With a tween in the house I’ve rediscovered the ruthless economy of cool. I’ve remembered that cool is as unforgiving of bad timing as the stock market.
One minute the BeyBlade, Silly Bandz, or string-ankle bracelet holds talismanic social power. The next it’s demystified, plastic junk ready for charitable donation.
Like a crush, cool is intense and exquisitely perishable.
I would say that cool is a crush. Unlike love, cool is a never-fixed mark. It blows through, attaches to an object, gesture, or sound, and evaporates just as quickly. You’d do anything to possess the cool thing, and later you can’t remember why, and you can’t remember it. Inevitably, but on its own unpredictable time, it travels from priceless to meaningless.
Cool invites the chicken and egg standoff. Does cool make the person, or does the person make what’s cool? I suppose it’s true that “cool is where cool goes,” to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson on power. Pre-certified cool people have the Midas touch. But, as Johnson discovered while languishing in the obstinately impotent office of Vice President, this adage has its limits.
I’m not thinking here of corporate confections of cool, but of those organic cool people spawned through mysterious processes in the halls of middle school each year.
The coolest girl in my son’s 5th grade class has a cool name, to begin with. I’ve not met her formally, but I hear stories about her cool moves. One day, she showed up at school wearing thick, black plastic frames from a 3-D movie, but with the lenses popped out.
There’s a quirky, improvised social courage to this. At any moment her classmates could break the tacit compact, and laugh at Cool Girl’s notion of wearing plastic rims with no lenses retrieved from a movie theater bin. Her power walks a tightrope. We know how her story will end, although not when. But this time, Cool Girl’s charisma held. Several girls showed up with lens-less nerd glasses and became cool by association.
This variety of cool is a democratic, or at least an anti-aristocratic, power. Get yourself some cheap glasses or perfect a new hand gesture, and it’s yours.
I can call vividly to mind the cool people in my middle school. So far as cool cliques go, they were a decent regime—agreeable, and non-bullying. They already possessed the royal trick of looking through the peasants, politely but at a firm, implacable remove.
Cool girls had Le Sportsac bags. They had feathered hair, and it didn’t look dorky. They liked music five minutes before the rest of us did, and knew all the lyrics to “Saturday Night Fever.”
I cringe to think of those fashions and music that I once emulated.
Come to think of it, cool is like a big cosmic joke that our younger selves play on our older selves.
What mysterious charisma makes the cool cool?
The earliest application of cool to describe a temperament rather than a temperature was in the mid-1400s. Cool connoted a person who was “deficient in ardour, zeal or enthusiasm.”
That strikes me as quite the opposite of Cool Girl and her kind, who are a hot and jittery ilk—tripwires keenly attuned to changing passions, and purveyors of ephemerally priceless things.
In 1825, according to slang dictionaries, cool was first used to mean “calmly audacious.”
That paradox of calm audacity seems closer to the metaphysic of cool in our time. By making an audacious, fickle, arbitrary statement, the cool person appears, counterintuitively, to be transcendent and insouciant.
Tenor saxophonist Lester Young, of Count Basie’s orchestra, is thought to have popularized the slang use of cool in the 1930s and 1940s, first in jazz circles, to describe his distinct, sophisticated tone. Young popularized, if not invented, the hipster ethos of the day.
Biographer Dan Morgenstern describes him as possessing something close to calm audacity: “He had this ‘floating’ style,” he recalled, “where he would kind of float above the rhythm.” That sounds like cool to me—the state of floating above.
In the pre-Internet days, cool had the same lifecycle that it does today, but a different metabolism. It took longer for cool to go viral and the virus lingered longer. Zoot Suits and hula hoops faded, of course, but they had a good half-life.
Then, at some point, for each generation, “cool” would mellow into taste. In clothing, it would grow into fashion. In diction or literature it would morph into style, and an aesthetic. In furnishings it would grow into quality. In people, cool would mature into reputation.
Cool is a young person’s game. It requires such stamina.
But with social media, the metabolism of cool has gone into hyper-drive.
The meticulous tracking mechanisms that determine page views and popularity with online content of any kind amount to little more than a thermometer of cool.
Any online content or video clip comes with an ICU panel to monitor vital signs of its coolness—indicators of views, reads, looks, likes, emails, the most popular, the most clicked, the most chosen, on several different social media sites.
Cool is on a cycle of minutes and hours. One hour it’s the elderly South Dakotan woman who reviewed an Olive Garden; the next it’s Bryce Harper’s toss-out line to a reporter, “That’s a clown question, bro.” You have to know the reference if you’re cool—but only for a short while.
This rapid-cycling environment of cool doesn’t seem to be growing up into taste.
Maybe we’ve entered the age of forever cool: Everything now is a quest for timeliness, not timelessness.
Even some of our most prized possessions—our technologies—are now valued in prestige for their timeliness over their timelessness. In that sense they belong to the genus of cool more than to taste.
In July, 2012, the courts declared Apple to be cool by judicial decree. After consideration, one judge in the copyright case declared that Samsung’s designs just weren’t “cool” like Apple’s, and therefore hadn’t really been copied.
Keeping up with what’s potentially cool and new is such a futile but oddly compelling mission. The fire hydrant volume of it makes cool hard to outgrow. In a culture with bottomless sources of new stimulation to grapple with how do we find the time to settle on something that we might appreciate for the long haul, by criteria other than novelty and freshness?
So the quest for cool lives on. It’s one way, and not the only one, that social media threatens to consign us to eternal middle school.