The Rules of the Game No. 14: The death of the cool

But did it ever exist in the first place?

Frank Kogan

Question for the brain trust: Is Britney Spears cool? I don’t mean, is it cool to like her? Rather, is she herself cool? (Okay, it’s a trick question, because as you’ll see I don’t think coolness is to be found anywhere on the social landscape, not anymore.)

I haven’t come near to figuring out what Britney’s new single, “Gimme More,” is making me feel. It’s clearly a work of art, an insinuating dance number with these grabbily niggling little vocal wavelets building and building to intensity at the end. Produced by Timbaland protégé Danjahandz, it’s more groove than song, Britney being blatantly sexual, whispering and singing with an electronic breathiness, no pretty melodies or hooks, more hard than seductive. Excellent, but maybe not what I was wanting. I’d hoped for a warm, messy rage song, something to represent her recent spaz-out or the way on her website that she keeps flicking verbal whips into people’s eyeballs. But perhaps in going sexy she’s reaching for the one asset or weapon she thinks she has left. I do hear a rage in this, in her breath-of-a-slut singing, though maybe that’s just my projection. The lyrics (which she didn’t write) are about exhibitionism, Britney getting all hot with some guy and a crowd of onlookers calling for more, and she goes, “They want more, well, I’ll give ’em more.” Appropriate for a girl who can’t help exposing herself. Feels like defiance; gets under my skin. So maybe it is what I want, when I want to be uncomfortable.

Now that Paris has been beaten down, Britney seems like the last remaining public figure who’s not trying to say the right thing. (Latest nonapology apology on her web page: “I apologize to the pap for a stunt that was done 4 months ago regarding an umbrella. I was preparing my character for a role in a movie where the husband never plays his part so they switch places accidentally. I take all my roles very seriously and got a little carried away. Unfortunately I didn’t get the part.” She also forgot the part of the apology where she’s supposed to show remorse.) Skeptics might argue that she’s so far gone as to not know what she’s supposed to say, though I’ll point out—I realize this will disillusion the more idealistic among you—that occasionally the tabloids and the gossip sites report an item as fact that turns out not to be true. So maybe we don’t really know Britney’s state of mind.

But yeah, in the public imagination, Britney’s far gone, and—whether I know better or not—her being way out there, defiant, or whatever she is, feels like some kind of integrity to me.

But now, to that notion of cool—though actually, when I think about it, I realize I don’t know quite what my notion of cool is, so this is another concept, like class, which you all will have to help me figure out. Britney is relevant because she’s something like the opposite of cool—which isn’t to say she’s square, but that she’s certainly not demonstrating sangfroid or grace under pressure. Rather, she’s messing up, acting out. But my hypothesis is that this acting out—a messy recalcitrance—is trying to accomplish what cool was once meant to.

Which is what? There are a bunch of ideas of cool. There is the African-derived one of grace under fire, which isn’t cold coolness, in fact can have intensity and passion; Robert Farris Thompson and Michael Ventura (from whose Hear That Long Snake Moan I filched this idea) related it to the concept of soul and find its ancestry deep in African religion—a parallel to being possessed by a deity, possession not being a loss of control but being inhabited by a higher spirit. But then in the context of American racism you need the concept of a dark critical mind. Back in 1962, Clancy Sigal, in his memoir Going Away, explained why he wished he were part of a black family: “The Negroes I know—mostly northern people—are the most sophisticated individuals I know ... By sophisticated, I mean they have had more time than I, and my second-generation immigrant pals, to perfect their defenses against the truncheons, rubber and figurative.” But then also (this not being whom Sigal meant) there are hipsters and cool crowds, coolness still being a way of surviving in a distorting and destructive institutional environment, but containing a subterranean kind of mockery—a critical detachment from the situation that the overseers don’t necessarily understand as criticism, jiu-jitsu moves where you use your adversary’s own motion to get around him.

But I don’t know if in my personal experience “cool” every really existed. Maybe it was only there as potential. I stopped believing in cool around 1970, when I stopped being intimidated by the freaks but also started liking them more, as accessible screwed-up individuals. But I even remember back at age 12, 1966, telling my friend Dave Kinsman that if I ever started acting cool he had to come over and tell me to stop. ’Cause the cool people were cruel people, a lot of them, were the bullies and the sarcastic guys. Yes, they were running evasive dances around the truncheon or even taking it on the chin and standing up to or outside of authority, for sure, but using needles and knife-thrusts that they’d aim at anyone at hand, anyone vulnerable, not just at the truncheon-wielders. And some of their “cool” was just boring nastiness and fear, actually—fear of anyone’s engagement, passion, most especially their own. It was a coolness that ended up trapped in its shield, so to speak. And so it seemed in its bad aspects not a way to knowledge but a turning against knowledge.

Ultimately, that’s what sophistication, cool, is about: knowledge. To be hip you have to be hip to something. And maybe a good balance is just unattainable. In the school environment there’s official knowledge, which is what teachers are supposed to teach, and unofficial knowledge, how to get along with or get around authority, how to talk to or get around your peers; and there’s illicit knowledge: drugs and sex and cigarettes and dealing and partying and earning money, adult prerogatives that some kids are going to go for without waiting for the grown-ups to dole them out piecemeal, thank you. But to go for official knowledge seems to implicate you in a system that hurts a lot of people, marks them as losers. But a lot of the other knowledge, unofficial and illicit, also seems to come accompanied by fists, or even requires that you throw punches. Which isn’t to say that you can’t get a sophisticated sense of this world, and find a way to walk through it. It’s just life, after all.

But where coolness—or any knowledge—stumbles is when it becomes the attribute of a particular class. So insight stops being something you gain, by reaching out of yourself, and seems to be something you get merely by adopting a style and a set of friends, knowledge being restricted to their knowledge. Eventually the beats and freaks became the death of cool, and I’ve never seen any successors.

In 1987, along with my first-ever year-end Pazz & Jop ballot in the Village Voice, I sent P&J editor Robert Christgau a long, heartfelt letter in which I said that cool was as dead as God. A lot of it was my disappointment with the post-punk

indie-alternative world, which now was just another mediocre counterculture. I could no longer discern a “cool” path to knowledge, a cool area on the musical map or a functional way to grace under pressure, and the music that was moving me and teaching me was being made by smart screw-ups like Spoonie Gee and Michael Jackson and by open-hearted nitwits like Teena Marie, people who were desperately and passionately involved (that’s a phrase I nicked from a piece on the Shangri-Las by Richard Goldstein back in 1965). So the performers who were reaching me didn’t have a stylish way to insight—more like they were bumbling their way around. And I told Bob that I believed that the old punk rock I had once loved still had something to offer the world, its legacy, which was that we’d known we were f--ked and had made an issue of it.

And now unpredictable Britney keeps unexpectedly showing up on my emotional radar, bumbling forward, a few flashes of intransigence and potential integrity before she flashes out. But there’s another single I’m also liking this week. Dutch duo Hi_Tack just put out a remix of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” Last year they’d done a poignantly beautiful remix of Michael Jackson’s “Say Say Say,” simply repeating and working on the line “And all alone, I sit home by the phone, I waited for you,” as if it were this ever-rolling tragedy. On “Let’s Dance” they go in an opposite direction, keeping the song intact but adding burbles and bumps, getting even more spaciness out of Niles Rodgers’ guitar. What catches me especially—something I could have gotten out of the original, if I’d bothered to notice—is a hauntingness David brings to the phrase “let’s dance” and to the invitation, “Put on your red shoes and dance to the blues.” I’d previously thought of his singing on this as rather clumsy, his voice getting thick with age, but now I’m hearing a blazingly romantic sadness. But also, that line, “Put on your red shoes and dance to the blues,” captures something that people used to try to achieve by way of cool, but coolness no longer being available, other strategies are called upon.

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