Tuesday, July 9, 2024

What is Cool Anyway?

As a young man growing up, there was one status symbol I never achieved. That was to be cool. Even today, I know ‘what I wasn’t’ but still can’t grasp what it was that I thought ‘I wanted to be.’

Back in the day, there seemed to be one sure guideline to follow on the pathway to ‘coolness.’ Since appearances meant everything for an impressionable young boy, Playbook Magazine seemed to have it down to a tee. The slick glossy tabloid to all things hip covered the whole spectrum of ‘cool’ things, places, people and attitudes.

Playboy told me that this coolness was reflected in the arts, architecture, music, film, and dozens of other esoteric cerebral ventures of commerce. It was all images and icons for hungry eyes like mine to take in. Playboy became ‘the’ major purveyor of that message when a young editor, operating out of old Cow Town, started up his own journal to herald and embellish this new scene for the cool set.

That illusion of something special was embellished, relished, and enriched by the monthly unfolding of Playbook centerfolds, cool cars, hot bachelor pads, and jazz. On the musical front, I never understood that among the hip crowd, jazz spoke a language only they understood. I was more of a folkie type.

Outside of that fantasy world of bunnies, bachelor pads and cool cars, there existed the ordinary mundane life I was living. In that world of teenage angst, lust, confusion and pipe dreams, a plethora of quirky and colorful characters defined their lives and occupied ours by their dress, style, mannerisms and diction. It was a world of first images that held tight behind a façade of individuality, which, of course, it never really was. The birth of this grand illusion began about the same time I entered the world. It morphed, grew more sophisticated and finally presented itself at the most opportune time….the late Forties and early Fifties.

After World War Two, there was a migration of artist types to the West Coast, primarily California. Coupled with a burgeoning economy, thriving new industries and glorious weather, the West Coast became a mecca for the average Joe as well as his beatnik cousins. I caught wind of this seismic shift in American culture through an art exhibit at a California Art Museum several years later. The museum recreated their exhibit in a coffee table book which I bought.

‘Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture of Midcentury’ was one of the most ambitious exhibitions ever organized on this seminal period, encompassing the painting, architecture, furniture design, decorative and graphic arts, film, and music that launched mid-century modernism in the United States and established Los Angeles as a major American cultural center.

This was before the late Fifties and early Sixties swept me into the teen world of class and cult and sexual misinformation. There were the hard guys with their slick hairstyles and choppers and hot rods. The jocks with their letter jackets. The Brains hid out in the library with their books and slide rulers. And every school had its cache of rich bitches (male and female) with their parent’s money and cars. These cool kids had it all in one form or another. They were all ‘with it’, except maybe the Brains. Everybody envied the Brains because they were going to be our bosses sometime in the future.

In high school and even college, the rest of us were merely background distractions for those crowds of easily identifiable clichés. We were simply invisible fill-in wallpaper to their exciting fun-filled lives.

I came of age (but never broken through) back in the Sixties when all the cool music, cool chicks and cool cars were emanating from Southern California. It was a mecca for immature, wonder-ing wandering minds like mine. The Beach Boys painted musical pictures that wetted my appetite for sand under foot and bikinis in sight.  Annette Funachello and Franky Avalon showed me what beachcomber life was all about, Hollywood style.

As cool as it is to think that one is cool, the concept can be a slippery slope, easy to feel but tough to grasp. It’s evolution in midcentury America now seems but a series of willful misunderstandings. It started out as black style but became white style. It was a response to alienation but became a mark of belonging. It came from the language of outsiders, but it became associated with very old ideas of about aristocracy and good taste.

After a lifetime of never being cool and accepting my fate as just average, I think I’ve stumbled upon the true meaning of cool. And from my own kin no less.

In retrospect, I think my granddaughters have shown me the new way of cool. Maya, age 17, Samantha, age 15 and Charlotte, age 12, have all embraced the style of mixing and matching vintage clothing with something new and modern. They’re cool because they’ve become masters of their own fashion sense.

Perhaps, doing your own thing is the ‘real’ cool thing to do. Follow no one else but let your heart and desire lead you on.  It means doing your own thing and ignoring the masses or cult favorites or TikTok glimmers of the silly and insane.

Past symbols of ‘cool’ are now old enough that they’re coming back in a strange amalgamation of form and style. The younger set sees them as new and trendy. Veterans of the movement see a resurgence of a colorful past. Me, I see form and function but little else.

Sadly, even now that I have an idea of what cool is, I don’t think I’m there yet and probably never will be. I’m just going to continue doing what I want to do. So, if doing your own thing is now the cool thing to do, maybe I’ve finally made the grade.


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