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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