Like many a Duke undergrad, I spent my summer doing research. I was out at the College of Temporary Dwellings in Albuquerque, N. M., reading extensively about social trends in our country and compiling a paper "relating to a specific topic to be used toward furthering the knowledge base of the academic community as a whole." That, at least, is what I told the committee who gave me the grant. Taking into the account the limitations of my current publication format, I've condensed my findings, which are entitled "Cool, Past & Present: A Discursive Inquiry Into the Concept of Cool in The United States, 1956-2005" into a slightly more accessible format. It is by no means complete and will seem far too broad to those of you out there who have done similar research, but it is a subject nonetheless that I feel people should hear about, academic formality be damned!
What, then, is cool? To me, cool began sometime around 1955 with the release of Rebel Without A Cause. In it, Jim Stark, played by James Dean, struggles to fit in at a new high school and, in the process of doing so, establishes himself as a template for coolness to the post-WWII and Baby Boomer populations. Stark's coolness can be broken down into 5 characteristics which, throughout the history of cool, work on an equilibrium curve, sometimes some are more important than others and vice versa. They are:
Sincerity-Above all, a cool person must mean what they say. Always.
Saying little, meaning lots-A cool person does not go on for hours about anything. He or she just says what they have to and that's all.
Compassion-Cool people are compassionate, even if it remains below the surface of their street persona.
A dopey sidekick-This is the person who most directly looks up to the cool person. In turn, the cool person both uplifts and councils the lackey. It is an essential, mutually beneficial relationship.
Side-head kiss-Cool people do not kiss on the lips the first time. They are way too cool for that, just like James Dean.
For the most part, those five characteristics extend from 1953 (thereby including the coolness of the young Marlon Brando) until 1965 and the introduction of early psychedelic cool. This cool combined marijuana smoking cool, rock-and-roll cool and early LSD cool and occupied the years 1965 to 1969. This is a slightly misunderstood though well publicized age of cool, as many feel the nexus of cool (i.e. cool participants) is larger than it indeed was. The Summer of Love in 1967, the music festival at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 and the acid-crazed adventures of Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters epitomize the era. This era was also California-based, as was the 1953-1965 time period (a.k.a. Postwar Youth Alienation/Rebellion period). It is widely accepted that the Altamont disaster coupled with the bombing of Cambodia by President Richard Nixon ended this period of more peaceful cool.
While Britain had factored into U.S. cool consistently since February 1964 and the appearance of the Beatles, its influence exploded as 1969 closed and Led Zeppelin hit the scene. For the next 10 years, Zeppelin would reign as the coolest band around, carrying suitcases full of cash, doing heroin, coke and pot and buying jet liners. They are also related to the 'drug cool' subgroup present in the United States from the mid to late '60s through the present, though drugs have consistently been cool across the worldwide spectrum of space and time.
My research ultimately revealed that while many cool things happened during the 1980s, they are probably not worth mentioning here. The last cool strain I briefly want to touch on is what I call 'O.G. cool,' or Original Gangster cool. It's the phase we are closest to today and emphasizes both an outer toughness and an inner compassion. Therefore, a cool person is one who can represent on the street but still cool it with homies in the crib. This exciting trend, in my opinion, deserves further inquiry.
I honestly can't believe I study this crap.
Aaron Kirschenfeld is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.
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