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Cool Hunting

Jazz writer Ted Gioia bites off more than he can chew

Okan Arabacioglu

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 11/18/2009

On page one of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool (Speck Press), jazz historian and corporate consultant Ted Gioia writes that the word cool has become "a verbal tic expressing approval of any sort . . . applicable to anything that is current or popular or even just acceptable. I am not talking about that usage of the term in this book." Jump ahead to page 123. To explain the stark contrast between cool as defined in the '50s and '60s and as it is now, he quotes seven headlines--"Top Ten Wicked Cool High-Tech Aviation Systems" is one--that he Googled one day, all of them verbal tics expressing approval and nothing more. His conclusion? "The concept of cool is now hollow at the core, drained of the soulful stamp put on it by Kerouac and the Beats. This is why it is so fragile today." Like the marketers Gioia chides throughout its pages, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool is full of this kind of half-assed doublespeak.

When John Leland's 2004 Hip: The History concluded with the suggestion that cool has made its way to Madison Avenue, Luc Sante, writing in the Village Voice, retorted, "And the check is in the mail and I promise I won't come in your mouth." Gioia bases his whole book on that very idea. "Cool," in his telling, emerged in the larger American culture during the '50s, via jazz and the Beats; thrived at its center for decades, most of which Gioia either ignores or aggressively misconceives; then abruptly became the domain of ad men and is now on the wane as people respond less to a sense of contrived hip and more to the "real" and organic. Gioia presents convincing evidence that people trust brand names less than they did for many years. But he spends endless energy hard-selling the idea that brand-name obeisance has, or has ever had, anything to do with "cool." It doesn't matter which sports figures act as spokesmen--or use Jack Kerouac as a posthumous figurehead, as the Gap did in 1993, an event Gioia points to as a pivot for cool's faltering. Gioia's endless wheedling makes it impossible to take him seriously.

As does the fact that he refers with a straight face to American Idol cheeseball Bo Bice as "hip." Birth devolves into slapstick anytime it deals with music that isn't jazz. Gioia writes: "Unlike the [Sex] Pistols' version of 'God Save the Queen,' [Sid] Vicious' rendition of Sinatra's 'My Way' did not require a reconfiguration of the song's basic tone." Someone forgot to tell him that the Pistols did not, in fact, cover England's national anthem. He refers to "the cold and ironic songs that dominated the airwaves" beginning in the mid-'70s--he clearly hasn't turned on a radio in decades, because if he did, he'd be amazed to discover that, as ever, it's still full of the schlocky love songs he seems to think have disappeared. He scorns Rod Stewart's early singing as "a postmodernist's dream, able to impart multiple levels of meaning, from the scurrilous to the supercilious, to any lyric," and praising Stewart's American Songbook albums as moving away from the "flippancy" of the likes of "Maggie May." Well, someone's dreaming.

Gioia's straw grasping isn't limited to music. He points to the Harry Potter phenomenon as an archetypal "postcool trend," since apparently no one anticipated that the "big thing for kids at the start of the new millennium would be to read eight-hundred-page novels." J.R.R. Tolkien receives zero mentions in this book. Discussing the movies' response to late-'50s cool, Gioia writes: "The studios eventually learned that actors could do a better job of embodying this modern archetype than the musicians themselves. Of course, a real cool jazz icon would be more honest and true to life than a Hollywood construct--but when was coolness ever about true to life?" Answer: about four pages earlier, when Gioia described Method acting as "a type of stage jazz--emphasizing improvisation, spontaneity, and channeling the experiences of a lifetime into the intensity of a moment put on display for public consumption."

Gioia posits the 2008 presidential election as a signature "postcool" moment, not only due to "Obama's almost complete indifference to the cool trappings of celebrityhood" (tell it to Oprah), but also because John McCain "tried to embrace the unpretentious and natural in his campaign, never more markedly than in his choice of the moose-hunting mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, as his running mate. When had two candidates worked so hard to be unhip?" Who was Ralph Nader's running mate again?

Gioia has serious problems with chronology. Bill Cosby's controversial May 2004 speech ridiculing Ebonics, he says, coincides with the period in which Eddie Murphy was making movies like Dr. Doolittle, which came out in 1998. "Jim Carrey was the hottest comedian in the country at this moment in American history," he writes, oblivious to Carrey's hot moment actually occurring a decade earlier. Cosby may be a symbol of post-cool, but Gioia's book outs its author as a full-on square.

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