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Kerouac, Cobain and the photos that define ‘American Cool’
March 21, 2014 12:07 PM   Subscribe

In the face of racism, the great African-American jazz saxophonist Lester Young was “cool.” Credited with bringing the word into the modern American vernacular, “I’m cool” wasn’t Young’s reference to the sunglasses he wore day and night on stage, or the saxophone slung across his shoulder. It was his response to a divided society, a way of saying that he was still in control...
posted by jim in austin (69 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was with them up until Joan Didion, whom I really enjoy as a writer, but whom I do not believe to be "cool." In that picture, she looks more pouty than "cool."
posted by mudpuppie at 12:12 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I'm not into "cool". Let me know when the American Portrait Gallery does their show on "spazzy nerds overwhelmed by emotion".
posted by benito.strauss at 12:15 PM on March 21 [6 favorites]


The exhibit is pretty good I thought, if you're in the DC area. In my opinion the photos were decent but nothing crazy for the most part, but the writeups of each person were what I found most interesting. Definitely recommend going early, before it gets crowded so you're not constantly waiting for someone to finish reading a sign.
posted by inigo2 at 12:23 PM on March 21


No Cab Calloway? Bullshit. List flagged for inadequate hepness.
posted by Lou Stuells at 12:23 PM on March 21 [11 favorites]


Very "cool" to see.

In Leroi Jones' (Amiri Baraka's) book, Blues People, he discusses this attitude of cool emerging as a direct response to the intense racist scrutiny, judgment, and persecution experienced by urban blacks in early 20th century America, along with the development of alternative clothing styles (zoot suits), etc., as was a way to passively signal non-compliance with the wider social norms of the white majority.

Though it gets little discussed these days in examinations of race in America, this dedication to non-assimilation was born out of a very legitimate concern around why a people should take on the values, attitudes, and clothing of their oppressors.

What is now considered hip-hop style / clothing is a direct extension of this tradition.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:24 PM on March 21 [15 favorites]


No Fonzie?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:26 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


What tobacco company sponsored this?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:27 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


I was with them up until Joan Didion

Are you kidding? Hell, she was the first person to leave New York City, because it had stopped being cool.
posted by gwint at 12:29 PM on March 21 [8 favorites]


I think they need to decide what cool really means. Otherwise, this is just a collection of photos of famous people that the curators liked.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:30 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


I could be wrong (this obviously isn't claiming to be an idea that no one's had before), but the exhibit reminds me a bit to much of The Impossible Cool, a blog that's been showcasing these sorts of photos for several years.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 12:37 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Following up on whimsicalnymph's comment to point out that the styles born of non-assimilation themselves become adopted and disseminated.
posted by Lou Stuells at 12:44 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Zoot suit with a reet pleat
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:53 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


this is just a collection of photos of famous people that the curators liked

This. The curators even came up with four criteria for cool and then ignored them for half the list.
posted by rocket88 at 12:54 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


... if Queen Latifah or Missy Elliott should represent women in hip-hop (the votes went to Elliott, Latifah landed on the alternative 100 list).

“We were not going to play politics just to create a gender mix,” said Dinerstein.


OK. Well. That explains that, I suppose.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:00 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


I was there until I got to Tony Hawk.

Tony Hawk is totally not at all cool. Even the picture is like uggghhhhhh L7 maaaaaaan
posted by Sara C. at 1:03 PM on March 21 [10 favorites]


No Cab Calloway? Bullshit. List flagged for inadequate hepness.

I feel the same about the lack of Patti Smith and/or Robert Mapplethorpe.
posted by Sara C. at 1:04 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


Yeah, these are definitely the guys I want determining who's cool and who isn't.
posted by neroli at 1:09 PM on March 21 [5 favorites]


Man, Aretha didn't even make the alternates list.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:13 PM on March 21


I would have placed someone like Jay Adams or Christian Hosoi over Tony Hawk. Tony Hawk is a legend but in the world of skateboarding there were others considered more "cool".
posted by cazoo at 1:15 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


One word: Ramones.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:19 PM on March 21 [7 favorites]


I was with them up until Joan Didion

Are you kidding? Hell, she was the first person to leave New York City, because it had stopped being cool.


Nah, that'd probably be Nathan Hale.

To be fair, the place was on fire and under martial law at the time.
 
posted by Herodios at 1:21 PM on March 21 [3 favorites]


Audrey may be Hep but she ain't cool.

Burn.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 1:27 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


No Cab Calloway? Bullshit. List flagged for inadequate hepness.

He wasn't cool. He was hip to the jive.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:29 PM on March 21


Oh, I forgot to mention. Cab Calloway was also all reet.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:32 PM on March 21


They use that picture of Jon Stewart (pg 12 of the list) but they couldn't find anything "cool" enough for George Carlin?

Also, are the people who get color pictures, like, extra cool?
posted by GrumpyDan at 1:33 PM on March 21


Looking at the full list now, does the fact that Miles Davis gets three portraits mean that he is triple cool?

I'm prepared to accept that Miles Davis is the coolest person in the last century.
posted by Sara C. at 1:43 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


It all started with Miles.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:44 PM on March 21


"Keep cool, but care."
posted by chavenet at 1:46 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Also, ugh, now that I see there's a long list and not just the folks on the PBS condensed link, yes of course Patti Smith is in. It's criminal that they didn't go with one of Mapplethorpe's iconic portraits of her, considering this is a show for the National PORTRAIT Gallery.
posted by Sara C. at 1:47 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


A lot of these pictures a much too posed to be cool. And a lot of these people are much too dorky to be cool. There's also a distinct lack of people who aren't American. Understandable if you go with the first meaning of "cool" used by Black Americans, but not really if you're going to include silly white dorks like Kurt Cobain.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:08 PM on March 21


Re the pictures being "posed", they're all formal portraits done by, in most cases, important photographers.

It's also a show for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Pretty much 100% of art they show in their exhibitions is either American photographers or American subjects.
posted by Sara C. at 2:14 PM on March 21


Don't confuse cool with hip. Very different things.

More important, don't confuse cool with popular or even charismatic;
for that way lies madness.

Hip is awareness, especially situational awareness, especially in a cultural context.

Cool is a position of self-determination and unflappability in the face of oppression or other bad medicine that life might throw your way. Cool is operating at a low emotional temperature. If you don't let circumstances -- or The Man -- ruffle your wig, you win that small territorial victory; and staying president-for-life over your own head-piece lets you get on with whatever it is you think you should be getting on with instead of losing sleep over what is somebody else's trip.

So-sorry, "stars"; cool might make you popular, but popularity will not make you cool. And only you know for sure how cool you really are.

And, in my estimation, if you can't maintain it without sunglasses, you're probably not cool, hear me? Take off the damn shades when you're being interviewed. Waddya fraid of?


Oh -- nice pictures, summumm.
 
posted by Herodios at 2:22 PM on March 21 [15 favorites]


I was there until I got to ...

Madonna? Seriously!?! It always felt she wanted it (whatever it is/was) way too much to be anything but a passing reflection of cool.
posted by philip-random at 2:24 PM on March 21 [6 favorites]


It's cool that everyone has a different take on cool...
posted by jim in austin at 2:28 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


Cool is operating at a low emotional temperature. If you don't let circumstances -- or The Man -- ruffle your wig,

not so much low emotional temperature as low expression of emotional temperature. The cool don't lose their heads while all around are losing theirs (and other stuff Kipling was onto way back when), but they also have that Bogart ability to not really do anything yet communicate an intensity so hot it's as if they're not so much smoking that cigarette as using it to camouflage all that heat-release.
posted by philip-random at 2:32 PM on March 21


Yeah, the other thing with Madonna is that her image was always so manufactured. She's a poppified version of a pastiche of people who are actually cool in the NYC downtown/underground.
posted by Sara C. at 2:50 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


It's very hard to be cool while posing for a portrait by an Important Photographer. Part of coolness is grounded in the Bohemian rejection of bourgeois ideals. Engaging with a photographer to get your portrait done is the epitome of bourgeois. What's a cool person going to do with a portrait? Hang it on their mantlepiece?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:53 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


soundtrack
posted by crazylegs at 2:54 PM on March 21


What's a cool person going to do with a portrait? Hang it on their mantlepiece?

These aren't family portraits from the Sears portrait studio. You can certainly be cool while still engaging in photography.
posted by girlmightlive at 3:10 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Artists often collaborate in the representation of an image. I'd argue that our traditional notions of coolness have everything to do with the development of a counter cultural persona and then participating in the mechanisms for presenting that persona to the public. I suppose there is a cool that doesn't give a shit about that sort of thing, but that's not the cool in display here. The cool here own its own representation.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:26 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


It's fun to see who cool people hang out with. Coolness is cumulative.
posted by Lou Stuells at 4:23 PM on March 21


I don't know what cool is, but I'm pretty sure nerdraging on the Internet about who got into a show at the National Portrait Gallery is an automatic DQ.
posted by yoink at 4:52 PM on March 21 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the other thing with Madonna is that her image was always so manufactured.

by her
posted by pyramid termite at 4:53 PM on March 21 [4 favorites]


I can't get the link working
posted by PinkMoose at 5:08 PM on March 21


“First,” Dinerstein said, “an originality of artistic vision as established through a signature style, which is to say their artistic vision cannot be separate from their personality. Second, that in a given historical moment, they were perceived as a cultural rebel. Third, that they have high profile recognition. Fourth, that they have a recognized cultural legacy.”

If "cool" requires at least a bit of subversiveness, then I think criteria #3 doomed this project from the get-go (and maybe #2 and #4 did, too). Big celebrities have to have mainstream appeal, which gives them basically no leeway for being actually subversive. So they are almost positively *not* going to be cool.

Regular people, on the other hand, can be assholes with virtually no mainstream appeal, so they're way more likely be subversive enough to be cool. I wish this show had showcased regular cool people, or at least people looking cool in photographs, instead of the big celebrities who the curators aren't embarrassed to still like.
posted by rue72 at 5:41 PM on March 21


I wish this show had showcased regular cool people, or at least people looking cool in photographs ...

Humans of New York.
posted by benito.strauss at 5:43 PM on March 21


Cool doesn't show up for pictures.
posted by Twang at 5:48 PM on March 21


Big celebrities have to have mainstream appeal, which gives them basically no leeway for being actually subversive.

Well, one could argue back and forth endlessly about what "actually subversive" means, but there are lots of big celebrities who were also perceived as dangerously counter-cultural in one way or another; Elvis, The Beatles, James Dean, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Marlon Brando, The Stones, Muhammad Ali etc. etc. etc. I mean, unless you define "celebrity" really, really narrowly to mean something like "universally beloved and never ruffled a feather" some sort of frisson of potential cultural rebellion is a classic hallmark of "celebrity" from Lord Byron onwards.
posted by yoink at 5:51 PM on March 21


Zoot suit with a reet pleat

w/Side Vents. Five. Inches. Long.
posted by ovvl at 5:52 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


Zoot suit with a reet pleat

w/Side Vents. Five. Inches. Long.


Fried. Dyed. Laid to the side...
posted by jim in austin at 6:28 PM on March 21


/r/oldschoolcool

I really enjoy this one because it's not just celebs. People send in photos of grandma or grandpa when they were young, beautiful, and looking so relaxed in their black leather coat or white disco suit.
posted by honestcoyote at 7:11 PM on March 21 [5 favorites]


I was there until I got to Tony Hawk.

Everyone who might have been questionable got a pass after I saw David Byrne. David Byrne? I know you gotta throw something out of left field in there to get people worked up, but was Weird Al or Billy Corgan not available? That was sarcasm.
posted by bongo_x at 9:06 PM on March 21 [1 favorite]


No Chuck Yeager, no Pete Seeger, no Sister Rosetta Tharpe? No Mitch Hedberg, no Jaco? Not even a Slick Willy.
. . .
Madonna?!? *click*

David Byrne?! . . . They're f^*{in' with us, rite?
on preview - oh good. Whew.

posted by petebest at 9:09 PM on March 21


zack_replica, I respectfully disagree. the Ramones weren't cool. The Ramones were Punk. Punk, real punk, was not cool. Punk was for all the kids that got beaten up by the cool kids. For the angry spazzes, and pimply losers. Hard Rock, embodied by "cool bands" like Foreigner and Boston was for the cool kids. A mistake that's easy to make now that punk, and nerd culture are "cool".
posted by evilDoug at 5:35 AM on March 22 [1 favorite]


I also object to Kerouac and any of the early Beats being there...they were "mad," "crazy," overflowing with energy, energized by all the freedoms they were finally feeling after shucking the strictures of all that American sameness. My books are all in storage thus no cites, but I vaguely remember several instances of Cool people looking down on Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg because of how "hot" they were.

If you can think in terms of jazz, the Beats were bebop. The later stereotype of the Beats (which they all hated, btw) was of the cool jazz period, and they weren't as into that. It was all Bird Parker and bebop.
posted by nevercalm at 6:45 AM on March 22


Kerouac was also a big fan of Slim Gaillard, and that guy was a maniac.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:18 AM on March 22


Like most people my age, I always defer to Homerpalooza when the question of cool comes up.

Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I'm glad. And that's what makes me cool, not caring, right?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we've tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you're truly cool, you don't need to be told you're cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?

posted by The Card Cheat at 7:54 AM on March 22 [3 favorites]


Yeah, the other thing with Madonna is that her image was always so manufactured.

by her


Sure, but the very act of manufacture makes her not cool.

Being studied and deliberate is by nature not cool.
posted by Sara C. at 12:34 PM on March 22


I was once told I was cool. Later, I realized it was the sunglasses.
posted by philip-random at 12:39 PM on March 22


Sure, but the very act of manufacture makes her not cool.

and someone like frank sinatra or james dean was never manufactured or marketed?

Being studied and deliberate is by nature not cool.

well, so much for miles davis and charlie parker

and if you don't think they were studied and deliberate in their preparation as musicians, they certainly were
posted by pyramid termite at 1:37 PM on March 22


It's not that someone can never be "marketed" if they are cool. We'd never have heard of anyone in this list without PR. But Madonna isn't just effortlessly herself. Her whole persona was based on other NYC downtown types who predated her, and who were actually cool.

Also, when I say "studied" I don't mean "anyone who ever learned how to do anything". There's just something so premeditated and artificial about her. If you hire professional coolhunters to find out what your next image transition should be about, you're not cool, pretty much by definition.

Madonna is perfectly OK as a human being. But cool? No. Madonna is the antithesis of cool.
posted by Sara C. at 1:45 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]


It's fun to see who cool people hang out with. Coolness is cumulative.
I'd never describe Russell Brand nor Neil Gaiman as "cool". Brand is far too manic and energetic (cool requires a certain remove and calm), and Gaiman is too famous for being famous to deserve the adjective.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:23 PM on March 22


Also, when I say "studied" I don't mean "anyone who ever learned how to do anything". There's just something so premeditated and artificial about her. If you hire professional coolhunters to find out what your next image transition should be about, you're not cool, pretty much by definition.

I actually think everyone does it that way, 100%, just some people are much better at concealing it than others, and different people notice the brushstrokes in others.
posted by bongo_x at 4:01 PM on March 22


That's... not true.

At least it's not true for the sort of people on this list. Miles Davis didn't have a focus group to tell him to record Kind Of Blue.
posted by Sara C. at 4:33 PM on March 22 [2 favorites]


Sorry, I misread your part about hiring professionals. I was referring to to cool being purposeful and studied. The previous comment was about Madonna’s image being manufactured by her. I’m sure Miles thought long and hard about what was cool and worked at it.

To some people Madonna appears fake and studied, to someone else Miles did.
posted by bongo_x at 9:36 PM on March 22 [1 favorite]


Savages was a stupid movie, but my goodness if Benicio Del Toro didn't look cool in every single frame of the movie. Even when homegirl spat on his face towards the end of the movie, he continued to rock that shit and remained badass as hell.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:48 AM on March 23


Was I the only one automatically checking Miles for urine stains?
posted by thelonius at 4:27 PM on March 23


The Dapper Rebels of Los Angeles 1966
posted by gucci mane at 10:22 PM on March 23 [1 favorite]


evilDoug: I suppose that's why I always thought that the Ramones were cool, as they were doing something different and original and not-mainstream. Like Devo, who were so anti-cool they sublimated into something different entirely. In light of Boston and the rest of the "cool" bands from the time, I can see your point.
I still think the Ramones are as cool as hell though.
posted by Zack_Replica at 1:26 PM on March 25


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