Dis­obey­ing all the cool rules

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - Brian Boyd

THE NME’s self-styled an­nual “Cool List” is usu­ally a tragic af­fair – in­evitably fea­tur­ing Pete Do­herty and a bunch of other pre­dictably raggedy indie stars dis­tin­guished only by their sim­i­lar­ity to each other. The Cool List is “an at­tempt to de­fine the mu­si­cal zeit­geist,” says the mag­a­zine. Which doesn’t do much to ex­plain why the top two on the list are vir­tual un­knowns.

In with a bul­let at No 1 is Beth Ditto from US disco-punkers The Gos­sip. At No 2 is Faris Rot­ter from Bri­tish nu-Goth band The Hor­rors. Is there any real sig­nif­i­cance in the fact that five out of the top 10 are fe­male this year? Be­sides Ditto there’s also Lily Allen, Karen O, Kate Jack­son (from The Long Blondes) and the singer Love­foxxx. “This is liv­ing proof that you can still rock a crowd when you’re wear­ing stilet­tos,” says the NME’s ed­i­tor, rather un­help­fully.

The search for the in­ef­fa­ble con­cept that is “cool” is al­ways doomed to fail­ure, whether it be by the NME or any other mu­si­cal out­let. Mu­sic is plagued by con­trived no­tions of what cool rep­re­sents and how to achieve it. From indie bands styled within an inch of their lives to look “wasted” to begin­ners think­ing that a pres­ence on MyS­pace ac­tu­ally counts, the dan­ger here is that the idea of cool has now be­come just an­other mar­ket­ing de­vice.

You will find that big cor­po­ra­tions now rou­tinely hire “cool hunters”, a type of un­der­cover zeit­geist finder who is charged with trawl­ing through malls, cine­plexes and clubs and mak­ing notes on new fash­ions.

The very fact that ef­fort is spent on track­ing down cool ren­ders it re­dun­dant. In Cool Rules: An Anatomy of an At­ti­tude, au­thors Dick Poun­tain and David Robins look at the works of Man Ray, Brecht, F Scott Fitzger­ald and Jean Bau­drillard to try and dis­til the idea of cool­ness.

They date the first real work­ing def­i­ni­tion of cool back to the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance writer Bal­das­sare Castiglione, who used the word sprez­zatura and de­fined it as “an avoid­ance of af­fec­ta­tion in ev­ery way pos­si­ble as though it were some rough and dan­ger­ous reef so as to con­ceal all art and make what­ever is done or said ap­pear to be with­out ef­fort”.

Who on the NME Cool List could this pos­si­ble ap­ply to? You can dis­miss the first two, Beth Ditto and Faris Rot­ter, sim­ply on the grounds that no one re­ally knows enough about them to deem them cool or un­cool. At No 3 is Lily Allen, who doesn’t re­ally have the cool thing go­ing on for her. But go down one place and at No 4 you’ll find Jarvis Cocker, who by dint of his idio­syn­cratic wil­ful­ness is head­ing to­wards the cor­rect ap­prox­i­ma­tion of cool.

By dis­band­ing Pulp at ex­actly the right time and help­ing to petrol-bomb the whole Brit­pop move­ment, Cocker showed him­self to be a very unded­i­cated fol­lower of fash­ion – which is re­ally what we’re look­ing for here. He’s also just re­leased one of the al­bums of the year.

Our book ex­perts de­fine the con­tem­po­rary ver­sion of cool as “an op­po­si­tional at­ti­tude adopted by in­di­vid­u­als or small groups to ex­press de­fi­ance to author­ity. It is a per­ma­nent state of private re­bel­lion – cool con­ceals its re­bel­lion be­hind a mask of ironic im­pas­siv­ity.”

This is just where the NME cool list falls down. If cool can be de­scribed as “a per­ma­nent re­bel­lion”, then the NME is mak­ing the com­mon mis­take of con­fus­ing cool with hip. Hip, nec­es­sar­ily, is tran­sient and changes by the sea­son. And the very at­tempt to cor­ral peo­ple into a cat­e­gory called cool is un­cool in it­self.

Where all this leaves Beth Ditto is un­clear. But she could start by get­ting her band to re­lease a half-de­cent record. Now that would be cool.

Le geek c’est chic: Jarvis Cocker break­ing all the rules

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