The rules of cool

We can all recognise it, we all want to be it, but exactly what is it and can we achieve it, asks Anna Burnside

FOR the next ten minutes at least, Azealia Banks is officially the coolest person on the planet. Awarded first place by the NME in its annual chart of hipness, the 20-year-old New York rapper is so far off the radar she does not have a Wikipedia page, never mind a record contract. You can see her online performing her viral hit 212 in short shorts and ancient Mickey Mouse sweater, deploying the C word and chewing her lips.

The judging criteria used by the NME – once itself an extremely cool publication, avidly studied by earnest young men, but now a pale shadow of its formerly influential self – are instructive. Banks’s unsigned obscurity is much in her favour, as is her look, sauciness and colourful vocabulary. Added kudos comes from preferring cats to drugs and wearing the unwearable. “If you carry off a look that a mere civilian would be attacked in the street for rocking, you is da shiz,” says the mag.

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So to be cool, in the NME’s sense of the word, is to be filthy and ahead of the curve with counterintuitive beliefs or attitudes and an aversion to buying complete outfits at high street stores. One of Banks’s key “looks”, according to the NME, is “lying naked under a sheet in a wood cabin” and you don’t get that at Karen Millen.

It would be churlish to grudge Banks, who has a fine set of pipes, an assertive attitude to female sexual gratification and a sense of self that is, so far, unadulterated by the dead hand of record label marketing, her moment. Compared with the self-conscious styling and soapboxing of Gaga, or the relentless sexy promotion of Rihanna, she is delightfully fresh, bouncy and cheeky.

But is she really cool? Cooler than Jarvis Cocker, Honor Titus from hardcore punk band Cerebral Ballzy or the two dudes from Kasabian who are ranked below her? The thing about cool is that it is an essentially contested concept, easy to spot but so hard to define. Last year’s winner was folk warbler Laura Marling and the only thing she and Banks have in common is that both wear bras. In 2006 they preferred Beth Ditto, a zaftig lesbian with many tattoos. Next year’s big thing probably still believes in Santa.

The roots of cool are generally agreed to come from the Igbo and Yoruba tribes of 15th-century west Africa. Itutu – it translates as “mystic coolness” – was an important part of a religious philosophy which valued generosity, grace and peace-making. It was also associated with physical beauty. It came to American via the slave trade, where being self-controlled and emotionally contained, wearing a mask of coolness, became a defence mechanism against the privations and indignities of plantation life.

The usage that we would recognise today started around the 1930s jazz scene. In her book What is Cool: Understanding Black Manhood in America, Marlene Kim Connor updates the historical meaning for that era: cool was “the silent and knowing rejection of racist oppression, a self-dignified expression of masculinity developed by black men denied mainstream expressions of manhood”. Another theory of its derivation is more prosaic: the crowded, smoky clubs where Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis played got very hot. The windows would be opened to let in some cool air. By association, their playing style became known as cool.

However it got there, cool became the word that summed up the look, the louche lifestyle, the anti-establishment attitude of the jazz world, something to which both white and black young people aspired. It was counter-culture, out of the mainstream, desirable.

By the 1960s the advertising industry had realised this was heady stuff, if only they could harness it for their products. Lauren Gurrieri of Griffith University in Australia, one of the few academics to wrestle the slippery concept into submission, says: “That was when marketers spotted the pervasive power of cool, when it became something you could buy and consume. It became less about human behaviour and more about products and services.”

Today, brands such as Nike and Apple have become central to what Gurrieri calls “a consumption performance. We use brands in particular ways, as props. And it has become very easy to copy. You can open up a magazine, like the look of something you deem to be cool, then go out and buy it.”

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This democratisation of cool has been of huge benefit to the likes of Hush Puppy and Converse, which were once forgotten retail relics and became, thanks to the kiss of cool, wildly popular again. But this process has increased the speed at which it all happens. Once something is recognised as cool by the mainstream, those who started the trend have already moved on to something else. Malcolm Gladwell sums this up in his book The Tipping Point, which explores how trainers, rock stars or fizzy drinks go from niche to global. It starts with innovators, the cool kids who decide, out of nowhere, to start wearing old Frankie Says Relax T-shirts or Malcolm X glasses. They are followed by early adopters who pick up on the style. Next the early majority buys copies from the high street. By the time the late majority get the idea, the innovators are already looking for something else. Gloverall duffle coats perhaps, or old Sergio Tacchini shell suits. Cool has become a desirable commodity. Giant brands hire consultants and agencies with names like StrawberryFrog to feed them intel about what the kids are doing, thinking, wearing, downloading illegally and listening to through enormous headphones. They employ cool-hunters to comb the streets of the world’s hippest cities to identify the moods and trends that will affect what will be cool in the months and years to come. No doubt they knew about Azealia Banks years ago and have been warning fashion houses that the naked-sheet-wood cabin thing could catch fire at any moment.

Yet, despite what Apple and Nike’s advertising may suggest, not everyone can be cool. (Cool-hunters know this and guard their streetwise sources like industrial secrets, which in a way they are.) It’s a wholly relative concept, an exclusive club which members can only join by having a very particular sensibility, self-confidence and individuality. It is not charisma, sex appeal, fashion sense or good looks: cool people may have all, or none of the above. It is certainly not about anxiously following the latest fashions. Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole in their teeny clothes with huge price tags have never been cool. Alexa Chung, Kate Moss, Agyness Deyn, who could all afford to wear £50 notes but prefer DMs and vintage are the ones whose style everyone wants to steal.

Cool is effortless and breezy. Old people – Molly Parkin, Quentin Crisp – can be cooler than kids who think it’s all about having the right kind of barcode tattoo and facial hair will ever be. Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow is cool in a way that the BBC’s Huw Edwards will never be. It is a world view, a singular taste, a way of seeing and a sense of self. A cool person who loves the synthesisers of the 1970s, cooks Korean food and wears nothing but orange makes these seem the ultimate in desirable lifestyle choices. An uncool person doing the same is a weirdo to be avoided at parties. It’s not the Moogs or the kimchi that are cool, it’s the person who loves them. They only become cool by association.

This is why Jarvis Cocker is number two in the NME’s cool list and the legions of geography teachers, librarians and mechanical engineers who also wear terrible glasses and tweed jackets are not. You can’t buy cool, no matter how many magazines you read or apps you download. Anyone can get the props – the hot shoe, the right coffee, Azealia Banks’s CD when she eventually makes one – but the minute an uncool person identifies something as cool, the soap has slipped out of their hands.

As one American blogger, incensed by the cool list, says: “NME, by virtue of showing that they care about who’s cool, and especially that they care to precisely number such preferences, show they are manifestly uncool. Do they not understand how being cool works? Did they not learn this in 10th grade? People who are truly cool don’t think about this sort of thing, or care, or try to be cool, to impress anyone, or anything else, or talk about it, or frankly give a flying leap what some professionally sychophantic magazine full of 20-something would-be scribblers about music think.”

Gurrieri puts it more succinctly. “If a brand or a person tries too hard, that is not cool. “And if you think you’re cool, you’re almost certainly not.”