In a recent Atlantic article on "How Capitalism Created Cool," two neuroscientists discuss their research on coolness and the brain. By cool, they mean "the social life of products" as they generate feelings of happiness in the medial prefrontal cortex. Working within the new field of neuroeconomics, the researchers "measure[d] responses to cool products," and how both an iPad or a retro shirt can generate the feeling of "coolness," which they equate with achieving "higher social status" -- in other words, a feeling that is both self-expressive (this is me) and elitist (it makes me better than you). Capitalism did not create this feeling: it appropriated and commodified an elusive, alienated feeling of personal rebellion that was once intangibly valuable. African-American jazz musicians created, coined, lived, and first disseminated the emblematic value of cool to mean a balanced state of mind and a relaxed bearing -- cool is an antecedent for chill and chillin'. Read how Lester Young created cool in the 1940s, or an evocative history of "The Genius of [Black] Cool," or wait for my forthcoming book, The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (U of Chicago, 2016).
As a supreme compliment of American culture, cool is rarely conferred upon individual women – except for Kim Gordon, the bassist and co-creator of Sonic Youth. Producer, avant-garde artist, designer of a fashion line for "Cool Moms" – Gordon remains the indie ideal. In reviews of her new memoir, Girl in a Band, writers testify to her cool – "I wanted Kim Gordon's bad-assitude," notes one writer – and then seem disappointed by the book and her life. "We idolized the person we wanted her to be," Ann Friedman reflects yet acknowledges that Gordon "is still really cool, though more like a world-weary older friend." What more can you ask from the cool avatar of your youth? So when Questlove reviews the memoir, he concludes: "She stays cool because she is cool, even when she's not."
Cool comes from a highly personal synthesis of seemingly incongruous elements. A recent example comes from comedian Corinne Fisher of the anti-slut-shaming podcast, Guys We F@#ked. Fisher held two seemingly unrelated models in her mind until they converged: "It was straddling the difference between my two goals: being the next Michael Moore and being the next Chelsea Handler. I knew something existed that would be in between these things." And then, shazam!: the GWF podcast suddenly fit her objective of "comedy with a purpose."
It's not news that consumers seek a retro-vibe of cool in "brand authenticity" built of local heritage, craft, and sincerity. Such products translate into "buying into a set of values" – a depressing phrase quoted in this NY Times article without irony. And this is why who's-cool will always matter more than what's-cool for illuminating patterns of American culture. Lest products become you.
Legendary editor Lewis Lapham writes recently of a dream about Charles Mingus so compelling he recalls it clearly 50 years later. Lapham and Mingus agree to exchange address books -- in effect, trading identities -- yet just as they're about to switch, Lapham pulls his back. Mingus jokes, "You don't mean to tell me you're having that much fun with yours." Lapham was ashamed that the dream revealed he neither had "Baudelaire's courage to face down the fear of the unknown" nor to imagine "the signature change from white to black," or overcome his "mortal fear of being poor." Since jazz musicians like Lester Young created the concept of cool -- cool as a mode of Afro Zen -- Lapham's dream from the 1960s lies on its original knife-edge, where a rebel's courage could still help to imagine and create social equality.
Noir cool is stylish, existential, and now anthropomorphic in a series of graphic novels featuring John Blacksad, "one cool, epic, black cat detective." Spanish author Juan Diaz Canales and illustrator Juanjo Guarnido give us upright urban cats on the down-low in the spirit of Philip Marlowe and the jazz cool cats of their retro-postwar imagination. Start with A Silent Hell (2012), a novel that kicks off with Blacksad sitting at a New Orleans burlesque house and quoting Sartre.
Had a good conversation with Time mag's Joel Stein about his choice for Coolest Person of the Year (12/22). We debated whether it was the year of McConnaughey, Jennifer Lawrence, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or the Pope. I like that this annual column appears inside the back cover of the Person-of-the-Year issue since cool – at its most vital – comes in through the cultural back door. Not true of McConna-hey or JL but I hope there's still an underground somewhere.
The Hunger Games is Star Wars for girls (among other things) and its legacy will forever be embodied by J Law, the first realistic woman warrior in the history of Hollywood film. Lawrence resists Hollywood conditioning and celebrity glorification with an easy sense of humor and an offbeat casualness. She handled the scandal of the nude photos this year with poise and righteous defiance. And against all odds, she's an excellent and creative dramatic actress.
At Q&As in lectures, I'm often asked about the "cool girl" trope -- often applied to Lawrence -- and I quickly separate this sociological category from JL. Lawrence has serious dramatic acting chops, a certain relaxed intensity, and that rarefied quality inherent to cool: charismatic self-possession. As for the problem of gender and cool, see "Women and Cool."
Sorry to say the American Cool catalogue has sold out. It's a beautiful book with all 100 iconic photos – "a gathering of heavy spirits," in the words of my hip New Orleans compadre, T.R. Johnson. I will pester the press (Prestel) to publish a second printing but I'm not optimistic. It’s a shame: it would have been a slick Christmas gift for all the cool folks on your list and, even more, for the poseurs.
Honored to be invited to give a TED Talk on American Cool, March 2015 in Nashville. Not sure how I'm going to -- in 17 minutes -- speak of the origins of cool as a cultural concept, as a process of negotiating identity in modernity, and of the relationship of cool and photography...but hey, that's the challenge. The TED people need a one-sentence pitch by next month and that may be the toughest assignment of all.