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The Birth (and Death) of the Cool by Ted Gioia

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A sign of the worth of Gioia´s book is that it is hard to summarize. He examines coolness as an aspirational quality and attempts to show how this behavioral style that originated with certain jazz musicians and blacks was used at first by the entertainment industry and, later, by what used to be called Madison Avenue, to sell all sorts of products, particularly to people in their teens and twenties- achieve coolness by consumption. He indirectly claims that the increasing emphasis on lifestyle- a term whose use and origin he discusses to some extent – as a bundle of consumer choices grew in conjunction with the combination of these phenomena but that younger people have adopted different values and no longer consume as a result of marketing campaigns convincing them that it is cool to buy something.

Gioia is strong on explaining the origin of cool in the emulation of Bix Biederbecke, Lester Young, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra by cool aspirants and contrasts music that precedes them as more blatantly emotionally presented and often sentimental. He then shows how this moved into the entertainment industry, and Madison Avenue.

The strength of the book is more in the articulation of its provocative (in its most positive connotation) thesis than in every detail Gioia uses to support it. Gioia´s argument is often better stated in general than some of his specifics demonstrate. Was Sinatra really an exponent of the (then) new cool approach and Holiday a diametrically opposed example of emotional authenticity? Was an image of detachment always present in the music of Davis and Sinatra? Did sentimentality and emotional authenticity ever completely disappear from popular music? Is the success of John Mayer, Norah Jones, and similar artists in this century a sign that coolness or-a term that is surprisingly absent from this book- attitude is no longer aspired to? Are people who have known the Internet for most of their lives hugely different in this regard?

These reservations should not keep readers from seeking out this book. Gioia has an extremely interesting thesis and, if he is correct, the impact of these changes will be very substantial in the entertainment industry, mass marketing, and consumer behaviour. Time will tell whether Gioia´s argument will bear out, until then it is well worth reading and keeping in mind.

Originally Published