The Birth (and Death) of the Cool
By Ted Gioia
Reading Ted Gioia’s dust-jacket credits (“Best-selling author of The History of Jazz and Delta Blues”), readers may think this book is about jazz or pop culture. It is–and Gioia has written an intellectually precise, lively, and imaginative account of “the cool” and its role in American life. But even Gioia may not realize that he has offered up a tangential illumination of the whole phenomenon of modernity:
Starting in the fifties and gaining momentum over the next two decades, average people wanted to lead their lives as though they were works of art, songs or movies or novels. At the same time, people now judged songs or movies or novels as lifestyle accessories, not as aesthetic products. In some strange way, this became the epitome of the cool–to externalize your life as though it were one more entertainment product.
This rehearses the argument of the whole book, including the “death of the cool,” which he attributes to the eventual sickening commercialization of the concept. From now on, he argues, we are in for earnestness, authenticity, and an absence of irony.
Where did “the cool” come from? Gioia’s answer is no surprise: from African Americans. Cool was first defined in print in 1947, in a book titled piquantly Jive and Slang of Students in Negro Colleges. It meant “neatly dressed,” and a “cool papa” was a “nonchalant fellow.”
Unsurprisingly, Gioia, the author of five books on the subject, leans heavily on jazz in explaining cool. Almost 40 pages are devoted to discussing the roles of Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, and Miles Davis in the construction of cool, and much of this is gloriously written criticism. A few representatively brilliant asides: Gioia looks at Method acting as a sort of stage jazz, and riffs on the fact that Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone, and the Pink Panther had jazz themes despite the fact that jazz record sales were minuscule.
The strength of this study is that Gioia’s theorizing rests on specific examples drawn from his magisterial knowledge of jazz. That is also its weakness. Gioia may underestimate the degree to which film fed the aestheticization of everyday life, and starting long before the 1950s. Gioia would also have deepened his analysis by looking at 19th-century intellectual history. The ability to “externalize” one’s view of one’s life arose in the late 19th century. There is Nietzsche, who wrote about looking at art from the perspective of life in The Birth of Tragedy, and the aesthetes, decadents, and dandies of the fin de siecle.
Gioia might also have written more about when bohemia arose, and why, and why it seems increasingly fragile, though not so fragile as “the cool.” He pays so much attention to jazz that he slights the role of bohemia, including the WASP bohemia of early 20th-century Greenwich Village, in forming “the cool.”
Then there is the role of Jews, also soft-pedaled here. Gioia includes “blacks, gays, jazz musicians, street toughs, bohemians, and countercultural figures of all types” as role models for cool–but not Jews. This, too, would be investigated best by going back to the 19th century, where Jews first appeared as “cool” figures in novels (Daniel Deronda, Proust), politics (Benjamin Disraeli), and society. The aura of the demonic and outcast that clung to them would also be part of the aesthetic of cool.
But these are quibbles; Ted Gioia has not written a definitive work of intellectual history but an extended essay on a phenomenon that draws on his own field of expertise. And he has hit upon the one essential point: He writes that the cool “eventually boiled down to how one was perceived by others. Coolness, even more than beauty, is inevitably in the eye of the beholder.”
This is a remarkable insight into all of modernity, not just “the cool,” and I would go further and say that this emphasis on the eye of the beholder was a necessary precondition for cool. Cool was unthinkable until there was a fashion for what Nietzsche called perspectival thinking in the Will to Power.
Loosely, this means regarding reality as lying mainly in the eye of the beholder rather than being fixed, immutable, and objectively given. Once this makes sense, then it also makes sense to dress, live, and act “as if” you were whatever you want to be. In 1400 it made no sense to dress as a peasant if you were a noble, or vice versa, because reality most definitely did not lie in the eye of the beholder. It was part of a permanent social order established by God.
But sometime in the late 19th century it began to make sense to dress “as if” one were what one wanted to be–and this continues to make sense. Cool is part of a larger phenomenon of what might be called perspectival culture. Once reality lay in the eye of the beholder, conceptual art and Abstract Expressionism and happenings and performance art made sense. Some of these works’ main purpose, in fact, was to draw our attention to the fact that they were art only if we agreed that they were–for instance, musical pieces like one of John Cage’s, 4’33″, which consisted solely of silence.
I have argued elsewhere that modern counterinsurgency theory only became possible once people in the military, too, saw that the reality of the battle space depended on perceptions (in this case, that of the population). If the population doesn’t think you’re doing counterinsurgency, you’re not.
Perspectival culture extends into far less lofty domains like sports, d cor, and fashion. Gioia notes, but doesn’t comment on the fact, that the skateboard was invented in 1958. Why not in 1760, like the roller skate? (Granted, skates were not widely used until more than a hundred years later, when improved to make turning easier, and when there were more paved roads.) I would argue that it took a certain view of the urban landscape, as a place to play, to make anyone want to do the things people do with skateboards.
“By 1979,” Gioia explains, “the whole culture had gone cool.” And so, of course, cool began to lose its allure. We are in for a “decooling” of society, the result of an oversaturation of cool. “Cool is increasingly just cultural noise,” writes Gioia, and marketers will try to make the slick into the authentic to grab us. The “core postcool values of simplicity, authenticity, naturalness, and earnestness” are upon us. But Gioia should distinguish this change, which is merely stylistic, from the larger change signified by the culture of cool he analyzes.
The idea that reality is whatever it is perceived to be, rather than something with independent existence, is likely to be with us as long as our culture survives. This is a good thing, too. The radical subjectivism which gave birth to contemporary art and to counterinsurgency theory has also given us cultural relativism and a loss of confidence in Western values. But the skepticism inherent in perspectival culture will not be the destruction, but the saving, of Western civilization. Poseurs and, especially, their commercialization may be annoying, but they don’t blow up airplanes or commit suicide bombings. It takes a belief in the objective reality of one’s beliefs to produce fanaticism.