miles davis

Mystic rebirth of the cool

‘Where did all the cool people go?’ It’s something people of my vintage say a lot. Of course, my cool is not necessarily yours. 

What is cool?

Although concepts of cool actually exist in most cultures, I’m most interested in the attitude that came originally from Africa.

Slavery bought cool to the USA. Here it became all about hiding defiance behind a pose of detachment, acting as if the humiliation and heartbreak handed down by the Man daily was no thing. Even though he was profoundly pissed off, Malcolm X was cool.

The mighty tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who christened Billie Holiday ‘Lady Day’, is credited with bringing the cool into jazz. Miles Davis’s groundbreaking Birth of the Cool, released in 1957, is perhaps the best jazz exemplar of the African-American cool attitude.

Cool spread to other rebels like the original 1940s and 50s hipsters, who were fascinated with and inspired by Afro-American culture, especially jazz. In Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay The White Negro he argues that ‘To be cool is to be equipped, and if you are equipped it is more difficult for the next cat who comes along to put you down.’   

By the 1960s, anything that deviated away from conformity, usually an attitude articulated through style a la the British Modernists came to be seen as cool. This connection between attitude and style has vanished, which is why I never see any people dressed cool. (Do you?)

Cool black forever

There’s no question that for a white boy like me who grew up in the countryside dreaming of the city, urban black = cool was a given. While this is, on one level, obviously asinine, I’m not alone. Christian Lacroix agrees with me:

Young black men in American inner cities have been the market most aggressively mined by brandmasters...The truth is that the ‘got to be cool’ rhetoric of the global brands is an indirect way of saying ‘got to be black’.

This is, of course, happening at the same time as white society continues to demonise and destroy young African-American men. Just as it did Lester Young, way back when. 

From dealbreakersblog.

From dealbreakersblog.

The co-option of cool

My friends who grew up in the 1960s and 70s counterculture vividly remember the sea-change that came about towards the end of the 'Me' decade when those who gamboled alongside them revealed themselves as sharks. (How tortuous is that metaphor?) It was these horrors who took the cool out of cool.

For instance, Richard Branson, regarded by his peers as hopelessly unhip, realised cool's power to sell stuff in mass quantities. From this he built an empire which extended and diluted Virgin’s cool quotient until it vanished.

No wonder cool was a deeply unfashionable word in my 1970s and 80s. When I first heard it being used again in the early 1990s, without any sense of irony, I was startled.

Smokin' kool

Back when I had very little morality, I worked on an advertising campaign to persuade young Saudi men to switch to a brand mostly smoked by Indian migrant workers. The brand was expensive in India but cheap in Saudi Arabia, for obvious reasons.

I’m still a little ashamed.

Mind you, that doesn’t come close to the way 1960s American marketers persuaded black, urban but still invisibly segregated African-Americans that smoking menthol cigarettes was, um, kool. Today, menthol cigarettes – which are far more toxic than ordinary smokes – are still smoked by more African-Americans than whites.

Cool is creepy

People who work in branding are usually the biggest suckers for the bullshit brands pump out. Apple-worship is a perfect case in point. 

My Apple-head friends crow when yet another report listing why the brand is so great appears, but they and I know their adoration is not really based on logic. Apple can get away with exploiting everything from factory workers in China to tax loopholes because it’s pressed the cool button. Whatever Apple does, worshippers still camp out overnight to get their grubbies on the latest i-whatever.

I agree with those who argue that the notion a product can be cool is ‘a manufactured and empty idea’ which the Merchants of Cool use to sell more bright shiny crap. The authors of The Rebel Sell go so far as to argue that ‘Cool has become the central ideology of consumer capitalism’.

For me, this means that anything marketed that way needs to be avoided at all cost. As Bowie says, ‘I’m much too fast to take that test’. Sadly, avoiding cool clothes and products often means that, as my Chic Darling says, I dress like her grandfather.

In my defence, I’d say that Bowie was at his most cool in his Young Americans period when he really did dress like an African-American’s granddad.

The science of cool

Capitalism survives by eating what threatens it, which is precisely what happened with cool. But, in the fascinating article which originally inspired these meandering musings of mine, Steven Quartz and Anette Asp, authors of Cool: How the Brain’s Hidden Quest for Cool Drives Our Economy and Shapes Our World explain that our need to be cool is a direct result of how we're softwired.

Quartz and Asp are interested in neuroeconomics and neuromarketing and were curious to see if they could measure responses to products which were supposedly cool. ‘And of course it was possible,’ Asp says.

(Using brain imaging, Neuroeconomics investigates how people actually make economic decisions, especially the unconscious processes which can’t be recorded by conventional behavioural studies. Neuromarketing focuses on ‘how we perceive brands, products, and status signalling objects’. Basically, this means that if you lie about your feelings for a brand, your brain response will tell a marketer the truth anyway. Revealing that I really adore Apple, of course.)

Asp and Quartz’s research revealed that consuming cool products fulfils the basic human need to be recognised and respected by others. We buy them ‘because the medial prefrontal cortex houses our affiliative impulses and consumption taps into our social life and most basic social instincts.’

In other words, there’s nothing we can do about it. Even if, like me, you embrace ‘normcore’ and become an anti-consumer consumer. A ‘normcore’ quoted in the article describes the look as ‘exhaustingly plain’. And you’re in danger of looking like your granddad. (My granddad was pretty cool, actually.)

Re-imagining the birth of the cool

Quartz and Asp also have a different take on why cool emerged in the US in the 1950s, when the country had never had it so good.

Their conclusion is that ‘competition for the limited status of a traditional social hierarchy was getting too intense’. People rebelled, choosing different ways to find status, creating cool new lifestyles, and this fuelled consumption in a different way. Defining yourself through your musical tastes, for instance.

When Quartz and Asp looked at cool consumption, they found that by the early 90s it was no longer about rejecting conformity. Work, in the form of ‘DotCool’ got hip (I’m tired of writing the word cool) and so did the values of a knowledge economy. Qualities like innovation and unconventionality, embodied in the earlier days of Apple, became cool.

So, given that we can’t help wanting to be cool, what do we do?

Embrace Itutu

Itutu is one of three pillars of a religious philosophy created in the 15th century by West African civilizations. Robert Farris Thompson, professor of art history at Yale University, translates ‘Itutu’ as a ‘mystic coolness’ which also contains meanings of ‘conciliation and gentleness of character, of generosity and grace, and the ability to defuse fights and disputes'.

Tody's cool people don't signify by the way they dress or the brands they consume. They practice Itutu. Which is why social activism and all of the practices that promote mindfulness (yoga, tai chi, qigong) are now so hip.

Mystic cool. I could go for that.