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December 16, 2012

One of the more fascinating books I have read is Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain and David Robins which attempts to trace the development of ‘cool’ from its inception from Africa to present day global consumerism.  Not an easy task one, but the authors have done a fine job of pinning down the phenomenon long enough to allow us to develop some understanding of this ever-changing and ever-growing aspect of contemporary culture.

Cool was originally developed as an attitude developed in the face of threat, it’s neither fight or flight, more a coping mechanism adopted by minorities with an outward appearance of rebellious detachment, which was imported to America via the slave trade.  The phenomenon’s development was accelerated by the African-American community in its music, through Blues and Jazz which specifically rejected the positive spiritual overtones of gospel music and focused on the harsh experience of daily life, and is perhaps still best personified by the idea of Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads and selling his soul for the ability to play guitar.

At the same time that Johnson was selling his soul, that similar attitude was being fused with the energy and distractions of the city and evolved into jazz, and it’s Billie Holiday’s distinctive voice, no doubt shaped by personal experience, as well as her appetite for drink, drugs and abusive relationships, that we remember in the classic jazz age, which this BBC documentary certainly indulges.

In the post-war period jazz became mainstream, both through the success of African-American artists, but also through the likes of the late Dave Brubeck, who brought his own approach to the medium.  At the same time, James Dean, though he made only three movies, came to represent teenage disillusionment, detachment and rebellion for generations.  Cool was mainstream.

But Cool’s moment would come later in the counter-culture of the 1960s.  Hippies, drugs, The Beatles and the Stones, anti-Vietnam marches, Woodstock, all that sort of stuff that came to define the age.  But by the end of the decade Cool was never the same again, corporations increasingly recognised its value in selling stuff, products are more desirable if they go against the mainstream because they say they’re you’re different from the masses.  After that, Cool went global and it’s been a mainstay of marketing campaigns ever since.  Even the hippies of the 60s had to grow up.

Remember this?  It was directed by Ridley Scott.

How times have changed. Here’s the Apple ad for the new iPad mini, it’s basically a glorified list of technical achievements and compared to the 1984 ad it’s almost apologetic.  When you have the largest market share in tablets you can’t really sell stuff on the back of the idea that you’re different to everyone else any more, and having a really bad cover version of New Order’s Age of Consent, who of course are one of the coolest, most detached bands that have ever existed, doesn’t really make up for it.  But this doesn’t seem to matter as Apple are still the coolest brand in the world ever.

So where does that leave Cool?  As an aesthetic, not an attitude that informs an aesthetic.  I think that might mean style over content.

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