In a quick, evocative notice in the NY Times Sunday Book Review, reviewer John Williams quoted two definitions of cool and then half-praised my "nerdy and convincing arguments." He then connected the instability of the postwar period to our historical moment and, in referring to the influential personae of Bogart, Kerouac, Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Brando (left), he wondered: "When have we needed their relaxed calm more?"
Book blogger Marshal Zeringue challenged me to take the p.99 test and The Origins of Cool passed the mystical test with flying colors. The reader lands on my analysis of This Gun for Hire and a definition of noir cool. Although often derided as a "pulp existentialism," noir cool was instead a stylish stoicism, a state of thoughtful calm conveyed by artistic expressions of stylized resilience. As for the early noir This Gun For Hire, it featured the first pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (left) -- looking here like the Hollywood goddess of Night -- and caught the soon-to-be Greatest Generation's youthful desire for the new cool register represented by Ladd-and-Lake's low-key eroticism.
Popular culture can usefully be thought of as a society thinking out loud. It is a running narrative of a nation's collective mind, its conscious and unconscious. If a new word and concept arises -- as cool did in the early 1940s -- then something new is afoot in the world. Cool was a term for a brand new kind of encoded personal rebellion before social movements had mobilized, something you could feel more than explain in the actors, musicians, and writers that turned you on, whether Paul Newman (right) or Sidney Poitier, Miles Davis or Elvis, Jack Kerouac or Lorraine Hansberry. In an insightful review in the hip webzine PopMatters, reviewer Megan Volpert cuts to the quick of cool: "To be cool is to interrogate the social norms that hold us down. It’s a form of rebellion that doesn’t let cards show to police or politicians. Cool is the means by which we can cope with our lived experiences of injustice, a means of enacting hope that after these injustices are unmasked as such, there will be something better on the other side."
Volpert noted my tripartite approach to cool "as a theorist, historian and lover of popular culture [in] a book that synthesizes the best of all three domains." The Origins of Cool in Postwar America is a history of cultural workers -- actors, writers, and musicians -- at a specific moment in time and how their artistic and iconic rebellion sowed political consciousness. In short, a cool rebel draws a public line in the sand against oppression or persecution and his or her action galvanizes an audience or generation.
'Twas a rave from the Times Higher Education (London) and effectively summarized several of its key concepts. Robert Eaglestone called the book "superb" and "riveting," and better yet, "accessible, historical, and personable." Two weeks before that, Publisher's Weekly gave The Origins of Cool a *starred review -- meaning, keep an eye out for this one The book hits the stores officially in a week (May 17) so get 'em while they're cool. Today's plug: there are two chapters on existential cool through its literary and cinematic avatars, Albert Camus (left) and Humphrey Bogart.
Cool has a history. My new book on the beginnings of this key American word and concept will be published on May 22 by the University of Chicago Press. The Amazon page is now up with a great cover evoking film noir and the existential crossroads of 1945 -- after all, that's why Americans needed to be cool during the Cold War. Cool did not correspond to superficial popularity or being in vogue until the '80s. In the beginning, Cool was an underground password for searchers, a public mode of covert rebellion.
So, nu?, I made The Forward. This rave review of Rebecca Solnit & Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas frames the City through a very Jewish lens and quotes a few lines from my short essay, "The Lost World of Jewish Flatbush." If the paper only knew editor-at-large and Jamaican-American Garnette Cadogan also goes by Ethan Levy, even more Jewish love would have showered down upon my Brooklyn homeland.
I have a short essay on my upbringing -- "The Lost World of Jewish Flatbush" -- in Rebecca Solnit's Nonstop Metropolis (Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, co-editor). I'm honored to be in this resplendent collection of maps and essay, the first work to successfully reconceptualize and reorient NYC towards its future within a comprehensive 5-borough approach. My organic understanding of cool as a concept comes from growing up during white flight in '70s Flatbush in multi-cultural, multi-ethnic public schools that were more than three-quarters Black, Latino, and Asian. Cool was then a mode of survival, style, integrity, autonomy, and self-presentation --the opposite of superficial popularity, hip irony, or product placement.
The headline refers mostly to the book-release party of Coach: A Story of New York Cool but also to the likelihood of my ever being photographed again with Deborah Harry. We arrived simultaneously -- she was on my blind side -- and I turned and said something uncool like, "Hey, you're Deborah Harry." Dig the suede midnight blues and sharp, shimmering pearl-gray suit, sleek like sharkskin. And it was the first time I'd held the book -- a big, beautiful, stylish survey of the Big Apple since 1941. Coach threw a great party, as reported and photographed in Woman's Wear Daily, while the book caught its first review in The Observer.
My new book drops today: it's a brand narrative of Coach in honor of the company's 75th anniversary, a coffee-table book companion to this year's Coach-1941 fashion line. As a proud city kid from Brooklyn, I enjoyed excavating the back-story of this iconic brand and I shaped the narrative by detailing NYC's decades through propulsive pop-cultural chunks. Both the brand's founder, Miles Cahn, and its current creative director, Stuart Vevers, are compelling figures of then and now. Long-time Coach fan and NY icon Debbie Harry wrote the foreword, Fabien Baron did the scrapbook layout and PAPER made its publication release official yesterday.
Chic is dead: Paris imports hip from Brooklyn, which lost its cool years ago. So is cool dead? As ever, a live question. Cool requires streetlife, bohemia, affordable rents, cross-cultural exchange, and individuals with expressive style. Social media hunts cool 24/7; bohemian enclaves flip into rich privilege zones within a decade, as in New Orleans. If there's to be a 21st century cool, maybe it's Banksy-style anonymity, maybe the petri dish of Detroit.Read More
Of course -- so why does the media work so hard to ignore this fact? Every student learns this in college and yet if you watched media 24/7 -- from Jon Stewart to CNN to Fox -- you would never learn it. Simply put: Race is a social fact without scientific basis. So maybe the Rachel Dolezal issue will kick start the national conversation we need to have. Maybe someone will even state that "Caucasians" don't exist: meaning, there is no group of Americans descended from the Caucasus Mountains in Russia. As Kareem suggests, maybe we should let this woman keep doing social activism. And perhaps national media humiliation is a just punishment for her many ethics violations.Read More
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.