Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Culture Theft?

Hard Rock Legends
Originally uploaded by NyteByter.

Culture Theft is a significant accusation that is highly relevant to the issue of cool.

These are the facts:

  • African Americans, then and now, felt that rock and roll was stolen from them.
  • What white musicians created was, however, new. Elements of Rock came from black music. But other elements came from white music.
  • White rockers made way more money off their music than black rockers.

Beyond that, there is a lot that's open for debate. But the issue continues to be relevant because much of the Black Power movement was about securing cultural space. Hip Hop remains an African American art, and retains a black aesthetic, because of the Black Power movement's refusal for Elvis to happen all over again.

Hip Hop's primary device for enforcing a black center is cool, and the corresponding device of shame. White rappers obey the rules, out of fear of being shamed and thus uncooled.

Over the course of the next several months, I will return to this issue, because I believe we cannot create a truly multiethnic society until we drop our cool. Whites need to take the humbling step of respecting their roots. That's the first step.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Cool will leave you high and dry.

Life comes at you fast
Originally uploaded by GenoG.

This may be a little opportunistic, but the fall of Maurice Clarett highlights a key aspect of cool: yesterday doesn't matter a hill of beans. Cool is as fair-weather a friend as could be imagined. Maurice Clarett was - and presumably still is - one of the best athletes in the United States. He fell in with the wrong crowd, and after getting cut from his football team, they came after him, expecting to get their money back.

They had bankrolled his Malibu lifestyle, and during that year or two Clarett was the big cheese. But cool is full of contradictions and will devour those who can't cope. Just ask Elvis Presley.

The point is not to glory in someone else's fall. The point of this whole project is not to learn how to protect ourselves, but to unlearn cool, and to learn compassion in its place. Compassion will last. Cool won't.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Authentic living

New Glarus Hotel
Originally uploaded by mizidymizark.

We are so jaded, we living in the regime of cool, that we suspect phoniness whenever we encounter joyful authenticity.

I recently read a review of a favorite restaurant of mine - where the New World's best fondue is to be found - accusing the place of being "kitchy".

I've been to that restaurant many times, and I've never found a trace of kitch anywhere. So what is it that the author found?


Switzerland is a modern country completely at peace with its peasant heritage, its "Volkstum". Go into any cable car, restaurant or tavern in the mountains, and they'll be playing Alpine music over the stereo. It's not kitch; it's a celebration of heritage.

Trust me: Here is a TV ad for Switzerland, from YouTube. It ran in Germany during the buildup to the world cup. The idea was to suggest to soccer-weary German women a vacation in Switzerland during the tournament.

They play with all the national stereotypes, including the alpine music in question. It's modern, folksy, sweet and a little racy all at once.

[A rough translation of the voiceover is "Dear Women, consider spending your World Cup-summer in a place where the men care less about soccer - and more about you.]

The Chalet Landhaus Inn plays the same music. It's just like in Switzerland.

In fact, the entire hotel is uncannily authentic - not only the old-fashioned volkstum stuff, but the minimalist DESIGNsuisse architecture of the rooms. Alas, the restaurant's reviewer misunderstood the sweetness of "yodeling on the sound system" as phony heartland kitch.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Is Rape Cool?

Rape of the Sabines III
Originally uploaded by storem.
For those new to this project – the website and the book – I should say up front: I believe cool is a bad phenomenon in our culture. We will live healthier lives the sooner we rid ourselves of coolness. So when I ask “Is Rape Cool?” I am exploring cool’s implications for rape. I am not being callous or crass.

Cool is the performance of individual rebellion, rebellion for rebellion’s sake. Cool is about the self. Authentic sexuality, on the other hand, is about relationships. It's about love.

Cool sexuality, then, is not really about love – love in the real, holistic sense of the word. Cool sexuality is about satisfaction of libido. Or as the old-school Freudians like Norman Mailer would say,

At bottom, the drama of the psychopath [what Mailer uses interchangeably with Hipster] is that he seeks love. Not love as the search for a mate, but love as the search for an orgasm more apocalyptic than the one which preceded it.
(Mailer, The White Negro in Advertisements for Myself)

In other words, cool sex is narcissistic and motivated by transgression. Cool thus has no logical reason to rebuke rape or domestic violence. Cool celebrates its own satisfaction, and is not greatly distressed by others’ suffering.

Furthermore, to rebuke rape is to retreat from cool. Normally, that’s a step everyone in the room is willing to do (since cool is constantly being negotiated, moment-by-moment, after all, people have to agree together to set aside their cool for a few moments in order for the stuff of real life to enter the conversation). So we have our little “heal the world” moments, our “live-8” festivals. But with each passing year the contradictions mount. It’s increasingly cool to go to strip clubs. Porn stars are the latest trophy girlfriends. And increasingly younger boys learn that women exist for male (libidinal) pleasure.

This is a life and death issue. Lives are getting destroyed all around us and – as long as we want to keep a toe-hold on cool – we won’t be credible, consistent or effective in our denunciations of domestic violence.

Of course rape predates cool. And not all incarnations of cool are equally insensitive. But in its purest form, cool looks at rape and wonders whether orgasm took place, not whether love was crushed.

The opposite of cool is not anti-cool, it is compassion – “suffering-along-with.” Compassion makes rape impossible. The sooner we (men in particular) unlearn our cool objectification of women, the sooner compassion will begin to heal our society, our churches and our homes.

Monday, August 07, 2006

NYTimes does Lollapalooza

Originally uploaded by six times mighty.

The nation's newpaper of record continues its flirtation with cool today: a feature on last weekend's Lollapalooza music festival in Chicago. The headline read: A Restless Spirit, but Hold the Rage.

The idea was that Lollapalooza has lost its edge, as compared with the festivals of the same name in the early nineties. True cool, at least as author Jon Pareles seems to feel, consists of seething rage. Not so: cool is too shifty an attitude to be thus typecast.

Cool is about rebellion, but not necessarily about revolution or smashing the system. Cool is much more deeply committed to the performance of individual cool. Cool wants to project mastery over the environment, and rage sometimes helps and sometimes doesn't.

In fact, cool's political impotence is related to its individualism. Activists drop the cause like a hot potato whenever the cause requires action beyond the self. I can be challenged on that thought, but the NY Times seems to view cool through the lens of the revolts of the sixties.

Why should it be baffling if a cross-section of the youth culture can groove to sweetness, as opposed to on-stage guitar smashing? Country fans do it all the time, and should the NYT care to look, contemporary country has arguably more creative juice than hip hop. Instead, author Jon Pareles makes a snide comment that

Social theorists might suggest that five years into the war on terror the relationship of youth culture to authority has changed. Or perhaps most of the good cheap shots were taken a decade ago.

These unnamed social theorists (what is a "social theorist"? A co-worker with strong opinions?)are confusing youth culture with rebellion. What we had in Chicago over the weekend was a party, pure and simple.

It doesn't have to be cool, or rebellious, to be good.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Missionary Cool

Along with Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, cool is a missionary religion: it seeks to propagate. But Cool's message is one of profound individualism and endless rebellion - hardly the message of the gospel.

People around the world are inevitably initially drawn to cool. That doesn't mean it's a healthy device for the church. In my opinion, cool belongs nowhere near the church as we look to be Jesus’ witnesses in a hurting world.