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33 1/3: What’s So Cool About Cool?

[Editor's Note: In honor of our 33 1/3 salebuy two new (not used or sale) books from Continuum Books' 33 1/3 series, featuring critical writing on seminal albums, and get a third free — we're pleased to feature blog posts from some of the people behind the 33 1/3 series.]

When my book Pet Sounds was published by Continuum, I decided to do a different kind of book tour, one unlike the four I'd done in the previous years in support of my novels — arrive, read, A some Qs, sign, leave, and hope the wake-up call wasn't automated so I could ask the desk clerk for the date and the name of the city before I left the hotel bed.

This time, I brought along my guitar to play as I sang a couple of stripped-down versions of Brian Wilson compositions from the album. "Caroline No" was an obvious choice: it's fairly well known and stands on its own without Wilson's quirky and wonderful arrangement. I also performed "That's Not Me" and "I Wasn't Made for These Times." Though obscure by Wilson's standards — music he made with the Beach Boys in the '60s is instantly recognized by even casual followers of American pop — those two songs summarize the overarching themes of the album Pet Sounds: alienation, the loss of innocence, and the seeming abyss that exists between childhood and maturity, among them.

Fans of the album seemed to appreciate the mini-show, and I think I might've made the point that, absent the abundant and artfully arranged voices, and the unusual blend of instrumentation, Wilson and lyricist Tony Asher, with a few lines here and there by Mike Love, had crafted a startlingly frank look at Wilson's troubled journey toward adulthood. People who sort of wandered into the bookstores, or who knew me through my novels rather than my journalism, were no less gracious. But afterwards, when I was finished signing books and would look for people to hang with — after all, only an empty hotel room beckoned — I'd be asked over and over one maddening question, which I still get now and then via e-mail, inevitably by someone who's a baby boomer. The preamble would be something like, "I'll admit that Pet Sounds is a great album but..." And then: "How can you say you're a Beach Boys fan? They were so uncool."

There is so much in that question that it's almost impossible to know how to begin to address it.

If you were me, and in a mood to dismiss the question, you might say, "Well, I'm really not a Beach Boys fan. I'm a Pet Sounds fan, and a fan of Brian's writing and arrangements." This would serve to extricate you from the conversation, and allow you to avoid confessing your passion for such Beach Boys songs as "All This Is That," "Good Timin'," "The Trader," "Feel Flows," and a few others that Brian had almost nothing to do with. You might add that Carl Wilson's voice thrills you to this day. But go too far down that pro-Beach Boys road and you'll find yourself cornered by the charge that the band made a mockery out of their achievement by turning into an oldies act while they were still young. This you cannot dispute.

Or you might, if you're feeling a little feisty, answer the original question with, "How can you say that? What's uncool about bringing joy and, in the case of Pet Sounds, clarity into people's lives? They made their living as musicians — is that uncool? Do you have any idea of the credentials of the Los Angeles session pros who were glad to record with them? The Beach Boys had the respect of their peers; go to Brian's website for samples of their testimony about his work. The Beatles loved them too, and saw them as competition. Not cool enough for you yet? Have you listened to those voices?" (You may be talking to yourself that this point. Wynton Marsalis once said something about how talking about jazz drives women away. Defending the Beach Boys drives everyone away.)

But the most salient answers to the question are challenges most boomers who'd pose it don't ever want to hear: Why does it matter if they were cool? And how do you define cool?

To the first rebuttal question, I'd say it doesn't matter at all. All that matter is the music — what it says and how it sounds, the level of craft and creativity and what it communicates to us. I mean, I don't know if Bach was a cooler guy than Beethoven. Do you? (Please respond at Can it possibly matter? A fan of jazz piano? Is Hank Jones cooler than Kenny Barron? If you can answer that question, please tell me how you've reached your answer.

To the question of how cool is defined: Often in rock — which was, and continues to be, marketed as a lifestyle choice rather than as an art form — the answer is in marketing so savvy we don't realize it is marketing. Boomers will frequently refer to elements that have nothing to do with music when telling you why they like this band or that singer-songwriter. They'll mention an album jacket or how a song was used in a film. Another favorite is when and where they saw the band perform; I call this the "Tull, Garden, Floor" syndrome: Twice, I've had someone tell me, as if they had witnessed a supernova or confronted a two-headed cow, they saw Jethro Tull in '78 at Madison Square and sat within 50 feet of the stage. Fashion counts too, apparently. But nothing seems to count more than whether a boomer's high-school friends though the band was cool.

When you're in your forties or fifties, and you've achieved much, it seems inconceivable that the concept of being cool or, worse, declaring loyalty to something others perceive as cool could possibly matter. As someone who's interviewed many rock stars, I can tell you that if you've raised children, kept a family together in harmony, served your community and had an interesting career and you're talking to a rock star, you're the cool one in the conversation.

With that in mind, pick up Pet Sounds, listen to it with an open mind. Filter it through your experiences. If you're willing to do that, I'll bet Brian Wilson's best work, which may lay claim to title of the rock era's best work, speaks to you in a way that's surprisingly personal and familiar. (If you disagree about the quality of Pet Sounds, give my Continuum books a try, please.) The concept of what's cool becomes meaningless when a work of art works for you at that level. In fact, it renders foolish the idea that anything that fails to do so can claim to be cool, no matter who declares it so.

÷ ÷ ÷

Jim Fusilli is chief rock music critic for the Wall Street Journal and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio's All Things Considered. In addition, he is the author of the award-winning mystery series featuring private investigator Terry Orr and his daughter Bella. The series includes Closing Time, A Well-Known Secret, and Tribeca Blues. The fourth novel in the series, Hard, Hard City, was published by G. P. Putnam in the fall of 2004. He wrote the book Pet Sounds for Continuum's 33 1/3 series. He lives in New York City.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (33 1/3 Series)
    Used Trade Paper $10.50

Jim Fusilli is the author of Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (33 1/3 Series)

2 Responses to "33 1/3: What’s So Cool About Cool?"

    Miss Gretchen October 31st, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I have to laugh because I had no idea that the Beach Boys were uncool. . ."back in the day" we used to mix the latest punk 45s with those of girl groups, British Invasion, Lenny Kaye's Nuggets LP, and, yeah, Beach Boys, and when The Last came out we thought they were the grooviest. I know my resident psych collector has a number of Beach Boys LPs on the wall (but he's on a plane to Athens so I can't confirm which ones.)

    I'm glad you wrote this post, it reminds me to put your book in the queue!

    Clea Simon November 1st, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    A fun meditation,but I had thought that one of the advantages of reaching one's 40s was that one no longer had to worry too much about cool/uncool. De gustibus non disputandum, and all that. But I'm decidedly uncool these days, so take that for what it's worth.

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