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"The Semiotics of Cool" – an introduction.
James Evans

Scenes are scenes – nothing to do with "cool". What is Cool therefore? What indeed – one of the most misunderstood concepts of the modern ages for starters.
Are you cool? Am I cool? Who is cool? Cool – don’t sweat it. It’s only a word after all

Hey! Have you really wondered? Or did you think that Cool looks after itself, that it just IS, simply a happenstance of fashion? For starters, fashion has nothing to do with Cool. As if it’s as easy as that? Did you think it was?

A matter of opinion? Again, WRONG! Do you even know where it comes from? It’s existed since the dawn of (yeah) man. Technically speaking though, from those jazz cats of the 50’s and 60’s who brought about the ‘rebirth of cool ’ no less. They were too cool to even invent Cool. It was understood that Cool is a matter of approach, as it always has been. It just hasn’t always been articulated that way.
I’m being deliberately lucid, but that’s the thing with Cool. Let me explain.

The 50’s brought upon us a glorious age of non-denominational physical expressionism. (Probably the result of all those strapping lads marching off to war). The narcissus was no longer the property of the upper class dandy. Suddenly everybody wanted a piece of the action. It was the time of Little Richard and Rockabilly. Basically the inception of what was soon to be termed Rock and Roll. Simultaneously the Jazz scene developed as it’s own master, upholding it’s tradition for sharp dressing, drinking a lot and even taking drugs. By the 60’s Cool was in full flow. Examine early shots of Jagger and his gingham shirts are not so different from those of the perennially cool Miles Davis. This is evidence in itself, that Jagger, a white middle class boy from rural England could end up sharing his threads with those dapper gents of the jazz fraternity. You get the picture.

But these are still not the true concerns of Cool. Cool goes deeper than that. Cool people normally look that way because they were cool in first place. Their cool enabled them to make the right choices. This is the fundamental of Cool – it is not a commodity. It cannot be bought off the peg. Levi 501’s are cool, but wearing a pair does not make you a doyen of the hip. Shades are cool but, again, donning a pair of aviators isn’t going to make you look like Keith Richards long lost cousin circa "Exile on Main Street". ( DANG! What a brother!) If you need further proof then look how functional items have been used as accessories to Cool. The VW badge worn around Beastie Boy Mike Ds’ neck. The revolver that Michael Frachete studies as he contemplates his protest in Antonioni’s rather languid "Zebraskei Point". Deborah Harrys’ army fatigues. Everything Clint Eastwood ever smoked in his Spaghetti westerns. ( I think I even caught him smoking menthols in High Plains Drifter but I could be wrong) .

One could wax lyrical for approximately 6000 years on the subject but why bother, that wouldn’t be cool right? (TOUCHE!). But if there is anything one can glean from the study of such a concept is that there is an undeniable compulsion within people to collude their lives with a participatory notion of aesthetics. Not just to the extent of decorating oneself, but of playing oneself. The evolutionary purpose of display becomes firmly secondary and an immersion in manner prevails to project something simply implied. It’s not bombastic enough to be motivated by some sort of primordial sense of competition. Instead it seems to rely on suggestion, that one might compete if one could be bothered. Cool is inarticulate and it likes it that way. It’s the glorious triumph of apathy over ambition. Hoorah! But it’s also fragile and so easily misconstrued. So hey, next time you find yourself eyeing up those expensive pair of shades.
© James Evans October 2003
nationofjames@yahoo.co.uk
( The Semiotics of Cool first appeared in issue two of "The Whistler" published Autumn/Winter 2002 under the moniker of Derek Monk. )

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