Added on 08-Mar-2010
Coolness is almost impossible to define. When I was little, I thought the things that were cool were also the things that were popular. In elementary school, the cool kids were the popular kids. That seemed to make sense, but changed in high school. Cool went from what everyone else liked to what I personally liked because I considered myself to be really cool.
Due to the fact we are all individuals, personal taste is going to vary, but there are a few things that are constant. Things that get a lot of attention ultimately lose their “coolness” as they gain popularity. There is no better recent example of this than rock band, Kings Of Leon.
They released three albums to very limited success before 2008’s “Only By Night” came out. “Only By Night” contained two smash hits; “Sex on Fire” and “Use Somebody.”
Both songs still get huge amounts of radio time. I had never even heard of the band until “Use Somebody” hit airwaves, but apparently they were not brand new. I asked a friend of mine about them who knows more about music than anyone I know. What he told me amounted to this: They used to be good; they changed their style, became mainstream and now suck.
This doesn’t surprise me. The trend happens all the time in music. In the late 90s, pop starlets like Britney Spears and Christina Agulera and boy bands like N’Sync and the Backstreet Boys were exceedingly popular. Earlier in the decade, it was New Kids on the Block and the Spice Girls. While these artists were all popular, I don’t think anyone over the age of 13 would describe them as “cool.”
Also universal is that material will almost always be appreciated if it is genuinely very good. This appreciation will lead to its creators being labeled as “cool.”
Freddie Mercury, the lead singer and primary songwriter of the classic rock band Queen, is almost universally considered “cool.” Mercury was a flamboyant, open homosexual from Zanzibar, Tanzania with a slender build and later on, a goofy mustache. This is not the exterior model of something that would be thought of as “cool,” but Freddie Mercury also wrote and sang classics like “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites The Dust,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and many, many others that withstood the test of time, getting consistent radio play years after their releases. People of all generations want to hear this music.
The difference between a band like Queen and someone like Britney Spears is that Spears was designed to be commercial, whereas Queen just kind of made music. Queen kept this up until Mercury’s untimely death from HIV/AIDS, but not all bands do this. It’s like a roller coaster on which you reach the peak of your popularity. You do this by becoming commercial and “selling out” in the minds of many, and then come crashing down. As history has shown, one of three things happen: First, your public image takes a hit and the masses decide you’re a joke of a person, similar to what happened to Spears. Second, there is too much in fighting within the band and they break up, like the Spice Girls. Third, people get bored with your sound and you fade into irrelevance.
Now, the first two are fairly easy to avoid. Don’t do anything too stupid that the media could pick up on, and have a good relationship with the people you work with. The third is a bit tougher. If you get complacent and make the same sound over and over again, people will certainly lose interest, but if you change yourself in the wrong way, it will scare away the established fan base.
Regardless, your coolness factor will go down.
So why is Queen still such a mainstay? I would say that, cynical as this may sound, it has to do with what happened to Freddie Mercury. Death has always been something that makes an artist seem more legitimate. Take Michael Jackson’s recent death, for example. He was a punch line to much of the world, but when he died, it was a tragedy. People said “Yeah, he was strange, but he was a musical genius!”
Suddenly, it was cool to like Jackson again. Death makes you appreciate someone’s work, as it will never be replicated, and it also adds a certain inexplicable credibility, as if somehow after they’ve died, their work takes on a new kind of meaning. In fact, that one factor more than anything else, could explain what creates coolness: credibility. We have to believe that the person who is trying to sell us a polo shirt or short skirt knows what they are talking about (or at least looks good in it). We have to believe that the product will improve us in the eyes of others.
Whether or not it really will is completely arbitrary. It doesn’t matter. People are always going to want to look good in the eyes of others, and coolness is just a way of describing that.