Disobeying all the cool rules
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