How is it that Bogart and Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck are cool and yet so are their opposite numbers, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Elvis? I discuss this key aspect of my Cool book on Mark Lynch's podcast, Inquiry, on WCIN. The short answer: these icons spoke to different generations. Bogart, Mitchum and Stanwyck were exemplars of surviving with dignity and style -- of existential cool -- and represented the generation that grew up in the Great Depression and fought WW2. For those too young to fight and for the youngest Boomers, Brando, Dean and Elvis embodied an edgy, eroticized badboy masculinity that subverted the monolithic image of the good father from 50s sitcoms, organization men, and that great daddy-o, POTUS Dwight Eisenhower. They were rebels for adolescents (at first), representing the hollow middle of an affluent consumer society. And that's what made Jim Stark here (on the right) "tick ... *like a bomb.*"
"There is a lot to be said for 'cool theory' as a way of talking about art and books. Dinerstein uses his cast of actors, writers and musicians as kites that show which way the cultural winds are blowing.
"'What’s cool' is a question of taste … whereas coolness depends on the interaction of a contemporary audience.
"That is why jazz matters so much here -- jazz improvisation is supposed to offer an immediate expression of what the audience (in a club) is feeling. It responds, as it were, to market forces, and fame works in a similar way."
We used to call such artists emblems of the zeitgeist (literally, the "spirit of the times"), but that word has become a cliché and fallen out of favor. That's why cool – the word -- remains the password to an American mythos: it is the exclamatory term invoked when pointing to innovative artists groping for a new cultural pattern of individuality for a given audience with consequences for social change.
Kendrick Lamar (above) is one such cultural kite -- Black Lives Matter supporters chant his songs on marches -– and Miranda Lambert is another, for her embodiment of a new female country persona (right). Both have galvanized new audiences into being by publicly wrestling with the winds of change. Such artists should not be conflated or confused with celebrities – e.g., Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez -- who are more commodities (whats that are cool) than windsurfers.
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.