Much like Justice Potter’s definition of pornography (He couldn’t describe it, but famously said, “I know it when I see it”), cool is a slippery term. So this week, we’re asking: What artist or pop culture will—in your eyes—forever capture the essence of “cool”?
I think at this point it would be impossible to separate any interpretation of the concept of “cool” and Janelle Monáe. From her unwavering command over her sense of self to her ability to seemingly connect with everyone she crosses—both artistically and inter-personally—Monáe has a tight grasp of “it,” whatever that may be, while so many of us find ourselves searching for some semblance of understanding. Her music, which embraces both her love of sci-fi and her penchant for storytelling, is such a strong reflection of her most authentic self; you never get the sense that she’s churning out music to appease anyone but herself. We’re all welcome to partake in her journey but make no mistake, Monáe is always in the driver’s seat. And there really isn’t anything cooler than creating your own path, which she’s been forging since even before Metropolis: Suite I.
Covering the news for the last few years has convinced me that very few people are actually cool, but I’ll happily make an exception for people who are also robots because it’s hard to get much cooler than Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk. For starters, wearing light-up robot masks and metal-plated gloves with regular street clothes is an awesome look. But I appreciate the way they use the robot gimmick as a way to separate themselves from stardom. Virtually every public appearance they’ve made since the ’90s has been in disguise, to the extent that they supposedly sent imposters onstage at the 2014 Grammys so they could hang out in the audience. That’s a serious commitment to the idea of not wanting to be in the spotlight, and I can absolutely relate. Also, they make cool music that transcends the “electronic” label, and the shot of them wearing caps in the snow in The Weeknd’s “I Feel It Coming” video should be in a museum.
I’m sorry, everybody, but it’s time to face the truth. None of us, no matter how hard we try—and especially if we’re trying really hard—can ever dream of being even close to as cool as David Bowie. I ask you: How many people have existed in this world cool enough to have their wardrobes turned into traveling museum exhibitions? Who was not only present, but at the forefront, of every trend in rock music, from the psychedelic ’60s through the industrial ’90s and beyond? Who, despite being a trendsetter, knew better than to attempt his own out-of-touch attempt at a hip-hop record, but who made music with hooks good enough that they’ve become popular hip-hop sample material? Who was sexy and stylish enough to be a movie star, but knew himself well enough to channel his own feline charisma into all of his screen characters? Who’s been name-checked in songs by Parliament, the Clash, Kraftwerk, Nina Hagen, Built To Spill, Brian Jonestown Massacre, They Might Be Giants, and Flight Of The Concords—to name just a few? Who lived for years on a diet of milk, red peppers, and cocaine, and had a 4-foot-deep fur-lined bed in his living room he called “the pit” where he and Mick Jagger used to throw orgies? David fucking Bowie, that’s who. And you better not forget it.
I’m probably revealing as much about me as her with my pick, but I’ve gotta go with the person who has always seemed to me too impossibly cool for words: Fran Lebowitz. The writer, in her signature bespoke men’s suit jackets and tortoiseshell glasses, is a perpetual motion machine of the best possible opinions, phrased in the best possible way. Even when you disagree with her, she couches her argument in such delectably biting form, it’s impossible to not fall under the sway of her personality. If you haven’t yet watched Public Speaking, Martin Scorsese’s 2010 documentary capturing a truly spectacular assemblage of interview clips, there’s a chance you may not totally understand this choice. If I were forced to get one of those odious WWJD?-style tattoos, it would likely be with her name inserted—not because I want to live the same life or make the same choices she has, but simply to get her withering and delicious assessment of any given situation.
I honestly hate to give this particular win to Quentin Tarantino—who’s spent so many years actively trying to cultivate “cool” as a brand that he should be disqualified from consideration on sheer expended effort alone—but damn if my mind didn’t immediately flip to Pulp Fiction and The Wolf when this topic first arose, and damn if I can’t shake him even as I search around for a less clearly manufactured option. As written, Marsellus Wallace’s go-to fixer is a ridiculous character, showing up in a tuxedo to a crime scene at 9 a.m., growling out one-liners, and subtly intimidating the movie’s previously established badasses in order to establish his tough guy bona fides. And yet, Harvey Keitel is so likably calm in the role that you can’t help but gravitate to him, as he treats the splattered brains of poor Phil LaMarr as one more mildly troubling workday annoyance, and happily sips his cream-and-sugar-heavy coffee in unshakeable peace. “Cool” is, at its core, an aspirational quality, and who wouldn’t want to be the guy who solves every problem with dapper sangfroid, hosing down dorky hit-men, getting all the best lines, and even taking Julia Sweeney out to breakfast with utterly unflappable charm?
For me, “cool” lies in the intersection between mystery and consistency. I’m not interested in evolution or trends, but rather someone whose identity arrived so fully formed that there’s no need to change because the times change with them. That leads me to David Lynch, who, for more than 50 years, has watched the majority of his artistic whims—be they in film, music, art, or otherwise—age with grace and blossom in the shared imagination of his audience. What’s “cool” can’t be articulated, and so it goes for his films, these sumptuous, violent portraits that remain timeless in their impenetrability—“cool,” I’d wager, is something to luxuriate in, not dissect. The man is an extension of his vision, revealing himself in interviews to be an amiable enigma who will happily talk woodworking and the joyous consistency of a good, simple meal—for seven years straight he ate at a Bob’s Big Boy—while refusing to delve into why the five Woody Woodpecker dolls he once called his “boys” are “not in my life anymore.” For me, admiration often results in this weird mix of wanting to know everything about somebody without really knowing anything at all—that, to me, is how I see Lynch.