The Birth of the Cool: Class v. Aesthetics in the Modern Age.
By Bruce Carter
One of the most ubiquitous concepts in modern English vernacular is that of “cool.” It’s one that we take for granted, underlying most (if not all) of contemporary popular culture. Of all slang terms invented since we started differentiating between slang and “proper” language, it has become the most ubiquitous and taken for granted. What we rarely notice is that the concept of “cool” is in many ways unique and contrary to the relationship between class and culture for all of human history preceding its emergence.
For starters, let’s break down what we mean when we say someone or something is “cool,” and present a working definition-set. In this case, it has three main parts:
1. Calm, unflappable
2. Has access to aesthetically superior culture, including music, art, fashion, and dialect (see also “hip/hep.”)
3. Is admirable and/or admired by others, primarily due to #2 above.
Next, an example to examine: one quintessential figure in popular culture representing coolness was Fonzi (nee Arthur Fonzarelli) from the TV show Happy Days. It’s not necessarily the case that he’s the most cool character ever – such an argument about who that is would be impossible to arbitrate – rather that coolness and coolness alone was his entire raison d’etre. There wasn’t much more to his character other than being over-the-top cool all the time.
What’s worth noting about Fonzi is that he was from the “wrong side of the tracks.” He was much poorer than Richie Cunningham and company, and didn’t have access to the advantages they did, such as a future in college. In plain terms, there would seem nothing admirable about his lifestyle: he was a dropout who worked as a mechanic and hung out with high school kids. There would seem nothing cool about that. And yet somehow, Fonzi was still the coolest of cool. In the eyes of Richie and his friends, Fonzi’s relative poverty somehow gave him access to a style that they couldn’t hope to achieve. This is a key point, because it is in fact a necessary prerequisite for coolness: privileged people can’t have it. One’s maximum possible coolness runs counter to their level of privilege. Certainly, people from wealthy/privileged backgrounds can have positive characteristics, and even culture that’s admired to some degree – “preppie” fashion does go into style from time to time. Wealthy people can be calm and unflappable, and usually are. But they can’t be cool in the full sense of the word. Any attempt for them to do so inevitably comes off as being an impostor, a cultural appropriator, or even a square.
And that’s something very remarkable about coolness. Because between the dawn of recorded history and when this concept emerged, the exact opposite was true. Societies have always aped the fashions of the ruling class, who also had control over what art was produced via patronage. It was royalty followed by nobility who determined what in culture was to be admired; everyone else in society followed along. That is to say, aesthetic judgements were “trickle-down,” as it were. When Queen Victoria decided to wear black for the rest of her life in mourning of her late husband, the rest of Britain followed suit, and ultimately so did the entire English-speaking world. Beau Brummel’s relationship with George IV is the reason that men’s fashion requires neckties to this day (though they are entirely unnecessary to hold shirt collars closed since the invention of the button). For thousands of years of human history, it was the people with the power and money who decided what good taste was as well. The list of such examples goes back to the Pharaohs, and almost certainly beyond. Rationally, this makes sense: power begets power; those with political and economic power would naturally wield cultural power as well.
In the same span of history, contrary to the culture of high society there was only “folk” culture. Folk music, folk art, folk tales, etc. were the art produced and appreciated by the lowest classes, as distinct from what the upper classes produced, and what the middle class aspired to follow. Although it was distinct and contrary to highbrow, folk culture was never considered particularly aesthetically admirable, and certainly not “better” than highbrow culture. That is, however much one might enjoy folk culture, folk was never, nor will ever be, cool. And serious academic treatments of folk concern themselves less with its complexity and aesthetic markers than who made what, where and when: art theory as anthropology. Which is far from the same thing as aesthetic admiration of the art itself. Thus, folk is never “fine” either.
As such, the fact that today the lower class has and produces culture to which the middle class aspires, rather than the middle class aspiring to that of the upper class, stands out as very odd, yet we see it everywhere. It’s what causes rich suburban white kids to get into rap and try to act “gangster,” which reflects their imagining of what lower class culture is like. And before that, to adopt rock ‘n roll in the 50’s. But prior to about that portion of history, the notion that the middle-class masses would want to copy the styles of the poor and oppressed was unthinkable. And reasonably so. So how did this all get turned upside down? As with any broad historic cultural shift, there are perhaps far too many individual variables to track with anything approaching scientific rigor, and any theory proposed will inevitably involve a certain amount of speculation. But there are a few key markers in history which seem to stand out as “before/after” moments, and a trend that draws a line through them.
The first of these markers is World War I. As has been discussed at length elsewhere, that event more than any other marks the breaking of power for the royal families of Europe. Although some royal lines survived and still play roles in their countries, those roles are highly diminished, ceremonial at best. Prior to WWI, royalty held real (in some cases, absolute) power. But it was the death of a royal that triggered the cataclysm that wiped out a significant portion of Europe’s populace. As such it was quite reasonable that the role of royalty in actual political decisions (such as whether to go to war) was summarily eliminated.
While some countries who retained their royalty still supported them, it become more difficult to admire them in everything they did, as had been done before. One might say “God save the King,” but they didn’t necessarily seek to copy how he dressed. With the growth of the film industry, Hollywood stars began to take over the role of the famous person we wish we could wake up as tomorrow, diminishing the hold that royalty held on aesthetics, and creating a vacuum waiting to be filled.
One country who lacked a royal tradition even prior to WWI was France. For many decades leading up to WWI, Paris had also been the home of a number of thriving and dynamic artistic movements. Unaccustomed for over a century to either proper royalty or nobility, the French had long ago passed the torch of artistic judgement onto artistic communities themselves, producing a great number of celebrated artists and movements working within the rich cultural community of Paris. This shift divorced aesthetic judgement from nobility. Although it wasn’t yet in the hands of the underclass (French artistic movements were decidedly bourgeoisie) the “best” culture was definitely out of the hands of the blue-blooded. With the influx of soldiers marching through Paris in World War I – and again later in World War 2 – most of the English speaking world was introduced firsthand to vibrant Parisian culture. And they were awestruck.
It’s difficult to overstate the degree to which Paris was placed on a pedestal in the former half of the 20th century, particularly by Americans. If you imagined someone who could introduce you to the finest food, the finest fashion, the finest works of art, or someone who could make an authoritative judgement on any matter of taste, you inevitably imagined them with a French accent. Paris was the romantic vacation destination for anyone seeking cultural enrichment of any kind. The phrase “an American in Paris” automatically conjured a sense of someone giddy to be surrounded by the best culture of all kinds, far superior to what could be had at home. To most of the world, the greatest cultural products weren’t to be found in the palaces of royalty, but in the galleries, restaurants, dance-halls, and even the mere streets of Paris.
But while American GI’s returned with tales of an aesthetic Nirvana, they influenced France in return. In the years following WWI (and again reinforced after WWII), the cultural mavens of France did something quite remarkable: they blessed American jazz music. Many published reviews from French music reviewers started discussing jazz with the kind of academic fervor and admiration formerly reserved for classical music. As much as white Americans adored French culture, the French adored African-American culture. And they were extremely vocal about it, showering jazz with effusive praise in magazines, newspapers, and anywhere they could.
This put white America in a somewhat uncomfortable position: the culture they most admired and celebrated in the world was openly admiring and celebrating a culture which they were actively oppressing. No one could disagree that the French knew best when it came to matters of taste; everyone knew that. And yet, the French equally admired a product of African-American culture. The only reasonable conclusion that could be drawn was that African-American culture was somehow significantly superior to mainstream American culture. The torch that had been passed from European nobility to French artistic communities, had been passed once again, this time to African-Americans.
That is when cool was born. The inversion was complete. From then on, those higher up the social ladder could never again be entirely confident that those “below” them didn’t know something they didn’t, weren’t secretly listening to better music, wearing better styles, or speaking in better dialects. Especially African-Americans.
While white America has tried again and again to appropriate specific styles from African-American culture, that appropriation remains resistant to class: only the underprivileged can do it with anything resembling authenticity. The end result is a society which treats aesthetics as inverse to social class. One in which rich people secretly envy poor people for at least one thing, and in which poor people can see themselves as superior to rich people in at least one respect. Whether that inversion promotes or ultimately inhibits democratic progress is a discussion for another day.
When one looks across the long span of human history, all of the thousands of cultures that have come and gone, morphed and mutated from one thing to another across the world, the concept of “cool” stands out. That an oppressed class should be considered culturally superior to its oppressor runs contrary to the power dynamics naturally expressed everywhere and everywhen else. It required a very particular chain of events in societal interactions, spread across a very particular period of history. It is truly remarkable, which is why I find it curious that it has heretofore been so little remarked upon.