Monday, November 23, 2009

The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

NOT long ago, I attended a lively discussion at LA's Book Soup about the origins and demise of cool. Ted Gioia, the author of "West Coast Jazz" and "Delta Blues," was talking about a seismic, beneath-the-surface cultural shift. The cool detachment --sometimes spiked with irony or cryptic gestures -- originated by Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young and Miles Davis is reaching its sell-by date.

How can cool lose its cool? And what kind of "post-cool" culture will replace it?

Now, I don't agree with every line in Ted's new "The Birth (and Death) of the Cool." At times he is too reductive and sweeping, and movements like '70s soft rock show that a yearning for feeling and authenticity can exist right in the middle of an otherwise "cool" era. But he's certainly on to something, and I like the audacity of the way he puts modern jazz, styles of acting, trends in black culture, and corporate sponsorship into the same argument. Overall, he's persuaded me.

Here is my conversation with Ted. We've become friends, but I read his work (starting with the book-length essay "The Imperfect Art") a decade and a half before we met.

Q: So where did cool come from?

A: There was a major shift in American culture in the 1950s as people embraced cool in a way that previous generations hadn't -- after fighting for survival during the Depression, they were adding some flair to their lives. Cool came out of nowhere via jazz, from actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando. And in the '60s and '70s it was in the ascendancy.

Q: Why did so much of cool come from black culture?

A: In an odd sort of way, the predicament of black culture in the early part of the 20th century predicted what would happen to everybody. Urbanization, being torn from family roots, from cultural roots -- this happened to black people when they came to this country. The modern predicament is to have these ties cut loose. And many of the mechanisms for coping and surviving from black culture were adapted by everybody.

Q: Is there a special West Coast resonance to the notion of cool?

A: When I was growing up in Los Angeles in the '60s and '70s, it was far more pronounced than it is now. I remember the first time I went to New York, the intensity overwhelmed me.
The works of art that came our of the West Coast had that tone: West Coast jazz played off that cool sound and found a receptive audience. People responded more fully to the music because they associated it with the lifestyle of California -- a Hollywood of the mind. Bill Claxton understood the psychology of the West Coast and captured it in his photography.

Q: What happened to cool?

A: A number of things too place in the last 10 to 15 years to rob cool of is centrality -- 9/11, the mortgage meltdown, terrorism. The aging of the Baby Boomers.
But more important, cool has been commoditized by corporations eager to market it, and as people have become suspicious of corporate marketing they've become suspicious of cool as well.
You can generalize: There are eras where people follow the crowd, and others where they follow deeply held convictions. There's a fundamental instability to cool: When you decide you want to be cool, you're looking outside.
Cool is always in danger of being replaced by something deeper and more intrinsic. I list the lifestyles that are replacing cool -- eco-friendly, Nascar dads, the return to traditional religion. These people have very little in common, but they all believe they are going beyond cool.
There are many good aspects to this -- people are embracing the authentic and sincere, and returning to roots. But there's a downside: I think there's a connection to the new anger and confrontation in our discourse.

Q: What does postcool music sound like?

A: Part of the problem the music industry faces right now is they're still operating under the cool paradigm. When someone like Susan Boyle or Norah Jones emerges, who appeal to authenticity or feeling, they're puzzled by it.

Q: Anything that's surprised you as you barnstorm the country talking about cool?

A: About 10% of the people get angry. They don't want to discuss it -- they just rant. I realize now, These people must think they're really cool. It's like I had attacked their religion or something.

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