they produce: The iconic statement on the matter has to be Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker saying to Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” That is, provided you earn it before you’re 30—the tech age has also brought on an extreme-youth cult, epitomized by fashion blogger and Rookie magazine editor Tavi Gevinson, who is a tad less cool now at 17 than she was when she emerged at age 11. What would William S. Burroughs have had to say about that? (Maybe “Just Do It!”)  

Cool has come a long way, literally. In a 1973 essay called “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” art historian Robert Farris Thompson traced the concept to the West African Yoruba idea of itutu—a quality of character denoting composure in the face of danger, as well as playfulness, humor, generosity, and conciliation. It was carried to America with slavery and became a code through which to conceal rage and cope with brutality with dignity; it went on to inform the emotional textures of blues, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and more, then percolated into the mainstream.

Stearns argues that cool’s imperatives of flexibility and fluidity helped Americans escape rigid Victorian morality into modernity and developed along with mass production and mass media as a new individualist ethos. But most analysts agree it only became widespread after World War II. As Dick Pountain and David Robins wrote in their 2000 book Cool Rules, it “took the collapse of faith in organized religion and the trauma of two world wars to turn it into a mass phenomenon,” one that thrummed with the paranoias of the atomic age and the Cold War as well as fantasies of cross-racial convergence. (See Norman Mailer’s mostly regrettable essay on the “White Negro.”)

Elvis and James Dean introduced cool to Middle America, but it was the Beat movement that revered it most, putting its queer shoulder to the wheel, even as black poet Gwendolyn Brooks was warning that “We Real Cool” was coming to mean “we die soon.” The Beats were succeeded by both the Warhol Factory and ’60s hippie culture, which converted cool to common currency in concert with Madison Avenue. And not just in its crucible, but around the world via pop and consumer culture. As Pountain and Robins claim, “American Cool proved in the end to be more exportable than Soviet Communism.”

That oversimplified history gives some sense of how cool moved from margins to center and became our elastic container for anyone and anything with relevance and spark. To be cool is to have cultural and social capital, and most urgently it is to be not uncool—a hang-up most of us pick up in adolescence that’s damnably hard to shake even if it mellows with age. Cool is an attitude that allows detached assessment, but one that prizes an air of knowingness over specific knowledge. I think that’s why it doesn’t become dated, unlike hotter-running expressions of enthusiasm like groovy or rad. As Stearns says, cool is “an emotional mantle, sheltering the whole personality from embarrassing excess. … Using the word is part of the process of conveying the right impression.”