Is Cool Even Cool Anymore?

One thing’s for certain: nothing’s funny anymore. Once upon a time, say back in the Middle Ages, monarchs and jesters held the mutual understanding that mocking the king in front of the court was fine, so long as there was a grain of truth to the jest.

Today comedians say their audience has become a puritan sourpuss, and one of the reasons for the so-called death of comedy is that the very bite humor is supposed to provide has become impossible in an era of information warfare and no shared truths, making comedians pariahs in the kingdom of cancel culture. And, as Danny Kaye put it in a film long ago, a jester unemployed is nobody’s fool. 

So while nothing’s funny anymore — at least not intentionally — is anything cool, or have we lost that, too?

Miles Davis and Elvis Presley were contemporaries, albeit in very different genres. But surely both would agree that walking around in sweatpants looking like the contestant on a dystopian game show who fights robots for food, and hunching over a smartphone texting your way down the sidewalk, all while clad in a government-mandated face mask, doesn’t exactly give you an air of devil-may-care savoir faire. And while we’re on the subject of masks, what you do in your own bedroom is apparently none of the government’s business, but what you do in your dining room is. Which means holiday season 2020 might be the first time in history when attending a large family gathering is actually cooler than blowing it off.

Maybe cool is just a past-date product of midcentury America, as outdated as a gas-guzzling Oldsmobile. Perhaps we’ve outgrown it. The times we live in are too sober and serious, and cool can only be viewed through the kind of wistful nostalgia the middle-aged indulge in when fondly remembering youthful indiscretions. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and the default mode of American life has not undergone a sclerosis of soul, but rather regressed to level of collective immaturity too timid to even conceive the audacity of cool.

Cool flourished in the era of affluence and suburban expansion, producing popular icons such as Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” and James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” But now everyone has a cause, or at least feels he ought to, just so long as it’s social and human, not cosmic or divine. It used to be cool to hang out in coffee houses, smoke cigarettes, and plaintively lament one’s existential despair. The problem with today’s problems is that, compared to wrestling with God and the meaning of existence, they’re just so banal. Or rather so serious, since it’s often hard to tell them apart. 

Both comedy and coolness require an outsider’s detachment, an ironic stance, a posture of revolt and the garb of resistance. By that I mean real resistance, not the socially approved kind, which is not resistance at all. A popular meme says that if all your opinions are shared by Hollywood, Silicon Valley, corporate America, mainstream media and the universities, you’re probably not part of any kind of “rebellion.” But convincing yourself you don’t care what anyone thinks is easier said than done, since in order for it to work you have to actually mean it. That’s tough enough for anyone, let alone those whose ego stability is dependent on social media likes from their peers. And so the movie industry keeps feeding us characters who are brazen and seductive outcasts — Vikings, pirates, vampires, superpowered mutants — who flout convention and provide us with an outlet for the dark shadow of defiance lying dormant within us. 

As far as impassiveness and aplomb go, no one matches the Roman Stoics, who bequeathed to us a nugget of untarnishable wisdom: namely, that you cannot control external events, only your reaction to them. It’s just not cool to run around like a chicken with your head cut off, especially on the Internet. So for God’s sake get a grip, suck it up, cool your jets, and keep your head about you while all those around you are losing theirs. These timeless bits of wisdom owe as much to Marcus Aurelius as they do to Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neumann circa 1960, with his motto of “What, me worry?” and beret of a Greenwich Village beatnik.  

At this point you might be saying all this is pointless twaddle. People are dying — actually people are always dying — and “cool” is a shallow indulgence we can’t afford right now. But saying cool isn’t cool anymore simply proves that it is indeed dead. Yet this is at odds with your actions, since you’re still consuming from sunup to sundown. Every new Netflix show to binge watch, every fashion collection that drops, every music video that goes viral is judged, by you, for its coolness. It’s just that this kind of cool is prepackaged, passively consumed, and anodyne. Real cool isn’t something that can be bought. It is an ontological state, an active presence, a spirit that permeates your being and surrounds you with an energy field that silently speaks of spontaneous actions that could burst forth at any moment.

This is a spirit that will never completely die, for its origins are not entirely human. To borrow from Baudelaire when writing on beauty, cool contains within it something that’s of the moment and something that’s eternal. Which is why five hundred years ago Machiavelli could utter the timeless adage “The world belongs to the cool of head.”

If that’s true, of course, then it means the world doesn’t belong to everyone. And that, in these troubled times, is simply not cool. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

26 Comments on "Is Cool Even Cool Anymore?"

  1. Mr. Chensvold, you might want to get an idea of what is en vogue before attempting to critique it. Folks out trend-chasing are rarely wearing sweatpants.

  2. The best essay I have read in decades!

  3. Calling comedians “pariahs of cancel culture” misses the opportunity to see comedy as a form of action and consequence. If a comedian tells a joke that the audience doesn’t like, then it is not the fault of the audience, but that of the comedian. That failure, like any outcome, has consequences. I think the assumption that “nothing’s funny anymore” is an overreaction to the something the author just doesn’t like and attempts to belittle without understanding. Perhaps a deeper read of the stoics would help him see the problem in using such a basis for this article.

  4. Well, I liked it CC. Bravo.

  5. Old School Tie | November 16, 2020 at 12:49 pm |

    I seriously doubt that my idea of cool or that of the author would be considered cool by the majority young people these days. If their idea of cool is not Steve McQueen – and it most certainly is not – then poor old Steve is no longer cool. The same with comedy, funniness is defined by consensus too….if the majority do not find it funny then it is not. When your idea of cool or funny is no longer the accepted standard……it is because you are old.

  6. Thank you Mr. C for your perspicacious perspective on coolness. “Is cool even cool anymore” reads like a Zen koan.

    Ultimately the essence of coolness is boredom, flourishing in an era of “affluence and suburban expansion”, as the author describes. For most Americans, this tumultuous year has been anything but boring, ushering in a steady stream of stress, anxiety, and the loss of status. It’s like the Chinese curse of “May you live in interesting times”.

    My hope for next year is that the the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction and everything will return to being boring, predictable, steady, and stable; in a word: COOL!

  7. I keep hearing about massive amounts of stress and anxiety, but that is somehow lost on me.
    We take ourselves too seriously, and have lost the ability to see humor in our own behavior. Comedians fail because nowadays someone is always offended by something.
    Humanity brought this on themselves by playing G, and are crying because our leader doesn’t take it away as quickly.
    Overpopulation is the main cause of environmental change, so this is the creators way of shaking the Etch-a-Sketch.

  8. Whoa, Mr. C. I used to come here for the good rolls pics and occasional social-sartorial critique, but I’m digging where you have turned your focus lately. Don’t listen to the calls to “stay in your lane”. Too much of the current discourse is monosyllabic and forced. Good faith, heterodox opinion is always in style.

    @ZJP, the comedian/audience relationship is reciprocal. If an audience doesn’t find a joke funny, it could just be a bad joke. Another possibility is that the listener is incapable of receiving criticism of a strongly held belief in the form of a joke. CC’s jester analogy is more in line with how at least some comedians see their role in society.

  9. This drivel is really becoming inane. Are you seriously suggesting a large Thanksgiving gathering? Well, enjoy your turkey now and your Covid-19 in time for Christmas! And for Christ’s sake, wear your f&^%ing mask!

  10. Spot on, Christian, and much needed at this time. The criticisms above seem to have missed the forest for the trees.
    Also: Anyone who doesn’t think Steve McQueen is cool clearly has not spent even 5 minutes watching him!

  11. Scary_Cooper | November 16, 2020 at 4:20 pm |

    At the risk of sounding square, there is nothing cool about smoking cigarettes or riding motorcycles on a public street without a helmet.

  12. This piece was introduced some nice levity into my afternoon. For some reason Hunter S. Thompson came to mind after reading this.

  13. Scary_Cooper I don’t think that was the point.

  14. Vern Trotter | November 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm |

    Meanwhile, the Dow is poised to scale the ramparts at 30,000 on news of the new vaccines! Now that is cool.

  15. ‘butcept comedy is far from dead. Quite the opposite. Stand-up comedians enjoy a popularity today not seen since the Richard Pryor/ Eddie Murphy days, buoyed by podcasts, streaming specials, and pandemic-era drive-in movie theater shows. Guess it’s easy to just say “comedians say”, or “my friends say”, or “many say”, without doing any research.

    We can all agree that cancel culture isn’t cool, though comedians are far from the only victims.

    Thinking for yourself is cool. Dressing how you feel is cool. I suppose being a contrarian or writing pieces to draw eyeballs/ comments to a website could be cool. Charlie Croker wasn’t cool.

  16. nunya bidness | November 16, 2020 at 7:03 pm |

    great writing…..

    forget cool, this article was badass

  17. A turd on an iceberg is cool. But not necessarily a good thing.

  18. McQeen, Brando, Dean, Newman and Dylan all rode their Trumps without helmets on the streets. They wore helmets in competition which was the thing at their time. They all smoked, everybody did then.
    Christ, forty years ago you could smoke on commercial airliners and the drinks were free.
    These guys aren’t necessarily cool because of what they did professionally, it’s their personal style.

  19. C,

    Excellent piece – you nailed it. Thanks!

    Cheers, BC

  20. Matthew Reichlin | November 17, 2020 at 7:35 am |

    Perhaps young people are enmeshed in anxiety and existential dread, but not the good kind. But that is far from the opposite of boring. it heightens the boredom because it allows someone to fall into inaction, only salved at least in attempt, by trying to work up outrage over something. I don’t believe most people are feeling any real compassion anymore. Just the feel-good of empathy and outrage.

    The point is not that comedians aren’t funny anymore. It’s that they’re not allowed to speak what is still funny, shocking, outrageous, and rings true. when they say it there is always someone standing by to cancel them over it, even though the rest of us say wow that was cutting and hilarious, and made me think in a way it never could have otherwise.

    An excellent essay with great shape and form and also very thought-provoking. Of course cool changes it’s outer trappings. But there is something essential about it that never changes, yet when one tries to put one’s finger on it, it vanishes, and it wouldn’t be cool if it didn’t. That’s the problem with the manufactured cool of today. Not that there wasn’t an element of that back in the good old days, and many a corporation cashed in on Steve McQueen Miles Davis and Elvis Presley.

    One can say that Steve McQueen just isn’t cool anymore. But I would disagree. A young person might not even be aware of Steve McQueen. Another might eschee his masculine demeanor, or dig up some dirt on how he treated his wife. But like the scold standing by to insist that that joke that made us laugh uncontrollably, they are merely trying to tell us what is not cool. They have little or no consequence in terms of what actually is.

    I don’t want to live in a world in which Steve McQueen is not cool. Fortunately I don’t

  21. Nice piece, CC. The idea of coolness started dying once the ‘establishment’ co-opted it and almost none of the cool people noticed, I guess.

    @ZJP: what can you know of the Stoics, as you unthinkingly mouth the imbecilities of the chatterati?

    @Old School Tie: newsflash- coolness was never a popularity contest

  22. @JJ Katz: I know that harm comes from deceiving oneself into thinking that it is everyone else that has gone soft.

  23. Great stuff, Christian.

  24. Cool is still relevant and still around us, but it is kind of like the quote on pornography – I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it! If you can’t look at the way some of the people on Blazer wear their clothes and show their style and say “Now that’s cool!”, maybe the problem is more internal than external. And Steve McQueen’s wardrobe and attitude are still cool, and I hope they will ever remain so.

  25. There’s so much to unpack in this posting, but something in it made me immediately think of Tom Lehrer: I don’t think many people would call him “cool”, but I always loved his combo of comedy, intellect, Ivy heyday sensibility, even the sound of his voice.

  26. No, the things that were cool “back in my day” are not cool any more. Cool is a label applied by the youth.
    Giving a shit about something is cool. Perhaps it was novel to simply rebel by not playing along with mainstream society in the past, but this piece misses an important fact: what is cool changes over time.
    Also, let’s not unnecessarily conflate the two meanings of “cool” – one being calm and collected, and the other being stylish and attractive. They are different, and need not be the same.

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