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Sideways Review: The Cycle of Cool

John Proctor

on “Against Cool”

by Rick Moody

The Best American Essays 2004

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~2nd in a series

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Rick,

You begin this piece with the qualifier that you are, in fact, uncool, citing:

  • Your brightly colored cords and flannel slacks;
  • your love of Cat Stevens, science fiction, and your mother;
  • your wildly sentimental streak;
  • the fact that you’re even writing about what cool is (“If you have to talk about cool, you’re not it.”).

First off, let me say that I think all of those things are cool, including talking about what cool is. And perhaps that also makes me uncool; the fact that I’m writing a letter to someone I’ll probably never meet is another qualifier.

But I digress. I’d like to talk about your essay, to take a few key points, perhaps extrapolate a bit, and hopefully add a little to this discussion. “Against Cool” was, after all, originally published in 2003, eight years ago. Of course our collective conception of cool doesn’t seem to have evolved much in the last eight years, which brings us to the conclusion of this 33-page essay:

Cool is spent. Cool is empty. Cool is ex post facto.

This is probably an unfairly truncated representation of a point you spent 32 pages preparing me for.

I apologize for that.

I think this piece is similar to Mark Greif’s “Against Exercise” from The Best American Essays 2005 in that both use the polemic form implicit in the titles as a false signifier – what you’re both taking to task isn’t a specific segment of American culture that you may disagree with, but American culture itself.

In fact the first 23 pages of your essay are a veritable lesson in the history of cool, from its earliest known etymology, dating back to c.1450, to its connotative flowering in the Twentieth Century – its roots as jazz idiom, its sublimation into white culture (from the Beats to the hippies to the seventies culture of your own youth), and its codification as a marketing tool (by, interestingly, such brands as Kool-Aid and Kool cigarettes).

Then, with eight pages to go, you bring back the personal tone with which you started the essay – that you were (are) not cool. Perhaps the most powerful, stunning part of this essay for me is when you interview the coolest guy you knew in boarding school, the guy who had all the girls, who wrote poetry, who everyone liked and aspired to be, who seemed above even the school authorities, and he wrote you back thus:

I didn’t perceive it until I had been away from school for years that trying to be cool was about selling out in the worst way. We were trying desperately to be distant, to have a critical detachment that would allow us to sit in judgment. And as anti-establishment as we styled ourselves, that wish to be the one doing the judging was strictly generic arrogance. As you may have inferred from the foregoing, my career as a Cool Guy is somewhat painful for me to contemplate.

I thought about this, wondering if, for example, the coolest guy in my high school, the one all the girls liked, the star football player who lived in the richest part of town, would be as introspective as the guy from your school. (Though lord knows the guy from my high school was no poet. I’ve tried to look him up everywhere – Facebook, Google, etc. – to no avail; in an age of interconnectedness he seems to have disappeared entirely.) I can’t help thinking that somewhere between graduating high school and becoming a high school teacher, your Cool Guy was broken. Maybe he was left at the altar by the one woman he ever gave himself over to entirely; maybe he spent his entire senior year of college eating beans and ramen; maybe the simple accumulation of small defeats gave him the actual critical distance he faked through high school.

A trope running through your entire essay is that cool is innately rebellious, but not just rebellious – the cool are above rebellion, above authority. That, I think, has been the inevitable downfall of cool in American popular culture, and is the crux of your own plot arc of cool. This conception of cool, as verified by your Cool Guy from high school, is innately false, magical thinking at its most delusional.

Cool, in its modern conception, is the domain of the young, the very rich, and the very poor – most of your examples fit at least one of these categories – perhaps because the young are young enough and the rich are rich enough to ignore signals contradicting their omnipotence and the poor, flummoxed daily with reminders of the world’s indifference to them, retreat, perhaps as a survival mechanism, into a cocoon of imagined omnipotence.  The connection I see between the black jazz musicians you mention, the white artists who idolized them, and the corporate empires that cashed in on both of them is the unholy, cool alliance between the poor, who have a sacred place in American mythology by virtue of their own poverty; the young, who are inexperienced enough to buy into the myth of their invincibility; and the multi-billion dollar businesses who are only too willing to sell both of these groups this myth.

Which brings us to the Eighties, the death of cool in your arc. At heart, what you’ve written seems a meditation on the loss of American innocence – in every case, the conception of cool started as something pure, then was soiled, by (in the case of the Merry Pranksters in the Sixties and punk rock in the Seventies) malevolence and violence, by commercial exploitation, by the exploitation of a smaller culture by the dominant culture. The Eighties, interestingly the period after your own youth, represent for you the life of cool after The Fall:

If the seventies were bad, the eighties were worse, and I refuse on principle to admit that the eighties contributed anything at all to the history of cool. Or to much else, excepting the national debt…From a cool that was meant to be evocative and emotionally dextrous (Miles’ Davis’s cool jazz), to a cool that was cerebral and goofy (Burroughs and Ginsburg), to a cool that was rigorously opposed to state power and straight culture (Kesey, the Pranksters, the hippies), to the all-inclusive insurrection of the seventies, we have, in the eighties, [and you’re referring here to the work of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerny, and Tama Janowitz]  a cool that means dead inside.

I might be tempted to infer from this that you’re simply synecdochizing your own life, with the period after your own youth being the inevitable age of post-innocence, if not for the fact that I was a child of the Eighties. I went through ages 7-17 in the Eighties, and have spent my life since then either unlearning what I was taught or finding the original ideas that were being then aped and bowdlerized. To wit:

  • Many of my favorite songs I learned through bad covers by hair metal bands, e.g., Van Halen’s version of Emmett Miller’s “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” White Lion’s version of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love,” Mötley Crüe’s version of Loggins/Messina’s “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room,” Tesla’s version of the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’,” Great White’s version of Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” – All the originals are eminently cool; the covers are indisputably uncool.
  • Watching them now, it’s hard to fathom not just my child-self but anyone enjoying such Eighties sitcoms as The Facts of Life, The Greatest American Hero, Family Ties, or Diff’rent Strokes, all of which I watched obsessively then.
  • In our present age of infinite news outlets from every conceivable viewpoint at every hour, I simply can’t see how I or my family thought we knew anything about the Iran-Contra Affair, the Sandinistas, the union-busting, or any other news item small or large that might have had a direct or indirect effect on me, my family, or my country from listening to Dan Rather, Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, and 60 Minutes. In fact, sometimes I think every normal American learned about the Eighties only in retrospect.

It intrigues me that you mention the Nineties only in passing, giving a nod to hip-hop as “the dialectical weight of cool swinging back to black Americans,” especially since I tend to give the Nineties the weight of reclaiming something we (I) lost in the Eighties. But alas, hip-hop is now as commercial as (perhaps more so than) rock and roll, and it seems eight years with George W. Bush have had a similar effect on our culture as eight years with Reagan. But your argument in the last two pages of the essay – that all these things can be left behind, we can start over, if we just abandon this endlessly overused word cool and start anew, is tempting. The alternatives you suggest  (brum? goss? relinquent?) are unconvincing, but your conclusion is compelling:

But this job is best left to you, users of the American tongue. Seize control of your splendid language. Work your alchemical mumbo-jumbo. Mix up your slang. Blow your innumerable horns. Play well. Play with feeling.

I hereby pledge, when at least 50 times on any given day I am about to use the word cool, to at least consider a more specific modifier, a more resplendent interjection, a less hackneyed response.

Cool?

 ~

John Proctor, who can also be found at Numéro Cinq, is reading one volume of The Best American Essays a month for the next two years. He considers himself relatively cool, at least in certain circles.

~

Other reviews in this series can be found here.

 ~

“Against Cool” by Rick Moody
The Best American Essays 2004 
Louis Menand, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin
2004


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