Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Birth (and Death) of The Cool – Book Review

James Dean

I don’t mind not being cool – Chris Martin 

People in our society spend countless dollars on it; hours of our personal time thinking about it; sweat stressing about it and coffees discussing it – all with the desire to be cool.

But what is cool?  And what is ‘cool’?  These were just two of the questions that I had on my mind when I picked up Ted Gioia‘s book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, late last year.  Named after the seminal 1957 Miles Davis jazz album Birth of the Cool – this book aims to discuss the aesthetic of cool, tracking its recent history in pop-culture, and discuss its future.

the birth and the death of the cool - Book Cover

Gioia contends that ‘cool’, in a certain conception, had a beginning, and now it is starting to have an ending.  He defines the cool aesthetic as being including the following characteristics: restraint; mystery; brooding; self-confidence; and independence – all very ‘western’ ideals.  Defining this ‘cool’ aesthetic in a specific way, he argues that cool is personified by people like Miles Davis, James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Neal Cassady / Jack Kerouac.

From his research, Gioia argues that the increase in the use of the word ‘cool’ grew rapidly from the 1930’s on – at the same time as the use of the word ‘lifestyle’ entered our vernacular.  Previously, people were limited in their ability to make personal decisions about their lifestyle.  People were limited to read only the books that were available to them, listen to their family’s music, buy goods only from local stores – much the same as their parents.  However, with increases in technology and financial independence, more and more youth had a disposable income so as to make decisions about what they would ‘consume’, as distinct from merely ‘absorbing’ the same media as their forefathers.  People could travel to absorb media, or conversely, companies would travel to share new products with new geographical markets.  In America, people could now choose the life and life style that they so desired – all with some help from the invisible hand of capitalism.

Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint Laurent

Gioia referenced the seminal 1997 New Yorker article ‘The Coolhunt’.  In it, Malcolm Gladwell describes a trend during the 90’s where marketers and product designers would try to to find influential teens and youths from New York.  They would follow them around, and see what they were wearing, what clothes they were mixing together, and ask them about different product prototype brands that they have been working on.

“The key to coolhunting, then, is to look for cool people first and cool things later, and not the other way around.  Since cool things are always changing, you can’t look for them, because the very fact they are cool means you have no idea what to look for… Cool people, on the other hand, are a constant.”  Similar to Yves Saint Laurent’s Maxim – “Fashion comes and goes; but style is eternal”.

Gioia believes, that there has been a shift in our societies’ conception of cool – from a mysterious brooding Hollywood glamour,  to a more authentic and honest aesthetic.  He points to celebrities such as Lady Ga Ga – whose candied openness with the media has attracted huge audience of fans.  I do believe that people have become increasingly skeptical of slick over-managed media personalities such as Jessica Watson, Australian solo navigating sailor, whose every Twitter and blog post if meticulously filtered though her publicity manager before any content can go online.   However, Gioia’s examples seem oft to few, and his deduced strong conclusions somewhat tenuous or unfounded.   Nevertheless the book is quite unique in content, and reads exceptionally well.

Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia

Only after finishing the book did I look inside to discover that the author and expert on what is ‘Cool’, Ted Gioia, looked like this.  Hmmm… maybe the his look is just taking hipster irony to a whole new level.

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You wouldn’t steal a TV – at least not that TV

Stealing

There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft….When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.

Khaled Hosseini – The Kite Runner

It is a queer irony that people love to hate the evil in others; and then use that evil as a justification for their own behaviour.  As I have recently discovered this sort of mentality to be true close to home with quite a number of my friends who apply this to their everyday life regarding online piracy.

The corporation - Film

“Corporations are evil”, they say.  They are big and ugly and unethical and faceless and soul-less.  Hiding behind limited liability, they let individuals do all sorts of horrible things to the public and the defenselessness    And as “the rich get richer, the poor get the picture” – Peter Garret’s catch cry – using their colossal market power to muscle out competitors.  And because these firms are so horrible – it is OK ethically to steal or commit fraud against them, or so the argument goes.  “We are not taking from people – individuals – therefore it is hurting no one.  Only effecting this massive organisation, that is so big, my actions have no effect.”

These themes are explored in Joel Bakan’s film-documentary The Corporation (2003), that overtly shows the danger of organisation who’s actions are left un-checked across international boarders.  When companies gain massive lobbying power that they government is willing to pay them out billions of dollars in hard times (a la General Motors in the US).

However here in lies the rub: because these corporations use limited-liability to be bullies in the playground; we can therefore justify theft.  In the West we believe it is Our Right to have what we want now, and not have to pay for it.  So would people stop stealing from these corporations if they were not so big, successful, powerful and ‘evil’?  Somehow I doubt it…

One could say this is a hypothetical that could never exist.  That companies so big could never act justly because their primary concern is their shareholders’ financial growth.  However, in recent times, with more transparency being introduced into the commercial markets, increases in the speed of media communication, and more products being purchased based on image instead of functionality for the task intended – bad company image is bad business.  This means that boycotting of products, such as Cadbury’s chocolate before being transitioned to Fare Trade certification, can be highly effective.

Shoplifter - Barcode

Deep down, I feel that many people that loath these corporations, secretly don’t really want them to change.  Because if they did, it would take away the justification used to explain away their theft.  And it s theft – because people make products, not merely companies.  Many people, perhaps unknowns, would rather have a company doing global harm – so as to justify their small theft.  Ironic huh.

It is comforting, that people only take stuff they want.  And so I can sleep easy knowing that nobody will be pinching my intellectual property on this here blog…Just like that anti-piracy advertisement at the beginning of DVDs where it states  “You wouldn’t steal a hand bag; you wouldn’t steal a car; you wouldn’t steal a TV” – to which I reply – “I wouldn’t steal that TV”  

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Tom Cruise – Guilty Pleasure of the West

Tom Cruise - Oblivion

I go without sleep, I just go hard – Tom Cruise

Intensely looking down; serious; contemplative; packing heat; with the Empire States Building in the background – we can’t be serious can we? Its another Tom Cruise film – tastefully titled no less than ‘Oblivion’ with the not so understated tag line “Earth is a memory worth fighting for”. In cinemas soon, apparently.

Tom Cruise is the biggest guilty pleasure of the west. We love to hate him, and yet we secretly love to love him too.

If I had a dollar for every time someone made a Tom Cruise joke, I’d be richer than The Church of Scientology, Tom, Katie, and Nicole put together.  There is plenty of ammunition when making a less than creative wise crack from “Its hard to look up to a short man”, and “I can’t just keep looking down on Tom Cruise”; to “Q: Why is Tom Cruise so upset? Ans: Because he is Holmes-less”.

Tom-Cruise-Magnolia

But, we keep on rolling up to see his films – Tom seems no longer to need to act, playing the same character – Tom Cruise – in all his films.  Jack Reacher, Jerry Maguire, Ray Ferrier (War of the Worlds); Captain John Anderton (Minority Report); Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) – what difference does a name make?

For as much as everyone seems to pay out on poor old Tom – we love him like a ‘frenemy’.  He’s our western Hollywood guilty little pleasure.  And fair enough, he makes some pretty decent films – at least don’t let anyone know I said that.  

And so all we keep on coming back for more… 

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