Coolness in Music

5

September 14, 2013 by Julia

Everyone knows that music and coolness are intertwined. You see it the moment an average-looking, inarticulate slacker takes the stage with a guitar and proceeds to melt the faces off his audience, inducing women of all types to throw their panties at him. (I hate the word panties, ladies, don’t you?) Musicians are by turns powerful, sexy, vulnerable, passionate, avante garde, stylish, bad-ass, or artistic: cool.

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Jack White plays his vintage red Res-O-Matic (J.B. Hutto) Airline guitar.(Jeff Gentner/Getty images) Source

But it’s not just about them. It’s about us, too – how the music we choose makes us cool (or not). Our identities are reflected in the playlists we make and share; our image is projected out of our open car windows as we blast Kanye or Dixie Chicks or Amy Winehouse. Rap booming out of a car at a stoplight is cool; Joni Mitchell, not so much, although I adore her album Blue.

I don’t really consider myself a cool person, per se. I’m not waiflike enough or fashionable enough or mysterious enough. But I am a music (and film and book and art) person, and that might be my ticket!

I am always, always, always searching for new music to devour. I listen to songs carefully and love certain ones, but am simultaneously thinking of that next new song, just around the corner. Once I have compiled bunches of playlists, I weed out the best picks and burn them onto CDs and force them upon my loved ones. If someone hints that they might need some new music, I spend days obsessing over just the right mix for them, taking into account their personality and taste. I then wonder: have they listened to it, yet? Are they hearing the brilliance on Track 3? I hope they have it turned up loud enough. They better not be talking through it.

There are different ways to enjoy music, but this is basically how I decide if you REALLY love music:

         You recognize that all musical genres can achieve brilliance, and you consequently have eclectic taste. You can talk rap and classical in the same breath. (Well, maybe not the same breath. At the same party, let’s say.)

         You very rarely choose silence over music.

         You are always hoping to find the right song for the right moment. You want to create mood with music.

         You’ve been creating playlists since you got one of those two-cassette players to make mix tapes with.

         You go to concerts.

         You don’t listen to run-of-the-mill radio stations that play Sweet Home Alabama sixteen times a day.

         You never liked boy bands because even at thirteen years old you knew they sucked.

        Even if you are an indie-music-loving hipster, you are willing to admit that some pop songs are actually catchy and fun.

         You feel possessive of bands or artists that you discovered “first.”

         You know that the Beatles were amazing, and are familiar with their albums.

Another way I appreciate music is by singing along. (We all do that, right?) I’m fascinated with how singers achieve a certain sound, and I entertain myself by trying to imitate them, while driving or whatever. It reminds me of the times in art school when we had to paint a copy of a famous painting, and would learn so much through the imitation – new techniques, and a new understanding of how some are more difficult than others. In music, the more emotionally raw a singer is, the more interesting they are to listen to and sing along with. I’ve also found that those flippant little screams The Beatles do between notes are not something I can pull off. And those seemingly spontaneous vocal bursts of joy or agony that Michael Jackson and Prince have scattered throughout their songs are often more important than the lyrics.

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But I digress. (Were three words ever uttered so often by bloggers?) Back to cool. I guess that wasn’t such a digression; Prince and Michael Jackson classics will always be cool.

If we could visualize musical coolness as a totem pole of genres, I’m pretty sure rap and hip-hop would be at the top. It’s urban, it’s witty, it’s visceral, it’s set to beats that range from dirty to infectious, it can be laid-back or intense and the coolness is undisputed (unless it’s bad rap, of course). Rappers have to be charismatic and confident. It pulls out the best bits of other songs and reinvents them. It’s the best music to dance to. I am currently obsessed with Kanye West’s new album Yeezus. I can’t listen to it around the kids, so every time I’m alone in the car, I blast Black Skinhead, and I haven’t tired of it yet. It is one of the rawest most powerful most awesome songs I have ever heard.

Second place, rock. The grinding squeal of guitar solos and pumping backbeat of the drums brings out the teenager in all of us. It makes us free, it makes us happily angst-y, if that’s possible. And we all want to be a rock star, deep down. Or at least be around one.

Third down the totem pole is indie with the subgroup of alternative bands from the 80s, like The Pixies or Velvet Underground or Depeche Mode. I don’t really know what I’m talking about here. I was born in 1979 and wasn’t allowed to listen to that stuff as a kid. I just know that when music buffs talk about those bands they do so proudly. I like a few of their best songs, but have never been fully indoctrinated into that era.  Anyway, current independent music to me means stuff that’s not played on the radio, that’s not recognizable to the average person. You find it because you’ve already listened to the decent mainstream stuff, and yet are not satisfied, so you keep falling down that rabbit hole of Pitchfork reviews or new music apps or “suggested artists” on I-tunes.

I guess electronica and pop would come next, because it means you’re in touch with the youth and even go out to dance sometimes, but let’s just be clear that it does not make you a deep person by any means.

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Oldies or classics like Motown hits or hippie songs are still listened to because they hold up. People would have forgotten those songs by now if they weren’t good. There is the oldness factor, though, which obviously subtracts cool points.

And jazz is by nature cool, even if it’s not currently trendy. There is a whole lot of cheesy jazz out there, though (smooth jazz, lounge singers), so watch out. You have to find the authentic, original kind that swings and surprises. I recommend Oscar Peterson.

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After that I’m going to throw in classical, because if you enjoy it and know more than a few composer’s names you are automatically considered smart, like a person who wears glasses. Besides, there is some gorgeous stuff in there if you just calm yourself and listen. Again: good will always equal cool, even if the young turks can’t hear it yet.

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Now we are entering the Uncool Genres. Easy listening. Country (sorry, more than half of America). Christian pop. New age space-y synthesizer stuff. Kenny G –style smooth jazz. Shmaltz-y faux opera singers like Susan Boyle and Josh Groban. Musicals. Bad children’s music.

Guaranteed to kill not only brain cells, but bits of your soul

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Before you bombard me with hate comments, let me just say that I actually like and listen to many of these genres – they’re just not cool, is all. I grew up watching and performing in musicals, and a lot of that music is amazing – West Side Story, for example, is pure brilliance from beginning to end. Also, I don’t listen to much country music, but The Dixie Chicks are one of my favorite bands and I never get tired of all of their albums on shuffle on my I-pod – their musicality just pulls me in. And Christian pop! It’s the only pop I heard in my childhood. A lot of it is good, and inspiring – Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith knew their way around a melody and a lyric. It’s just that you can’t really listen to it loudly in public without prompting eye rolls or ridicule…so technically, it’s not cool. But Christians are supposed to be fools for their faith in the eyes of the world, so no biggie.

And if you honestly don’t care about what’s cool or not, you just want something good to listen to, that is the coolest of all. I mean, this whole post is kind of a moot point. I just think it’s fun to organize music and think about what makes us consider certain kinds cooler than other kinds.

In essence, just love music, pay attention to it, remain open to it, and you’ll be cool. Highbrow AND lowbrow, baby. That’s where it’s at!

Speaking of Where It’s At, has Beck released anything good lately? Who wants to discuss Rufus Wainwright, Johannes Brahms, Big Boi, Jessie J, Gwen Stefani, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes or how Prince’s Purple Rain never gets old?

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5 thoughts on “Coolness in Music

  1. Uncle Kevin says:

    They stopped being cool a long time ago but the music is timeless. This was performed a year before you were born. Many of the performers you mention couldn’t come close to the musical talent and creativity displayed here and this is only a small sample.

    • Julia says:

      Hm. I’m pretty sure flute-based rock was NEVER cool, Mr. “My Musical Era Will Always Be Better Than the Ones That Come After It.” Not that I care if flute-based rock is cool or not. I’m just sayin’. Don’t knock it til you rock to it.

      • Uncle Kevin says:

        Actually there WAS a time when Jethro Tull were considered very cool, I mean if we can equate popularity represented by album and ticket sales, with coolness. The video clip (did you watch/listen to it?) was from a program that was simultaneously broadcast in England and the US, the first time that had ever been done for a musical group. The music is an excerpt of an album that was number 1 on the billboard charts and was not their only number 1 album. At one point they sold out the Los Angeles Coliseum. Sold it out for three nights in a row.
        The bigger picture is that late in the 70s- early 80s it became cool to disdain what became known as “prog rock”; with which Jethro Tull had been lumped in. The music was too intellectually demanding or something like that (time to get back to basics with The Sex Pistols or something like that). Ian Anderson is still making great music. Those of us who don’t worry about being judged by what music we listen to for being cool or not still enjoy his music and show up at his concerts by the hundreds of thousands. I thought you meant for this blog entry to praise that sort of thinking.
        If you want to compare eras, I’d have a hard time because I gave up on the radio a long time ago for keeping me current. What I do know is that everything contemporary that I do hear is so heavily influenced by rap, which seems to be more about rhythm and shock lyrics than music; or the “plastic diva” kind of music that I can’t get into it at all.
        By the way, see if you can identify the time signature at the 8 minute mark of the video. Your dad was able to do that but he is one of the few. The time changes are nearly a signature element of “prog rock” and these time changes keep things interesting. Here’s one that has so many time changes that you have to think that the performers simply can’t count it out, they just have to know how it is supposed to sound and go with that.

        (Hey, at least you know I’m reading your blog.)

  2. Julia says:

    I mostly took issue with your statement that “Many of the performers you mention couldn’t come close to the musical talent and creativity displayed here and this is only a small sample.” I don’t know if you meant to sound condescending, but to me it implied a superiority of your own taste (and musical era) to mine. Some of my favorite musicians “couldn’t come close” to the talent shown in the video clip? How would you know, if you don’t listen to the musicians I mentioned? It’s easy to say the golden era of music is past, and to bash new music, but there were probably just as many bad songs on the radio in the sixties as there are now. I sometimes feel the urge to say the grunge era of the 90s was superior to the current state of rock music, but then I remind myself that we’ll always be biased toward the music of our adolescence, and different things speak more powerfully to different generations.
    I was making a poor joke about flute rock never being cool, though. And I never want to imply that music has to be “cool” in order to be “good” – quite the opposite, in many cases. Really, the coolness factor doesn’t matter; I was just having fun trying to figure out why we as a culture deem certain music cool, and other music not cool. I have a theory, too, that music, of all the arts, is the most difficult to judge objectively. It’s so personal and emotional that it seems nearly impossible to say one piece of music is better than the other.
    Part of my point was that as a music lover, we should be open to everything out there. To not prejudge entire genres or eras of music. That’s not to say we won’t always have our own favorites, which may or may not speak to others in the same way. It sounds like Jethro Tull appeals to you as a practicing musician – you appreciate the difficulty and complexity of what they accomplished. To me, raw textures and emotion are more appealing than intellectual rigor when it comes to music. I don’t say one style is better than the other, or that Jethro Tull wasn’t emotional – I’m just going on what you say about them. I’m not familiar with them other than the clip you posted.
    And I am flattered that you take the time to read my blog, Uncle Kevin! Sorry if I got a little defensive there, but I do love any comments. 🙂 Thank you.
    (And no, I have no idea what the time signature is at the 8 minute mark. I have no doubt my dad does, though!)

    • Uncle Kevin says:

      I make the “couldn’t come close” comment about so many musical performers because I see such an amazing talent there, which I don’t see elsewhere. You have a guy who writes the music, plays as many different instruments as it takes to get the job done and cultivates musicians around him that can actually perform the complex and difficult music which I can listen to many times and hear some new part of it to enjoy with repeated listening. That’s what makes classical music “classic”, you can listen to it over and over again. It isn’t about eras. The sixties suffered with a form called “Bubble gum rock” and the seventies suffered with Disco. Disco is a prime example of how a popular form can wear out its welcome and a backlash can happen even to the point of albums being burnt at baseball stadia. The eighties was pretty much the era of the one hit wonder which was fostered by the new concept of a “music video” where it was nearly as important to get the visuals correct as making the music any good. To me the nineties wasn’t about any particular musical form except that rap came into its own then and I’m not even sure what constitutes “grunge” since some of it I thought was quite good while some absolutely awful and I couldn’t believe they were meant to be in the same genre. Somewhere along the line Country & Western devolved into something that is more like adult contemporary where the performers wear cowboy hats (sometimes). So in effect I’m bolstering your argument that you can’t really pigeonhole music as “that kind of music”.

      Have you seen this? http://www.buzzfeed.com/provincialelitist/freddy-mercury-beyonce

      It seems to me they could have come up with a lot more examples.

      Speaking of textures and emotions I like this and tend to think of it as 90s music though it is actually from 88:

      Though I don’t know if it can be listened to over and over.

      As to your dad identifying the time signature, I did once challenge him with that and he answered somewhat tentatively “12/8?”. That is the consensus of the music experts anyway. How does anybody come up with anything listenable in a 12/8 time signature anyway? Yet it was done.

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