Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Cool

This story appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photography courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution

Whether or not he won the arguments during the presidential debates preceding the 2008 election, there is no denying that President Barack Obama won the composure contest. While Senator McCain often appeared nervous and jumpy, and let his anger and agitation show through the television screen, Obama remained poised and self-assured. “He was the embodiment of cool in its original meaning: relaxed, detached, nonchalant. This is what jazz musicians meant when they first brought the phrase into the American vernacular in the mid-1940s,” explains Joel Dinerstein, a professor and jazz scholar at Tulane University who has been publishing, teaching and lecturing on the history of cool for almost 20 years. He’s also the co-curator of “American Cool,” a stimulating new exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery featuring 100 photographs of icons of cool in American culture. It was the 2008 presidential election and the public’s gravitation toward this new type of “cool” candidate that inspired, in part, the exhibit — though Obama didn't make the final list.

Who did make the cut? Musicians (Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Madonna), actors (Greta Garbo, James Dean, Johnny Depp), athletes (Muhammad Ali, Tony Hawk), writers (Walt Whitman, Joan Didion), comedians (Lenny Bruce, Jon Stewart), artists (Andy Warhol) and activists (Malcolm X): “Successful rebels of American culture,” in Dinerstein’s words. Or, more specifically, figures who meet at least three of the four criteria of the rubric he created: original artistic vision with a signature style; cultural rebellion; iconic power or high-profile recognition; cultural legacy.

It’s a rather succinct prescript for a concept whose definition continues to evolve over time. While scholars have suggested that the origin of cool can be traced to a 15th century West African Yorobu expression, itutu, its American roots are in the postwar era (1945-1963) when African-American jazz musicians solidified the term itself in the American vocabulary (Legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young is credited with coining the word along with a new style of “cool” jazz — a lyrical style of playing that encouraged being relaxed or laid back in performance, in contrast to the more aggressive arrangements of the day.). Jazz was the dominant subculture in postwar American life, and the word and concept of cool were adopted by jazz fans such as Jack Kerouac. Kerouac and other Beat Generation writers of the ’60s helped shift the meaning to one of openness and authenticity with their spiritual liberation and rejection of imposed cultural and political values. The idea was then expropriated by mass media and advertising agencies in the ’80s and ’90s as a rising economy bred an era of excess, and cultural values equated cool with material wealth and societal status. And today, cool has sort of become the antithesis of past generations’ cool. Modern-day, so-called rebels hold personas that spur compassion, not composure (think Jennifer Lawrence and her nervous energy and off-color jokes, though she didn’t make the list, either).

So how can one term encompass all of these connotations? How has the word managed to endure across gener- ations? And how can a character like Gene Krupa hold a place on the same list as Jay-Z? “My theory is that cool represents a certain mythos: like any myth, it carries unconscious or hidden meanings about its society,” Dinerstein suggests. “For any given generation, certain figures represent new strategies of individuality or attitudes.”

Consider the story of Levi Strauss & Co. After patenting a design for men’s work pants made from riveted denim in 1873, it would grow to become one of the largest clothing brands in the world, only to later shut down half of its U.S. plants and lay off 6,000 workers in March of 1999. “What originally made Levi’s cool in the ’50s was that they were garments associated with the working classes — the term ‘blue-collar’ is a reference to denim work-shirts. In the ’50s and ’60s, for a middle-class kid to wear blue denim rather than gray flannel was an act of symbolic rebellion,” write Dick Pountain and David Robbins in their 2000 book “Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude.” “But in the ’90s those sartorial rebels are parents and still wearing their Levi’s, so their own children must find something different to express their rebellion.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the company was profitable again for the first time in 2007 amidst a “revenge of the nerds” generation where the likes of Steve Jobs — whose trademark ensemble included Levi’s 501 jeans — epitomizes cool.)

While cool is not inherent in objects but in people, objects — like jeans — can be granted “cool” status due to people's attitude toward them. And so what may appear to be a passing fad is sometimes actually a phenomenon — and one with wide influence over spheres from the sartorial, to the economic.

Yes, its connotations may be malleable, but it still maintains such a strong component of our culture, and maybe that’s because cool, and the sense of resistance it represents, is really fundamental to America and the American concept of the self. “The United States was a rebellious colony literally born in revolution and lacking in traditional values; as a nation, we value rebellion as a quality of individuality,” Dinerstein says. “America is a land of self-invention and self-creation: historically, people come here to reinvent themselves and it requires a stage of rebellion ... we are a nation of immigrants such that second-generation children must figure out for themselves how to be (and look) American. They often find exemplars in film or popular music, or in comedians or athletes.”

And somewhere within the definition has always been a prerequisite of approval — an emotional desire that is one of the strongest motivating forces known to man. “Cool can only be conferred by others,” Dinerstein says, simply. “You’re not cool just because you think you are. In fact, if you think you’re cool, you’re probably thinking way too much about cool.”