How Cool Conquered the Western World

by Colin Eatock

ScreenHunter_05 Oct. 22 21.04According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the principal meaning of “cool” is “Moderately cold; said of a temperature which, in contrast with heat, is cold enough to be agreeable and refreshing, or, in contrast with cold, is not so low as to be positively disagreeable or painful.”

But of course there’s much more to it than that. The OED also tells us that the word, when applied to persons or their actions, can mean, “not heated by passion or emotion; unexcited, dispassionate; deliberate, not hasty; undisturbed, calm.” This is the sense that Shakespeare intended when he wrote, “Such seething braines … that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends.”

Now let’s fast-forward to the dawn of the twenty-first century. On television, one trendy young man is angry with another. The other young man, it seems, has recently done something underhanded: he has lied, cheated or stolen (I don’t recall which). But our hero, Brandon, has uncovered the truth – and he bravely confronts his acquaintance about his low-down behaviour. “Trevor,” he seethes, summoning every shred of moral outrage in his soul, “what you did was not cool!”

Brandon could have said unfair, dishonest, hurtful – any number of things. But he was so offended by Trevor’s crimes that he delved more deeply, uttering most damning phrase in his vocabulary: “not cool.”

Trevor and Brandon are (thankfully) fictional characters, the inventions of scriptwriters. Yet they subscribe to the same Weltanschauung that hordes of young and young-ish people do today: cool is pretty much the best thing one can be. For many, coolness has replaced cleanliness as the worldly condition closest to God.

How did this happen? When did this happen?

In 1948, the New Yorker magazine helpfully informed its readers that “The bebop people have a language of their own. Their expressions of approval include ‘cool!’” They were talking about jazz – a kind of jazz that stood in contrast to the “hot jazz” of the 1930s. Cool jazz was more relaxed and emotionally subdued.

In part, this is Shakespeare’s “cool reason” placed in a new context. But at the same time, this sense of the word cool may have been endowed with a broader meaning through the influence of Africa in America. According to the art-historian Robert Ferris Thomson, the modern sense of cool is connected with a Yoruba and Igbo word: “itutu.” This is a multifaceted ideal, embracing grace, generosity, gentleness of character and even beauty.

This confluence of ideals produced a heady brew, making cool into a cultural juggernaut. Today, few things are untouched by cool: it is, in modern parlance, a “total lifestyle.” Not only must clothes and hairstyle be cool, so too must the hipster’s food, drink, music, movies, art, literature, car, furniture, neighbourhood, job, friends, social and political views, manner of speech and vacation destinations.

According to the British lexicographer John Ayto, cool has become an “all-purpose term of approval.” Indeed, the term is so widely used that this might, at first glance, appear to be a valid definition. But I beg to differ: cool is more precise and complex, and an elusively moving target. It’s cool to be clever, but it’s uncool to be a know-it-all. Sometimes cool stuff is expensive – but sometimes it comes cheap, and the expensive stuff is uncool. Sometimes it’s cool to break the law; at other times it isn’t. Communism used to be cool, but not so much any more. Brooklyn didn’t use to be cool, but now it is.

And of course people can be (or not be) cool. Steve McQueen was very cool. Clint Eastwood? – not really: he’s too edgy and tightly wound. Collectively, the Beatles could be cool, but viewed individually, John Lennon was cooler than the other three put together. The Dalai Lama is cool (or, at least, admiring him is), but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing a pope as cool. Barack Obama is sort of cool, for a politician – although the word on the street says he’s failed to live up to his full cool potential. Tony Blair tried very hard to be cool, and for a while he seemed to enjoy some success. But you can’t fool all the people all the time.

For many men, cool is primarily a kind of plumage display, intended to attract the opposite sex. But some women have also achieved coolness. Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s cool was a tad understated, but she managed to pull it off. In Hollywood, there’s a long line of cool female movie stars, from Lauren Bacall through to Nicole Kidman. (Marilyn Monroe is not on the list, by the way.) And it was a great day for cool when Peggy Lee recorded “Is That All There Is?” In the public arena of ideas, Gloria Steinem brought her own brand of cool to the feminism; today Naomi Klein is doing much the same for the social justice movement.

(For further reading on the specifics on which people, places and things are cool, I recommend The Catalog of Cool, published in 1982 by Gene Sculatti. However, please be advised that engaging in “further reading” is not a very cool thing to do.)

Cool belongs in and to the twentieth-century: nothing was cool prior to World War I – not just because the term wasn’t used (as it’s now used) back then, but because the concept didn’t yet exist. To argue that Edgar Allen Poe, Oscar Wilde, or anyone else born before 1900 was cool is to revise history. There were glimmerings of cool before World War II, thanks to Henry Miller, Berthold Brecht, and a young Frank Sinatra. But it was hard to be hip in the Great Depression and in wartime, so things didn’t really take off until after 1945. With peace, prosperity and the Baby Boom, cool exploded.

The Beatniks begat the Hippies who begat Generation X who begat Generation Y, and the torch of coolness was relayed through the decades. Today, cool has a rich history. But the passage of time and the hard living that full-throttle coolness demands have exacted a toll, and many of the founders of cool are no longer with us: Miles Davis, James Dean, Jack Kerouac – the list goes on. (However, we still have Keith Richards and Leonard Cohen.) These pioneers were the Coolest Generation, and did their work well: through their tireless efforts, cool permeated the culture.

Nowadays people come of age never having known a world without cool. We read that many of these young adults still live at home, and this is because their parents are just as cool as they are. When I was growing up, a lot of kids left the family nest as soon as they possibly could. This was because our parents were not cool. Cool was responsible for the Generation Gap of the 1960s and 70s.

So pervasive is cool that it can be invoked without even being named. Nobody ever explicitly threatened to impeach Richard Nixon for being uncool – but his uncoolness was at the root of all his problems. Two decades later, Bill Clinton was cool enough to survive when impeachment loomed. (It helped that his “crimes” were of a sort that made him even cooler!) And when, in the midst of the 1988 US presidential campaign, Lloyd Bentsen famously said to Dan Quayle, “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” he might as well have said, “Jack Kennedy was cool – and you’re not.” Bentsen wasn’t cool, either, but he could at least claim an association with the Great Cool Man.

What, exactly, is cool? Cool is a cocktail (stirred not shaken) of modern virtues: relaxed, even-tempered, flexible, fair-minded, broadminded, egalitarian, forward-looking, liberal, socially adept, creative, adventurous, urbane, cosmopolitan, stylish, fit, sexy and smart. Cool has confidence, independence, and its own kind of dignity. Moreover, cool possesses these qualities unselfconsciously and without apparent effort.

The list in the previous paragraph makes cool sound like a fine thing. Consider the opposites of all the adjectives above: who likes uptight, ill-tempered, rigid, biased, narrow (etc., etc.) people? No wonder being deemed cool is such high praise today. And it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to possess all of these qualities to be cool. For instance, someone who lives in a rural area, or is unattractive, or who leans to the right politically can still be at least somewhat cool. It’s just a lot harder.

But cool also has a down side. Cool can be cruel, as any nerdy, socially awkward teenager can tell you. Such kids experience cool as a malevolent force designed to intimidate and marginalize them. And cool can be snobbish – even though snobbery is officially contrary to cool’s values. To be uncool is, well, very uncool.

Yet sometimes uncool people have qualities that enable them to do things no cool person ever could. Cool isn’t pious or self-sacrificing: Mother Theresa of Calcutta might make an excellent saint, but she’s nowhere near cool. Neither can cool be too complicated, which disqualifies such deep thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Theodor Adorno. And some very remarkable people are just too weird for cool: consider Salvador Dali or Yukio Mishima. (Andy Warhol is a borderline case, epitomizing and subverting cool at the same time.) Other uncool people who have done impressive things are Lech Walesa, Stephen Hawking, Michael Moore, Susan Boyle, Mark Zuckerberg and – the latest addition to the list – Julian Assange.

This is my point: a culture that elevates cool to a foundational principle limits itself in many ways. There’s only so much the world can expect from the likes of Brandon, Trevor, and anyone else whose life is confined to the cool-uncool continuum. Cool has a pretty high opinion of itself (“humble” isn’t in the list of adjectives four paragraphs back), pretentiously believing it’s responsible for all that’s good in the world. Yet cool is not always enough. Cool lacks the intensity to rise to the occasion and save the day. Cool is not rigorous, or a stickler for detail, and it doesn’t always follow the instructions correctly. Cool can be flimsy, fickle and superficial. Cool seeks status, and cool’s idea of beauty is often skin deep.

Furthermore, cool is so firmly rooted in modern popular culture that it doesn’t know what to make of anything that isn’t – like the poetry of Milton or a Beethoven symphony. Often, cool’s response to such things is to take refuge behind a barricade of proud and deliberate ignorance. Just as it’s cool to be interested in certain things, it’s also cool not to be interested in certain other things. Hipsters jealously guard their lack of knowledge about stamp collecting, square dancing, lawn bowling, motor homes, genealogy, paleontology, the Latin language and the Mormon faith.

How much longer can the Triumph of the Cool continue? We’ve lived with cool for more than half a century now, and it’s getting long in the tooth. And with the passage of time, it has strayed from its original purpose. Cool arose as a mark of distinction: cool people were a breed apart, separated from the masses by their values and demeanour. But today cool is so widespread that it’s hardly a distinction at all. Cool has been cheapened.

Value systems come and go: the Edwardian gentleman – proper, patriotic, sportsmanlike and a jolly good chap – is now a thing of the past. So it’s inevitable that someday cool will also be obsolete. That said, trying to imagine a world in which cool has been replaced by something else is like trying to imagine what lies beyond the edge of the universe. Looks like we’re stuck, for now, with cool.


Colin Eatock is a composer, critic and scholar who holds (very tightly) a PhD in musicology. He lives in Toronto, Canada, and is not cool.