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King of Cool

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Gilbert Ford

We have a crisis of cool.

I'll give two examples to make the point before suggesting a solution.

The first is the case of a teen-age boy who recently cut his hair into a Mohawk and dyed the remaining fringe of it DayGlo fuchsia. Why? Because it's cool. He thinks so and believes that girls will also--you know, girls with pieces of metal sticking out of their bodies. (Remember when the primary form of teen-age facial disfigurement was acne?) To adult eyes, teen-age boys don't even need chemical enhancement in order to look goofy. It takes being cool to drive a kid to resemble a Magic Marker on stilts.

Now for the second case, involving a very different age group--baby boomers and a couple of people who boomed a littler earlier. It's a geographically dispersed collection of men and women that I have in mind, on both coasts. I will include myself in it, although only so I can use the pronoun "we." Quite independently and over the course of a couple of years, we've concluded that it's time we had a cool car. We also semi-independently concluded that one particular car is the epitome of cool. I will call it really cool car A. A few of us argue that car P is nearly as cool and an acceptable substitute because it shares a lot of parts with car A, yet costs thousands of dollars less. We fans of car A dismiss this as the logic of wimps willing to settle for semi-cool. Sellers of car P have to advertise; sellers of car A seem to have unlisted telephone numbers.

The scary question for me is, What is it that we really like about car A? The answer is that it is big, comfortable, quiet, makes a statement, and goes fast in a straight line. In other words, it has the same virtues our parents saw in the Buicks, Mercurys, and Chryslers they loved when we were kids--cars we regarded as totally un-cool. Are we headed down the same path as our parents, which, by definition, would not be cool at all? Will the next stage for us be thinking that high-belted pants for men and blue hair for women are sexy? Or will we regress, deny our age, and not go gently into AARP? Will the men among us--the ones who have hair--sport bright fuchsia Mohawks? Will the women old enough to be Britney Spears' great-grandmother bare their midriffs and display their navel rings? Either way, it's not pretty.

One of the difficulties is that coolness depends entirely on the context. I recall being in a rough bar (it was field work) with a group, including a woman who ordered a Manhattan. The bartender's response was, "We don't serve no shit like that here." Cool in her own circle, she was decidedly uncool there.

The problem of being cool under social fire is only going to become worse as America becomes more diverse. Instead of turning into a homogeneous mass society, as social critics predicted several decades ago, we're becoming a society with lots of little circles of cool. We're all going to have to learn to move between these circles with a minimum of embarrassment.

We need, in other words, "Cool Counseling." It's an idea whose time has come. Not that I'm dropping hints, but a university with a tradition of innovation needs to start a Cool Counseling program immediately, before it becomes unfashionable and unfundable and, well, uncool.

What, you may ask, would Cool Counseling do? It would help average men and women avoid humiliation by resolving such vexing questions as to whether it's cooler:

--To order a skinny triple latte or to say "gimme a cuppa coffee"

--To recycle an aluminum can or to smash it against your forehead

--To say "chardonnay, please" or say "gimme a Bud in a bag"

--To wear sunscreen or to paint your face the colors of your favorite team.

These are just a few simple everyday examples. The problem of being cool in an increasingly diverse and international world requires much further research, large grants, and a donor deeply committed to Cool Studies.

There is another alternative. We could define "cool" as "being different," or even--most radical of all--just not worry about being cool. But then, that raises the question of "weird."

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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