What’s Cool Got To Do With It?

by Mara Jebsen

“This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”

—James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village”

Photo (1)Two years ago this summer, Miley Cyrus 'twerked' against a backdrop of several bent-over black women, Trayvon Martin’s death created a nightmare vision of hoodies and skittles, and Kanye West marketed Confederate flag t-shirts. A horror movie called “Purge” 'treated' American audiences to a dystopic image of a future in which the white residents of gated communities sadistically torment a homeless black man as part of a sanctioned new order. It was a strange time in the history of American violence and cool, one that we are currently living out, and trying to make sense of.

Ten years before what I call in my head “The Summer of Bad Moves,” Rick Moody published “Against Cool,” an essay which attempts the impossible: to trace the history of coolness in this country. The essay knows it can't do that, but wants to, nonetheless, because:

“. . .in an absence of clearly delineated American ethics, in a period of cultural relativism, in a political environment in which both American parties have amplified their rhetoric to such a degree that the other side is beneath contempt, in which religion seems no longer able to rationally or effectively deploy its messages except through moral intimidation or force, in which families are no longer the ethical bulwarks they felt themselves to be in the past, in such a millennial instant cool has become the system of ethics in America.”

He is talking about 2003. Cool has changed, clearly, but the cultural climate seems familiar.

Moody's strategy for tracking cool in this essay is odd, but impressive. He moves fluidly between moments in music and casual language, in literature and eventually commerce–roughly dating the beginning of coolness with Miles Davis' “Birth of the Cool”–until he has constructed a sort of narrative in which cool (sometimes the word, sometimes the spirit) gets passed around from jazz musicians to beat poets to punks and hippies to Kool-Aid and other products.

What is particularly interesting, but also problematic is the interplay between white and black people that seems to emerge from this odd history. For Moody, the beginning of the the use of the word 'cool' as we know it starts out with “implicit cultural fusion.” He describes the use of the word cool as it applied to “Birth of The Cool” this way:

“A white arranger and A&R man (Rugolo) coins the term to describe sessions by a black musician (Davis), who is himself attempting a music that fuses both elements of a black idiom (jazz, and especially the style and form of bebop) with a white style–a jazz slower and more given to melody than loose improvisation.”

It all seems very benign. To Moody, that first cool is the best cool, for by the 70's, cool has developed dark, drug-induced and violent valences. He argues that the 80's add little to cool, and that it is so dead and commercial as to be unrecognizable by the '90's. He ends this 28 page essay by rather deliriously and half-jokingly suggesting to the youth (I was, I suppose, his audience) that we do away with the term entirely, and find something else to replace it.

But we haven't, of course. Cool seems to be with us, still operating as the system of ethics for young people in America. Despite the colossal evidence of Dylan Roof, it is still in young people, also, that we tend to place our hopes for a future relieved of racial oppression. For that reason, a clearer understanding of how cool, capitalism, race and violence work together seems to be in order.

Rolling Stone interviewed Miley Cyrus immediately after the controversy of her little dance. In that interview, she is potty-mouthed, unrepentant, but strangely pathetic: “Meet me at the crib” she texts to her friends, referring to her parent's house. She seems somewhat knowledgeable and unflappable about the sexual side of the fall-out over her dance, but is 'bothered' by the idea that her performance was racist, or a “minstrel show, because, critics argued, she appropriated a dance style common in black culture and used black backup dancers like props.” She explains that her producers and her dancers are her 'homies” and rather shyly describes her relationship with Kanye West like this: “It's good to have someone you can call and be like, 'Yo', do you think I should wear this? Do you think I should go in the studio with this guy? Do you think this is cool? “

But, perhaps because of this relationship, she's moved to say that appropriation isn't a big deal because, as she says,” Look at any 20-year old white girl right now-that's what they're listening to at the club. Its 2013. The gays are getting married, we're all collaborating. I would never think about the color of my dancers and be like, 'ooh, that might be controversial.' “What do you mean?” she says, with a laugh. “Times are changing. I think there's a generation or two left and then its gonna be a whole new world.”

Now, of course, with the just two years of hindsight, I'd want to say that a “homie” who borrows enough creative stuff, and sanitizes it to make herself more dangerous while allowing white america to mock and enjoy street artforms without having to deal with looking at actual black people who might be poor is unintentionally slowing down the arrival of the “whole new world.”

What can we make of all this? What can we say about “The Summer of Bad Moves?” We can say that in light of the now-publicized spate of killings and other complicated racial incidents, artist like Ms. Cyrus and even Mr. West appear recklessly interested in money and spectacle and fishing our psychic depths in order to produce something shocking. But we need not focus too much on them. The act of appropriating–which is natural to the artist and athlete, and for which we can thank the invention of Rock'n'Roll and many of our favorite American entertainment–isn't so bad, but what's scary is the fantasy that drives the appropriation; that makes the act of appropriation disrespectful, as though the fantasy were a cloud rising off a black body or voice, obscuring the person or persons who made the thing, relegating them back to their 'place,' considered 'dangerous', totally foreign, and not the creators of a gift–something more like an inanimate production; a factory.

I believe that another word for cool used to be 'righteous.' At times cool has been a synonym for 'down'–as in 'down for the cause.” Its not crazy to think that cool and ethics could be on the same side. Nor is it crazy to realize that ideas and dance moves and certain sounds are very hard to protect and can be seen as gifts or exchanges. However, discussions about who owns what part of a culture never seem to get all the way down into the very difficult question of why Americans love the danger and 'edginess' of black art so much, and love it best when it is translated for them by white people.

A final, difficult, example: Kanye said that the confederate flag looked cool because it was “both hip-hop and white-boy approved.” He wanted to sell it on t-shirts in order to take it back and say that is was his flag. Its an interesting idea, this re-appropriation for fashion and commerce– but would the 'hip hop and white boys' have understood? Two years later, Dylan Roof would develop a fantasy about a world made white again, a fantasy so strong that he was moved to enter a sacred space and massacre black elders. With this act, he moves the bar for racial understanding down so low that its tempting to say that any and all 'cultural fusion' is good (so long as it doesn't involve Confederate flags). Nevertheless, potential white allies might do well to examine the way coolness, danger and blackness fuse in their heads, language, and fantasies.