A few weeks ago Roger L. Simon announced The Death of Cool and remembered his first encounter with the sexy idol:
Back when I was a kid, I desperately wanted to be cool. I endlessly played my Miles Davis Birth of the Cool LP and devoured Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — not to mention Kerouac whom I saw when I was fifteen reading from The Subterraneans at Hunter College auditorium while swigging from a bottle of Scotch he had brought with him. (I thought that was cool.)
It was fifth grade and the new elementary school in Indiana where I’d just enrolled was having a ’50s dance. Everyone was supposed to come in ’50s style clothes and then we’d take off our shoes and have a “sock hop.” Most girls were to wear poodle skirts and boys were expected to sport the greaser look a la John Travolta. My Boomer Dad had other plans, though. He pulled his vintage copy of Howl off the shelf, read a few lines from it, and suggested I go as a beatnik. I don’t remember if I took his suggestion. I think I did. Or at least at some point I put on the black sweat pants, black turtle neck, black beret, dark sunglasses, and brown sandals costume. Of course it was exciting as an 11 year old to have adult-sanctioned F-WORDs. I could say the F-WORD if it was followed by “yourself with your atom bomb.” Game on.
Rule for Baby Boomers: Your counterculture icons can either be cool or costumes for your children, but they cannot be both.
Additional Rule for Gen Xers: It’s way too soon for Kurt Cobain Halloween costumes for your toddlers. Please. And no it won’t be hip and ironic if you include a little toy shotgun along with the flannel. Your Gen Y siblings and co-workers still think Nirvana is cool.
And make no mistake about it — cool was oppressive. It told you how to be and what to be. In some ways cool was the inverse of itself. It was the enemy of freedom while pretending to be its apostle. Nowadays there is nothing more square than to be cool. So feel free to be whatever you want to be.
You may even be cool again. In a new way.
Cool was indeed oppressive — and let’s talk about what drove the Vampire to drink blood:
- Kerouac drank himself to death, essentially slow suicide. (But he was really cool each step of the way! So who cares if he was miserable?)
- William S. Burroughs — the muse behind Ginsberg and the rest of the beats — was a heroin addict who killed his common law wife.
- Cobain regularly injected himself with heroin, committed suicide, and married Courtney Love (three acts that are all variations of the the same thing).
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author Hunter S. Thompson was an alcoholic and a drug addict who committed suicide in 2005.
- Mailer had SIX wives and his drinking was legendary.
I’ll leave Jimi Hendrix, another fallen Boomer icon, to name Cool’s mother and father by name:
Cool, as it has been willed into existence in the post-World War II era, is an artistic expression of the self-destructive, suicidal temperament of a bipolar mind. Others with more credibility on scientific matters and psychology (See Touched with Fire: Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament) can back me up on this. From the same well of tempestuous emotion that fuels vivid artistic creation also flows the overwhelming self-hatred that drives both the internal suicide of drug addiction and the political suicide that comes from undermining every life-sustaining institution that has enabled Western civilization to rise from barbarism.
Thus, it is cool to destroy yourself. That has been the essence of cool since America had the luxury for it to be after winning World War II.
So what happens when the Silent Generation suicide cool is embraced by Baby Boomers just beginning adulthood in the late ’60s and early ’70, only to be institutionalized by them in the ’80s and ’90s?
Andrew Klavan wrote about it:
I often joke with my wife that I wish my generation — the Baby Boomers — could die without taking me with them. I’d sure as hell like to be around to see them go. They ruined the culture of this country, threw away the untold riches bequeathed to them, betrayed and undermined centuries of wisdom, spread the use of drugs, legitimized divorce and abortion, and even managed to screw up the civil rights movement that might otherwise have been their signal achievement. On the other hand, they did give us pre-faded jeans, so I guess that’s something.
During the culture war years of the 1990s (back in the pre-9/11 world), the supposed “grown-ups” had the luxury to argue about things like “V-chips” for new televisions, parental advisory stickers for albums with curse words, and the evil genius Marilyn Manson’s responsibility for masterminding the Columbine high school massacre with his occult heavy metal compact discs. These were the issues of the day.
My Dad didn’t want me to read the Starr Report when it arrived on our doorstep, courtesy of The Indianapolis Star. There was always the fear emanating from our Boomer parents that we Millennial offspring would be “de-sensitized” by the sideshow carnival our culture had mutated into under their watch. Youth culture had been on a bleeding, nosedive trajectory for three generations; the assumption was that it would only continue and that Millennials would be an even more degenerate lot than their older siblings in Gen X.
Because divorce is now so commonplace does that mean that Gen Y will become “desensitized” into tolerating it? Or are the children who have experienced the pain of divorce more likely to take their own marriages much more seriously?
Because so much music and culture is dragged out of the gutter, does that mean that Gen Y will become “desensitized” into embracing it? A few months ago The Wife and I were watching the second season of HBO’s Rome. One episode in particular just seemed a bit much; it was packed from beginning to end with torture and gang rape. Of course it was Rome so we knew what we were getting into, but it really was rather excessive. I can handle some degrading, disturbing sequence if it serves a real dramatic point (we did manage to get through the whole first season), but this went overboard. HBO was just reveling in its freedom to be “transgressive.”
Still it was a wake up call: only a few years ago when The Wife was The Girlfriend and we were undergrads, we frequented horror movies and depraved entertainment all the time. Yet a few years out in the mythical “real world” and now more and more when we’re trying to escape after a day at work, our first choice won’t be to witness one patrician lady unleash her goons to gang-rape her rival.
Juxtapose this with Roger and Andrew’s media choices in their youth: Howl and Naked Lunch were put on trial for obscenity because Ginsberg and Burroughs used four letter words and printed heroin-induced fantasies of a “talking asshole.”
Roger and and Andrew may have been thrilled to discover Dad’s pirate chest of Playboy magazines hidden in his work bench in the garage. But in sixth grade — just a year after that sock hop — my family installed 28.kbps dial-up internet service. I’ve had the ability to do an internet search for “woman and horse” or “6 midgets and a chicken” or “man and blender” every day. Not that any of those are inherently sexual things to search for, but that you’re now imagining your own personal variation of a XXX-rated extravaganza is evidence of just how far we’ve devolved. Thank you, Beloved Internet, for making smelly raincoat-clad perverts of us all.
But is this the Weather Underground “Smash Monogamy!” apocalypse so feared by today’s Tea Party boomers? Or has immersion in a popular culture of self-hating promiscuity just made sex a cliche? Today one can accumulate a collection of notches on one’s belt with about as much effort as it takes to order a carton of General Tso’s chicken. Here’s a link to craigslist and here’s Eat 24 Hours.Com. Knock yourself out and be “cool.”
But the challenges of intimacy and marriage and the idea of spending 100+ years of your life in union with one other soul is a more radical pursuit. (Yeah, just take a guess what life expectancy will be 20 years from now. You can google it.)
Thus, a hypothesis on 21st century Cool emerges which I submit for thorough examination and debate: the pendulum will swing back in the opposite direction. The Coolest thing you can be is Un-Cool — like our grandparents. And I’ll prove it on the next page.
Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, Cobain, Thompson, and Hendrix didn’t build anything. We writers and artists are an over-glorified, over-praised lot. We cast our little literary spells, throw up our paint, and dance across the stage. But in the scheme of the global village we’re only the tribe’s witch doctor. Waving our magic wand in the air and saying things which evoke specific images in your head ["woman and horse AND 6 midgets and a chicken AND man and blender" -- fool you once shame on me...] and emotions in your heart was only a cool trick back in the 1950s. But now any jackass can do it. Just observe the comments section under this post and marvel at the advanced magical skills of the common, basement-dwelling internet troll.
Today the genuinely radical artist has a far broader palette, and the writer an infinite typewriter with an ink ribbon that never runs dry. More importantly we have This: the ability to reach into others’ souls to transform them from within and allow them to be the ones to improve the way they live. This: fixing a broken world at the root through further empowering the individual to command his own destiny. This: the consensual healing and mutual benefit of others — is the inverse of self-destruction. This has a cursed name reviled by the manic depressive goblin hordes of Occupy Wall Street: Capitali$m. (Like silver to the vampire, it stings the Left more when it’s typed in green with a dollar sign. Oh, it just looks so un-cool. Much cooler to take a dump on a cop car. I think I’ll write it that way from now on in all of my subsequent blog posts — and the rest of this article.)
You know what is far more badass than Kerouacking it across the country with a slick guy like Dean Moriarty? Being 27 years old, worth 17.5 billion dollars, the cultural heir to Boomer Redeemer Steve Jobs, and the CEO of your own corporation that you built out of your dorm room.
My good friend Michael van der Galien likes to cast Mark Zuckerberg as though the most successful Capitali$t of our generation were the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin. He assails Facebook — the digital gulag — because it’s found a clever way to provide you with a free tool to A) easily stay in touch with faraway friends and family B) meet new people C) waste time and D) appreciate a more useful advertising environment curtailed to your interests and needs so that you’re more likely to actually find ads that are helpful to you.
I’ll tolerate Michael’s animosity. He’s right to be jealous of Zuckerberg and identify him as the competitor for all aspiring Millennial Capitali$t-Artists. But let’s get serious for a moment.
Nobody has to use Facebook, and as with all consensual transactions those who participate in it do so because it benefits them. It’s a Win-Win-Win solution for Facebook users, Facebook Advertisers, and Facebook’s stockholders. Everyone leaves happy because this idea that was built from the ground up works. That’s really cool — and it’s just the beginning of what’s going to be a really cool future.