Friday, August 5, 2011

When Cool Goes Cold

The very thought of writing this story made me feel like vomiting over my laptop and down my flannelette shirt. Yet another lifestyle piece on Cool with a capital ``C", another voice-deadening set of icons whose style and attitude should be genuinely rebellious and outside easy mainstream embrace.
I imagined how it would go: the file photos that would link Lord Byron, James Dean, Jeff Buckley and New York's latest rock'n'roll bad boys of dissident pretty, the Strokes.

Trying to capture Cool is a loser's game worse still, it's uncool. Plenty of you have no doubt groaned and rolled your eyes already at the very idea of this story, turned the page sneering, said no.
In keeping with this mood of negation and refusal, Cool can be regarded as the street's desire to turn stardom inside-out: to strengthen what's moving beneath the radar, what's not apparent, and so-far undiscovered. It's a kind of secret identity that corporations and the media will eventually wish to mine, but they can't have it or define it no matter how hard they try, or at least they can't have it for long. 

In his 1998 essay The Birth of the Cool, an analysis of Miles Davis's groundbreaking 1949 album of the same name, Greil Marcus observed that, ``Cool is a mystery, because while everyone knows what cool is nobody can define it. It's like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous pronouncement on pornography: `I know it when I see it."'
I'd dare to say it's a synonym for integrity. And that's what it has always been, even at its most anarchic or dissolute or just plain unlucky.
Perhaps that's why Cool is often fatal, like those last steps Jeff Buckley took fully clothed into a tributary of the Mississippi for a gentle swim in 1997, his music left to us in a state of permanent promise. As his mother said in the memorial documentary Fall in Light, ``I have a picture in my mind that was actually a metaphysical image. That the body of my son was not the speck of dust they pulled out of the Wolf River but the body of his work." 
Cool is this kind of moment or person or subculture up ahead of the present or lost somewhere far behind it but still intact in some sacred, radioactive way, still living a half-life of intensity, self-possessed and eternally unpossessed, like Marlon Brando's feminine shyness in The Wild One or Sonny Rollins walking away from jazz at the height of his career to practise his saxophone devotions to no-one but the wind as it blew off the Williamsburg Bridge. It's danger in vulnerability. And you can't buy that.
Cool can become fashionable, of course, but becoming fashionable is often what ends it. More usually it is the opposite of fashionable, a force of reaction like punk rock in its heyday and grunge when it first broke, movements whose anti-beauty aesthetics attacked the high style directives of consumer culture before becoming self-annihilating in themselves. The dialectics of fashion Cool are certainly constant and unforgiving, if strangely cyclical: I often yearn for the wardrobe I had when I was a 12-year-old boy in Newcastle, recast in adult sizes of course, because it was so right, so ``now", when all it felt to me back then was wrong and out of place. 
This suburban discomfort and the rages of its energy, from AC/DC and Cold Chisel through surf culture and silverchair are enjoying a comeback in Australian Cool, something the ``aging hipster" and author of Golden Miles, Clinton Walker, attributes to ``the fact it's all localised Australian stuff. It's real. Cool to me is about that localised quality. Look at the old muscle cars like the Charger and the Holden Monaro, now they're cool unlike all those silly cars and 4WDs you see people driving in Sydney's east". 

The distance of Australian suburbia from international design and fashion, and its being subsumed into kitsch, also explains the surreal bent at work in everything from the humor of Roy and H.G. to the films of Baz Luhrmann: a genuinely Cool Australian style.
Equally vital now is the nascent formation of what Social Change Media's Tony Moore identifies as ``deadly culture" (``deadly" being an Aboriginal slang for ``cool"), and what Bangarra Dance Theatre's Stephen Page sees as the surge in Aboriginal influences on a contemporary Australian identity. ``Look at Cathy Freeman," Page says. ``There's a spirit that's Cool. A cool spirit is what I want to know about something joyous and sacred. I wonder if the word `cool' comes from spirit?" 
Maybe there's a virginity of cultural experience to this as well, to that true spirit of Cool and how one encounters it, like reading J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when you are in high school, or hearing Nick Drake's Pink Moon at university and thinking you are the first one of your time to know it again, take it deep inside. As Kerouac so famously and so lovingly put it in On The Road: ``The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, delirious of everything at the same time..."
Speaking about that vitalising energy in his 1999 manifesto Against Cool, the writer Rick Moody (The Ice Storm, Demonology) recalled his love for ``beat writing as a young reader. The velocity and the spirit, the opposition to the stuffiness of academic writing (to the monolithic sobriety of New Criticism), the sheer, dizzy glee. What the great beat writers did for American letters was appropriate America's one truly indigenous music form, jazz, and fuse the lessons of that music with the transcendentalism that had been irrigating American literature for a century. The beats yoked Miles and Bird to Whitman and Emerson. And by the late '50s and '60s, the cool beat idiom had become as frankly spiritual as its transcendental models".
Whatever happened, though, to that passionate, spiritual form of Cool? How did Cool, so romantic, so possible, so immersed, get so cold and superficial today? How did we move from Jackson Pollock and Brett Whiteley to wallpaper; from the spiritual might of Sonny Rollins to the ironies of cocktail muzak and a self-congratulatory, thuggishly macho rap hyped as ``sonic reportage"; from the anarchic situationist theories of Guy Debord and Paris 1968 to modern advertising with a sly conspiratorial wink?
Of course, it's easy to identify another strand to Cool, the very opposite of the transcendental mode I've been pushing: the reptilian slither and icy nihilism extending from Burroughs through Warhol into Bret Easton Ellis, the electronic ennui of Radiohead. But this does not explain the shallowing of the feeling.
Nor would it be fair to say that Cool no longer exists, or that it has lost its spiritual or activist edge, whether one speaks of Patti Smith's ongoing musical career and techno-music-inspired environmentalists or magazines like Adbusters and concepts like ``culture jamming" (media pranks like the recent ``Dole Army" fiasco that saw A Current Affair and Today Tonight led down stormwater drains looking for a subterranean world of bludgers).
Cool is still happening out there, fighting for life, but the word itself has been given a mainstream makeover and a mobile phone to keep it busy. Cool now: it's what you buy to look good, isn't it? Isn't it?

In their book Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude, writers Dick Pountain and David Robins (the former an author of computer textbooks, the latter a student of criminal sociology, a combo somehow appropriate to the subject at hand) study the political and cultural history of Cool. They trace its origins back to the slave trade and acts of ``silent rebellion" against authority, a ``pose of resistance" unable to make itself explicit.
They then move through the classic and archetypal history of what Cool became as a style, noting ``a strikingly similar attitude to be found in European culture, the sprezzatura of Italian courtiers during the Renaissance, the famous reserve of English aristocrats and the Romantic irony of 19th century poets. Cool is by no means an American phenomenon, although its modern manifestation was incubated among young black American jazz musicians during the first decades of the 20th century, before being discovered by hard-boiled crime writers and Hollywood scriptwriters of the '30s and '40s, and finally injected into youth culture during the '50s by Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll."
Obviously the beats, the hippies and the punks get a look-in, along with the influences of French existentialism and the nouvelle vague cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, Berlin cabaret and Brechtian theatrical techniques, the paintings and aphorisms of Warhol, the debaucheries of '70s rock as epitomised by the Rolling Stones, and era-defining films like Easy Rider, Taxi Driver and Pulp Fiction.
From the beginning of Cool Rules, Pountain and Robins announce a desire to ``show how this attitude, which originally expressed resistance to subjugation and humiliation, has been expropriated by the mass media and the advertising industry in the '80s and '90s, and used as the way into the hearts and wallets of young consumers". 
A little more bluntly, it's stated: ``Cool consumer capitalism has discovered, as Thomas Frank puts it, how to construct cultural machines that transform alienation and despair into consent."
For those in the know, Thomas Frank is the giant killer of Cool today, a philosopher of anti-Cool. In his book The Conquest of Cool, and more regularly at his Web-magazine The Baffler, Frank argues that big business hasn't just appropriated the language of youth culture, it's always been the driving force behind it.
This business revolution is ongoing today as ``a host of self-designated corporate revolutionaries outlining the accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatise their own insurgent vision".
It's this depressing landscape of Cool that made Rick Moody cry out for a Cool that was ``gone, long gone. Cool is spent. Cool is empty. Cool is ex post facto. When advertisers and pundits hoard a word, you know it's time to retire from it. To move on. Cool is a trick to get you to buy garments made by sweatshop labourers in Third World countries. Cool is Triumph of the Will. Cool enables you to step over bodies. Cool enables you to look the other way. Cool makes you functional, eager for routine distraction, passive, doped, stupid."

Since September 11 there is a desire to rerun the 1950s in America and with it a creepy rage for consensus at any price. Conservatives everywhere have taken possession of the event as a vindication for their righteousness; there is no room for dissent, for unsettling voices, off-kilter words. The national agenda is one of unity, ``healing": a new conformity. The McCarthyist tone, the lauding of material satisfaction and security at any cost is very familiar. 
Speaking of Kerouac and the beat phenomenon in a famous 1957 essay ``The White Negro", the title an acknowledgement of the influence of black jazz musicians on a new style of American revolt and literature, Norman Mailer wrote: ``The only life-giving answer to the deathly drag of American civilisation is to tear oneself from the security of physical and spiritual certainty, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey with the rebellious imperatives of the self." 
He was being extreme; the end result of that thinking for many was perversion, suicide. But in this squarest of times, ``the rebellious imperatives of the self" remain a necessary adjunct to any lifestyle and the purchase it has on you, an interrogating and humanising request from within to stay Cool but keep warm.  
- Mark Mordue
* First published in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Essay section,Saturday, February 23, 2002.


sarah toa said...

Great essay/post, Mark. I have to admit I've only read the first half, being too eager to share some thoughts. (I will get back to the other half, promise.)

Love the idea that cool comes from spirit. I was concluding that, just before the Cathy Freeman paragraph arrived.

Perhaps the cooling of Cool happens when the mainstream absorbs the subversive, takes away its power. An example of this is the Tshirts "Punk" sold in KMart, the Greens getting into Canberra, a

My teenage son wore out his ABBA Tshirt about three years ago. He was gutted but he's six foot now and a tight, bright yellow ABBA Tshirt doesn't have quite the same effect. It was an original, handed down to him by my sister. (You can't get Tshirt photo prints these days that last so many washes as this one did.)

But as a ten year old in 2007, wearing a bright yellow ABBA shirt? Now that was Cool.

Mark Mordue said...

Thanks for writing. As you can tell by the references to The Strokes etc, this is a pretty old essay. In some ways I think I was still learning how to coalesce my ideas into a loose-weave format that appealed to me, something wide ranging. Don't think I got there with this, but a few interesting ideas. Love the sound of that ABBA t-shirt!