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How Cool Became Uncool

In my new book, The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, I look at the strange and surprising process by which cool became uncool. Yes, you heard me correctly: it may sound like a paradox, but cool isn't hip any moreit may sound like a paradox, but cool isn't hip any more.

The signs of this are everywhere, and start with the word itself. I am not sure when the deliberate misspelling of cool as "kewl" started, but a quick search for the phrase “is not kewl” on Google comes back with 50,000 hits. Oddly enough, there is even a competitor to Google, a new search engine called Cuil, which is itself a deliberate misspelling of the word.

Everywhere you look, cool is being mocked. And not just on the web. On TV, nerds are in the ascendancy, as demonstrated by shows such as Beauty and the Geek, Ugly Betty, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck. And a whole series of books are reinforcing the point. Browse through this web site, and check out Geek Chic, American Nerd, A Girl's Guide to Dating a Geek, The Geek Handbook, and Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them, to name a few.

And if you still doubt the cool is on the decline, I will say two words, and just two words, to make my case... [pause for dramatic effect]... Susan Boyle.

But the most striking sign of the death of cool is coming from people abandoning TV, and embracing forms of media that deal with real people in real life situations. The popularity of Facebook and Twitter shows that tens of millions of people are more interested in others just like themselves than in glamorous celebrities.The popularity of Facebook and Twitter shows that tens of millions of people are more interested in others just like themselves than in glamorous celebrities. The TV networks have figured this out, and have fought back with a proliferation of reality shows. In short, no matter where you turn, the cool people are losing out to everyday folks.

Why is this happening? In my book The Birth (and Death) of the Cool, I trace the changing psychographic and demographic trends that paved the way for this shift in public attitudes. Back in the 1970s, a researcher named Arnold Mitchell — he's unfairly forgotten nowadays and not even listed in Wikipedia — identified a small but rapidly growing group of cool-resistant consumers. At that time they represented only 1-2% of the population, but Mitchell saw that this was the fastest growing demographic group in America, and predicted that these individuals would eventually become a dominant force in society.

Their numbers have increased dramatically since that time, and the anti-cool attitudes they espouse have now gone mainstream. In short, an obsession with cool is like a disease and after the epidemic has spread, the survivors have developed an immunity to it. We are now living in the post-epidemic stage, but very few people have recognized the implications.

Contributing to this resistance has been the over-marketing of the cool. Back in the 1950s, the word "cool" was typically applied to a person — a Marlon Brando or Miles Davis. But nowadays, cool is usually attached to merchandise. Do a Google search on "cool" and "gadget" and you get ten million hits. What was once a type of charisma and personal vibe has been reduced to advertising spiel. No wonder the younger generation is mocking the cool!

Can cool make a comeback? In my book I show how life after cool has many of its own problems, and is sowing the seeds of its own eventual destruction. But for the time being, the nerds and dweebs and everyday people are in the ascendancy. And if you are involved in marketing or entertainment or media or the arts or management, and a host of other fields, you ignore this shift at your own peril.

More on this tomorrow.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ted Gioia is a musician and author, and has published six highly acclaimed books. Gioia's The History of Jazz was selected as one of the twenty best books of the year in the Washington Post, and was a notable book of the year in the New York Times. He is also author of Delta Blues, Work Songs, and West Coast. Visit www.tedgioia.com.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. The History of Jazz Used Trade Paper $9.50
  2. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of... Used Trade Paper $9.95
  3. Work Songs New Hardcover $38.25
  4. The Birth (and Death) of the Cool Used Hardcover $9.95
  5. Geek Chic: The Ultimate Guide to... Used Trade Paper $2.50
  6. American Nerd: The Story of My People
    Sale Hardcover $1.50
  7. A Girl's Guide to Dating a Geek Used Trade Paper $3.50

  8. Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need... Used Hardcover $3.25


Ted Gioia is the author of The Birth (and Death) of the Cool

11 Responses to "How Cool Became Uncool"

  1.  
    Matthew James November 9th, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Mustaches haven't been "cool" since the 70's.

  2.  
    manwith7talents November 9th, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I think you are misinterpreting what's happening here. Cool isn't losing out to nerdiness, nerds are simply becoming cool. Nerds got tired of being told that they weren't cool, so they decided to redefine what cool means. The idea that only glamorous celebrities are cool and ordinary people are not was elitist and unsustainable. Also, many of the people you identify as being cool are really quite nerdy, like jazz musicians. I should know: I am one, and so are most of my friends. Jazz requires a lot of solitary study and practice, and a lot of specialized knowledge. Jazz is the intersection of the nerdy and the cool, which is part the appeal.

  3.  
    Kewl and the Gang November 9th, 2009 at 10:34 am

    i realized cool was no longer after my boss used that word all the time to describe the lamest crap you've ever seen. every time he said the word "cool," you could feel the uncoolness flopping out of his mouth.

  4.  
    Sean November 9th, 2009 at 11:17 am

    Matthew James is wrong, oh so wrong. The handlebar mustache is having a revival. I'm sporting one of near Dali length myself.

  5.  
    Matthew James November 9th, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    "Jazz is the intersection of the nerdy and the cool"

    I'm sorry but only jazz musicians actually believe this.

  6.  
    manwith7talents November 9th, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Mustaches: Uncool.
    Jazz: Uncool.
    Matthew James: Arbiter of what is cool.
    Got it.

    Go listen your Journey albums again while the rest of us are discussing what's cool.

  7.  
    Kurt November 9th, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    Not caring if you are cool is cool. Caring about what is cool is not cool. Reminiscing about things that used to be cool is how you know you are old.

  8.  
    Matthew James November 9th, 2009 at 5:23 pm

    Someday love will find you, manwith7talents - break those chains that bind you!

  9.  
    manwith7talents November 19th, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Hey, Matthew, I'm just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.

  10.  
    Mick November 19th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    No offense, Ted Goia, but I think you're projecting your experience of being middle aged on to the rest of the country. You have joined the generations of middle-aged men who eventually give up and stop worrying about trying to be cool. Good for you.

    However, if you spend much time around young people, you will see them desperately buying ipods, iphones and any other product currently labeled cool. These hordes include many nerds who like to say they don't care about being cool (while conspicuously showing off their latest gadget). Steve Jobs and plenty of other are still making a killing on people trying to be cool.

  11.  
    Joanna November 25th, 2009 at 10:20 am

    I agree with Mick's comments.
    It's funny that anyone past the age of 25 even cares about "cool". Maybe it has something to do with sibling birth order?
    thanks for an amusing blog.

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