The Cool, the Uncool, and the Merchants of Cool

A quick look at how ‘cool’ has / has not changed from the jazz-age to the Web-age.

Image used under a Creative Commons license courtesy of samkling on Flickr

By Bryan Hayes, Washington, DC.

In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t claim to have ever been cool, though I’ve always wanted to be cool.


Lester Young was a jazz musician who lived from 1909 to 1959. Notable as a revolutionary soloist and cultural icon, Young’s style and demeanor both on and off stage typified, even defined the idea of ‘cool.’

According to Joel Dinerstein, the cool that Young created balanced on two things. First, on Young’s ability to, “generate excitement,” through his music, “without getting excited; he stayed cool.” Second, Young presented himself in a way that created,”an air of mystery.” As the first musician to wear sunglasses in and outside, Young wore, “shades as a mask to deflect the gaze of others without causing conflict.”

Young extended his air of mystery by subverting language. Smithsonian magazine says he probably coined the expression “that’s cool”, as well as usage of bread for money and “you dig?”

For Young, cool was something that defied expectations and feigned dis-interest. Basically, one is cool if they present themselves as being unaffected by the excitement that surrounds them.

Another perspective on cool comes from musician / producer Brian Eno. In a recent blog post at Prospect, Eno implies that cool has traditionally been on the cultural forefront and accessible only to a few. This approach to cool is more akin to my experiences growing up. As soon as a trend or style passes through the mainstream and into the past it can no longer be cool.

In his post, Eno has rightly observed that this has already changed, “the idea that something is uncool because it’s old or foreign has left the collective consciousness.” In a world of networked information, where everything is equally accessible — from 19th century literature to commercials from the late 70s the distinction between avant garde and idiosyncratic past are breaking down.

Picking up Eno’s post, Gawker missed the point with their headline, “Indisputable Cool Person Brian Eno Says We are All Cool Now.” Clearly some things and people remain cooler than others. That said, I do think that this trend of mashups and irony indicates new metric for how our culture determines what is and is not cool.

Merchants of Cool

It should be no surprise that cool attracts money. With so much money to be made by selling what is cool, one might wonder what corporate America is willing to do to market the next cool product.

To get a good handle on how corporate America has tried to co-opt cool, lets turn to a Frontline episode called “Merchants of Cool.” Although ancient (2001) by today’s media standards, this episode hosted by media critic, and personal hero, Douglas Rushkoff, looks at how corporations manufacture cool. While some of the examples that Rushkoff uses may feel dated (Sprite and Hip-hop, Limp Bizkit, Britney Spears, Dawson’s Creek) that doesn’t change how conniving corporate America has become in an effort to stuff their bottom line. If anything, the boom of the social Web has only enhanced the ability of brands to mine social networking in their unending quest to set the agenda for cool.

Here is the first of six parts, via You Tube. You can check out the rest, plus extras, at Frontline.

I know its hard to find time to watch a 60 minute video online, but I highly recommend it. I guarantee that your jaw will drop and your head will spin.

Is Anything Cool?

As Eno mentioned and Rushkoff shows, the gray area between cool and uncool is growing increasingly murky and hard to navigate. In such a rich media world its hard to imagine things being as ‘simple’ as they were when Lester Young was performing with Count Basie. The spectrum of cool has been fractured by mass-media and re-fractured even further online through interest based communities  and corporate greed. Perhaps the only thing that distinguishes a pop-star who has re-appropriated 80s style sunglasses and someone who dons medieval attire is the presentation. Are you excited by what you’re wearing, or is it just whatever?