Which Version of Cool Are You?

"Cool" is a term that's been the final judgement on people, behavior and personality since the 1950s when Fonzi-type leaders of the local youth scene influenced tastes (and peer pressure) in pop culture. The term "hip" goes back a little further to the 1920s prohibition era when underground booze bootleggers used their deep hip pockets to smuggle alcohol into "speak-easy" establishments.

But there have always been at least two versions of cool since the terms "cool" and "hip" were embraced and popularized by beatniks in the fifties and hippies in the sixties through the seventies. The term "cool" became institutionalized and crystalized with the 1974 ABC TV series Happy Days, which rose to the top of the Nielsen TV ratings for awhile. All along, being cool meant you had status in society, not determined by race, appearance, religion or even economic class. At first politics didn't matter but by the mid-to-late sixties, a wider gap grew between the establishment and the emerging counter-culture.

Hippies vs Squares

This generation gap - or cultural gap - was driven by the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and changing views about social freedom. The JFK assassination of 1963 was a huge time marker that was both shocking and mysterious. Kennedy inspired youth like no other American leader to be more active in helping society. He helped define the values of a cool utopia whereas creepy square Nixon was more the poster child of uncool established order values, at least from the perspective of an open-minded college student or self-actualized explorer of the era.

LBJ fell somewhere in between, but closer to traditional cowboy. Despite his illegal Vietnam War based on a fictional attack on U.S. submarines known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident - a favor to his political donors from the defense industry - he was still somewhat respected for signing JFK's civil rights bill and pushing his own vision that created programs for the economically-challenged. History shows more clearly now that President Johnson's "Great Society" program was more theater for his legacy in the history books and film documentaries as an attempt to mask his uglier association with the war-profiteering military industrial complex.

By the end of the seventies the rules for being cool changed, allowing even nicely-dressed establishment squares to be included. Rock and roll had been the soundtrack to the anti-establishment movement in the 50s/60s, but disco opened the door for mixing sex and drugs with materialism, replacing the socially-demonized hitchhiker's quest for meaning and nature that was at the core of hippy philosophy. Essentially, hippies became ridiculed by bigger media to remind everyone that everyone has to earn a living - so why not earn as much as you can?

This ironic climax to the story of one of America's most vibrant and talked about social revolutions was depicted in the hugely successful 1982-1989 NBC TV sitcom series Family Ties starring Michael J. Fox. The humor of the show was built on the premise of ex-hippy parents with a conservative Reagan-republican kid played by Fox. Other big shows of the era that made flower power seem outdated were NBC's Cheers, which celebrated the macho perv lifestyle of a swinging bartender, CBS crime drama Magnum P.I., starring right wing gun enthusiast Tom Selleck and Dallas on CBS, which helped make a wealthy Texas oil family seem entertaining, helping people forget the city's darker image as the site of the JFK assassination.

If you wanted a show that revived the 60s, a popular choice was ABC's The Wonder Years, which was a family show about a kid growing up in the late sixties thru early seventies era. Although the series went on to become a classic, it ended in real life controversy when stars Fred Savage and Jason Harvey were accused of sexual harassment by the show's costume designer. The show lasted six seasons before getting cancelled in 1993, as the ratings had fallen off and network execs were nervous about taking the show into a more adult/social direction as the child star Kevin, played by Savage, reached maturity. Instead of dealing with war protest, explicit sex and wild drugs, it was easier to just can the show and capitalize on the DVD market. The theme of out of control sexual behavior, especially among macho male celebrities, became a gigantic focus across big media.

Party Culture Takes Over

Meanwhile, sex and drugs became the overlapping issues that bonded hippies and the more pop culture-oriented, money-conscious traditionalists who preferred alcohol over cannabis. The cocaine craze was popular with upscale types since it was more expensive than pot and had a more amped effect. Later we learned from various government whistleblowers and investigative journalists that Reagan's "War on Drugs" (started by Nixon) was just a prank to misdirect the public away from intelligence biz coke smuggling into America to pay for weapons for overthrowing leftist governments in South America. It all came out in the Iran-Contra scandal investigation that tarnished Reagan's good guy from Hollywood image.

While the cool cats of the sixties frowned upon elites (even if they became rich themselves off entertainment), the popularity of arena rock and disco of the late seventies signalled that embracing commercialism was now part of being cool. Young urban professionals, known as yuppies, often became the show-offs in the nightlife party scene.

Some might argue that part of what elevated the arena rock industry was the element of "glam" applied to art, celebrating materialism and attractive, upscale but more flashy-than-conservative appearances. Designer jean commercials featuring the super-sexy Brooke Shields helped convince consumers to switch from their more ragged and faded jeans that symbolized the counter-culture. So the more affordable, efficient non-fashion of casual wear started to become frowned upon by nightlife establishments trying to target a more affluent market.

These more capitalist-centric nightlife venues leaned toward dress codes, cover charges and higher drink prices, fueled by louder more thumping music on state-of-the-art sound systems and fancy lighting effects. It marked a major contrast from underground dive bars with cheaper equipment and minimalist, more handcrafted ambiance.

The golden rule of cool until the eighties was "all you need is love," but then it shifted to "all you need is cash and credit" to enjoy life. In the eighties the voice of the peace movement, John Lennon, had been silenced and Hollywood was escalating profits from war films that ranged from the hero-centric Top Gun to the socially-conscious Good Morning Vietnam. As special effects became more expensive and popular in films, the music and recording world moved more toward expensive electronic technology as acoustic guitar folk songs became rare on the charts.

The voice of the common people had become upstaged and drowned out by the sound of high-end big biz technology. Becoming successful on a cultural level now demanded an investment in expensive equipment, which of course, favored people with high paying jobs or kids of wealthy parents. The lower and middle class street kids who lacked access to big bucks to pay for nice gear now had a much tougher challenge, but were still encouraged to follow their dreams of fortune and fame by working harder on developing their talent and business skills. They also had the path of less resistance option to just conform with the corporate norm.

New Options for Being Cool

Quinn Qwestwick, a master of disguises, is a character I created to reflect both a yuppie and a hippy. In the daytime he's a custom costume designer for the entertainment biz and intelligence agencies, while at night he's the singer of a 60s-90s cover band called the Psychedelic Blurs. He is conscious of both worlds and plays the role well in both scenarios. His appearance is casual and kind of punk rock-like tempered with a pro-capitalist image as a delivery person for his high-end clients. What makes him a yuppy is that he charges high prices for his custom designs. Then again, he's dealing with clients who have access to multi-million dollar budgets.

At night his band plays cover songs by perfectly cool artists like CCR and Alice In Chains. What some of his fans don't know, however, is that his agenda for taking his band to the next level involves the invisible hand of pre-existing wealth. He's his own manager because he has access to wealth, which provides access to power. With his connections, he can hire a crowd at $50 an actor after booking a 1,000 seat venue with upfront cash. Unlike a typical small biz, he can also afford tens of thousands of dollars in radio advertising to make his shows seem bigger than life.

Recently Quinn put together a show with his cover band opening for the more established but still underground act, the Shadow Government Occult Band. Quinn sent a press release to local TV stations that the show made local history because it was the first indie concert to ever sell out tickets for a surprise show the same day at PeerAmid Island Theatre. The TV stations reported the story on their newscasts, which caught the attention of a music critic who works for the town's only newspaper.

Pressure for Blending Art and Commerce

While Quinn plays the role of both yuppy and hippy, ask yourself which version of cool you fit more into. Keep in mind that folk/rock lyrics told stories about the struggle to get by without fame and fortune, whereas more contemporary pop lyrics are much more shallow and narcissistic with a nod toward the dream of mass notoriety. Early disco of the mid-seventies was more about fun energetic dancing to a more modern sound. It was innocent and friendly, but then gave way to the standardized corporate strategies of repetitious beats and basic lyrics about sex, dancing and relationships. After all, repetition is one of the primary techniques for successful social conditioning and marketing.

The social consciousness and poetic spirit of the early rap messages of Gil Scott Heron or The Last Poets that was closer to hippy than yuppy gave way to the richer production of the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," an indie record that outsold all kinds of major label hits of the era, despite barely penetrating the big biz top 40 pop charts. The song shifted the emphasis of rap lyrics from deep philosophy to crazed party dance entertainment - and not that many party consumers noticed or complained about the politically-incorrect lyrics ridiculing the gay community. Despite being an indie record, it was one of the original rap songs that legitimized the inclusion of corporate brands like Holiday Inn in the lyrics.

Musically, there was literally nothing original about "Rapper's Delight," as the production was based on the instrumental flipside of "Good Times" by Chic, a number one hit earlier that year in 1979. Rap, like arena rock, became big biz in the 80s/90s as songs began to brag more about fancy cars, fashion, macho perversions, self-indulgence and big money.

Yuppyism and hippyism, however, are not the only forms of supposed cool identity, since there are several versions in between. Punks, on the other hand, like other fringe individuals, tend to fall outside of both paradigms, but often lean closer to 60s counter-culture garage band ethics of raw energy and minimalism. The alternative rock era of the 90s, which was built on radio stations playing message-oriented music by artists like Pearl Jam, U2 and Depeche Mode, rivaled the mainstream in terms of album and concert ticket sales. But this popular perception of a new emerging vast counter-culture was eventually strangled and neutralized by big record label mergers that resulted in tighter spending on artist development in favor of marketing proven commercial formulas.

Despite this elaborate breakdown of what "cool" means, it's probably a fact that everyone thinks they're cool no matter what, except for people who have low-esteem. The history of "cool" can be divided into 4 eras: 1) 50s rebellion from tradition and a move toward racial integration, 2) sixties/early-seventies counter-culture, 3) Reagan/Bush/Clinton era shift to credit cards and commercial ambitions mixed with the alternative scene and 4) corporate vs indie internet online culture.

Dealing with Subculture Attitudes

Snobbery exists across the spectrum of cool personality types, but usually the more corporate, the more snobbish. Extreme lefties are more pronounced in their snobbery against conservative principles but a lot of supposed liberals tolerate big biz infiltration in pop culture.

They don't see it as a threat or intrusion, partly because they think as proponents of democracy and equality that every individual has the right to make up their own minds about what they like. They ignore the impacts that big media and advertisers have on mass culture, not caring that McDonald's became the top restaurant franchise, in spite of its low nutrition quality, because of mass marketing through monster media channels that reach millions of people. Fake lefties can be identified by their love of junk food full of unhealthy chemicals and lack of concern for world peace or the environment.

If you criticize the sensationalized cookie-cutter style of Taylor Swift on Facebook, for example, you could possibly get lectured by a supposed fellow hipster who lives by the "to each his or her own" code that avoids critical thinking, controversy or deep discussion. It's like saying that all art is equal, no matter how basic, generic, shallow or corporate, much like the condescending "shut up and dance" message of the 80s club scene. If you try to mention that part of Swift's rise to the top of the charts in the 21st century was having the benefit of a rich banker dad who helped fund her way to stardom, they'll gaslight you by saying "you're just getting old."

A better word for this group would be moderate, mainstream or even conservative (Clinton or Obama corporatists who celebrate leftist rhetoric while dancing with two right feet with Wall Street and the war industry backstage). Anyone who religiously worshipped Reagan, the Bushes or Trump clearly was far from the counter culture visionaries of the 60s, even though such politicians managed to convert weaker-minded hippies into yuppies who went along with big biz trends and the behind the scenes escalation of military spending.

The term "neoliberal" has snuck into the mainstream media lexicon in recent years to describe politicians like the Clintons or Obama, but don't be fooled. It's really just a new word for a traditional conservative who accepts a wider range of social freedom issues than republicans. Both parties are really part of the same team that collaborates on favors for big lobbyists funded by the same elites. The democrat versus republican dogfight on TV commentary shows is like a circus act in which clowns and magicians juggle apples and oranges and play hot potato with each other to distract from the shady sideshow bribery deals going on backstage.

Culture continues to be divided and subdivided into political and economic factions. Many of these factions are authentic grass roots movements, but the majority are self-serving fragments of society that are driven by mainstream media propaganda and hypnosis. So to clarify, letting big biz decide choices for you is more fool than cool, whereas independent thinking that sees through marketing and propaganda is the more authentic version of cool.

Created by Alex Cosper