American Cool: The Four Eras

The Roots of Cool: Before 1940
The stage was set for the emergence of cool as a cultural phenomenon in the early 1940s by a series of sweeping transformations in the first decades of the twentieth century. The figures in this first section were not called cool in their day but were leading exemplars of new energies that were changing the social contours of American life. A fresh rebelliousness was revealed in the new film capital of Hollywood, in modernist literature and art, in emerging youth entertainments, and in a new music called jazz. The advent of technologies such as radio, film, and the automobile and the increasing diversity in America’s booming cities accelerated the pace of change. Though Prohibition in the 1920s sought to regulate American morality by ending the consumption of alcohol, this period saw the expression of a new independence among young people and others historically on the margins of public life. In particular, both African Americans and women sought and began to attain freedoms long denied. Cool has long denoted a person’s sense of calm and composure. Charismatic individuals such as those featured here contributed greatly to the changing mores in American society before World War II. Cool came to serve as the concept and emblematic term of a new rebel sensibility.


The Birth of Cool: 1940–1960
Being cool was a response to the rapid changes of modernity: it was about maintaining a state of equipoise within swirling, dynamic social forces. The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young disseminated the word and concept of cool into jazz culture in the early 1940s, and it quickly crossed over as a rebel masculine sensibility. When Young said, “I’m cool,” he meant, first, that he was relaxed in the environment and, second, that he was keeping it together under social and economic pressure as well as the absurdity of life in a racist society. This mask of cool emerged as a form of American stoicism and was manifested in jazz, film noir, Beat literature, and abstract expressionism. In jazz, a generation of younger musicians rejected big-band swing entertainment to create bebop, a fast, angular, virtuosic style that moved jazz out of dance halls and into nightclubs. In Hollywood, film noir represented postwar anxiety in through crime dramas shot through with working-class existentialism and the fear of women’s sexual and economic power. Among Beat writers and abstract painters, cool referred to a combination of wildness and intensity in men unconcerned with social conformity. Starting from jazz, cool was a rebel sensibility suggesting that an individual’s importance could be registered only through self-expression and the creation of a signature style. By 1960 cool was the protean password of a surging underground aesthetic.

Cool and the Counterculture: 1960–1980
In the 1960s and 1970s, to be cool was to be antiauthoritarian and open to new ideas from young cultural leaders in rock and roll, journalism, film, and African American culture. Cool was a badge of opposition to “the System,” by turns a reference to the police, the government, the military-industrial complex, or traditional morality. Using drugs such as marijuana or even LSD was an indicator of risk taking and expanding one’s consciousness; not experimenting with drugs suggested a fear of opening one’s mind or perspective, of being “uptight” or “square.” The same was true of sexual exploration, social protest, and ethnic politics. The aesthetic of stylized understatement still held power, yet cool itself morphed under the era’s social upheavals. The counterculture valued being authentic and emotionally naked: being cool meant a person was “out-front” with others and comfortable in his or her own skin. For African Americans, what had once been suppressed under the mask of cool transformed into defiant civic engagement in music, sports, and politics. “Cool” meant to communicate a set of emotions without losing control, and rock and roll was the art form (and forum) best suited for this shift, especially for women. Patti Smith, Bonnie Raitt, Deborah Harry, and Chrissie Hynde all carved out new iconic stances, styles, and voices for independent women who were sexy on their own terms. Cool became the supreme compliment for creative public figures who broke new cultural ground and maintained their personal integrity over time.

The Legacies of Cool: 1980–Present
In 1980s America, the selling of rebellion as style became ingrained in cool. From highbrow fashion to mass-culture video games, product designers, advertisers, and consumers embraced the cool aesthetic. Selling out was no longer a curse and youth culture increasingly embraced the pursuit of wealth. In the 1990s, many essays proclaimed that cool was dead, yet the concept retained its rebellious vitality and re-emerged from many disparate quarters. From hip-hop to Seattle grunge, from skateboarding and extreme sports to the web's explosion of nerd cool, from graffiti to MTV, cool icons were central to the vitality of new cultural forms and African American culture remained central to its growth. By the 1980s cool also had an easily recognizable history, and many figures from its past—like heroes from a bygone era—continued to resonate widely. Indeed, new icons of cool often built careers that owed much to earlier exemplars. In globalization, cool continues to play a large role in the world’s understanding of America and in Americans’ own sense of national identity. The cultural concept of cool may be America’s chief cultural export.