Monday, August 02, 2010

Book Review: An Era Ends In Ted Gioia's 'The Birth (And Death) Of The Cool'

Cool is about making a dollar out of fifty cents.
"It's hard for many to imagine that 'cool' would ever go out of style. After all, cool is style, isn't it?" writes Ted Gioia at the outset of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool. "And it must be even harder to envision great masses of people not only modifying their concepts, but altering their behavior patterns, embracing ways of living that no longer aspire to coolness. That would be . . . well, so uncool."

But the premise of this fine little book is just that. The clock has run out on cool, concludes Gioia, a music historian whose Oxford History of Jazz is probably the best overview of the musical genre through which cool first emerged from African American culture into the wider world in the form of Miles Davis's trumpet playing. (Although Gioia correctly notes that it was white cornetist and all around bad boy Bix Beiderbecke who deserves the title of the founding father of cool jazz.)

If this birth and death stuff seems so final, read on. Or better still read The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, a project that Gioia undertook as an effort to unlock the mysteries of this difficult to define but powerful force. But the deeper that he delved into cool the more he realized that there has been a paradigm shift away from it in popular entertainment, media, fashion politics and most especially how we act. You know, our lifestyles.

At heart, the philosophy of cool was more than just attitude and behavior. It was how one was perceived by others.

"I was no different from others of my generation who were beguiled by coolness; I too wanted to capture a bit of it for myself," Gioia writes. "Yet, as I studied the psychological underpinnings of my subject, I came to understand that certain inherent flaws within the cool worldview were the cause of its inevitable decline. Coolness had served its purpose and been taken about as far as it could go. For almost two generations, it had served as the touchstone and point of navigation for millions of people, but was now on the verge of exhaustion."

* * * * *
The strength of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool is that it is not merely another retelling of an era well trod with appreciations and commentaries, but an elegy to and convincing explanation of why it ended.

Cool -- or the cool -- as Miles and his brothers and sisters called it, grew out of their need to express deep inner emotions while appearing to remain quiet. "How," asks Gioia, "could you assert your individuality while living in a community that demanded the utmost conformity and subservience. How could you exist outside the scope of oppressive social rules and imperatives while also following them to the letter?"

Cool soon morphed into a kind of trickster universal wrench. A jazzo would see Miles as cool, a beatnik would see Jack Kerouac as cool and a film buff would see Jack Nicholson as cool.

"The American fixation with coolness may seem like a sign of shallowness until you realize how much this attitude fit in with the essence of the national character," writes Gioia. "Cool was the great equalizer. And if you doubted it, just look at the icons of cool -- blacks and beatniks and bohemians and a bunch of other folks who were at the bottom of the heap and rose to the top . . . through sheer hipness. How cool is that?"

Gioia traces cool's demise to the reality that cool had become so cool by the end of the 20th century that it was now uncool.

"Cool offered a fresh, new tone, more ironic and able to shift quickly from above-it-all aloofness to an almost extreme emotional sensitivity," Gioia writes. "It took delight in image and artifice and transformed everything it touched."

But it also engendered a mindless materialism that was exploited by corporations in their product lines and advertising that rang increasingly hollow to many consumers in the post-9/11 world. Or as Gioia nicely puts it, "If cool were a credit card, these people maxed out long ago and are now on a different path."

Gioia argues that what has replaced cool, for want of a better description, is a cult of sincerity that can be seen in books like Geek Chic, shows like American Idol where the cool candidates lose out to homegrown fare, and the staggering trans-Atlantic success of Susan Boyle. Then there is a cat by the name of Barack Obama who when asked about his views on boxers and briefs, as Bill Clinton had so glibly replied on MTV, his answer was that he didn't answer questions like that.

"These forces -- whether attitudinal or aesthetic, spiritual or practical, political or quotidian -- are implicitly a renunciation of the cool," writes Gioia. "Coolness, from this emerging perspective, is viewed with suspicion. It is, at best, a sign of shallowness, a living on the surface level of appearances. At worst, it is a marketing ploy, a way of manipulating individuals and groups in the name of the almighty dollar."

The very companies that corporatized cool are, of course, now trying to exploit the new world order. One method is through seemingly grassroots campaigns that are highly orchestrated.

Gioia cites the case of musician
Marié Digby, whose earnestly real "Unfold" video was viewed by millions of people on YouTube and MySpace in 2007. But, alas, the woman with the cheap guitar and rotty apartment was under contract to Walt Disney's Hollywood Records label and made subsequent television appearances not because of her earnestness but her label's PR department.

The moral of this particular story is that once Digby was outted, her Unfold CD sank like a stone when it finally was released. A career that had launched 15 million video downloads crashed once it became openly aligned with an entertainment megacompany.

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