WASHINGTON. — Washington -- What is cool?
When I was a teen-ager, it was lean, clean and conservative. We wanted to look like our parents, only more cool.
For black teens, cool was Miles. Ramsey. Ray. Diz. Marvin Gaye.
For white teens, cool was James Dean. Elvis. The Beach Boys. The Beatles.
Today's cool look for blacks and whites is baggy, like prison garb. Cool is ''def,'' ''down'' and ''bad,'' pronounced ''ba-a-a-a-ad,'' language that white kids have appropriated from black jazz-world code for ''good,'' the same way they appropriated ''cool.''
Black kids still say it low, slow and easy: ''Coo-o-o-o-ool.''
White kids give it a sparkling lilt: ''Coo-wuhl!''
''What is cool,'' asks the cover of Entertainment Weekly magazine this week. The headline curiously lacks a question mark. Maybe good punctuation isn't cool anymore. Dan Quayle should feel relieved.
Newsweek finds Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) cool enough to put on its cover. ''Rap and Race,'' reads the cover line, ''Beyond Sister Souljah -- The New Politics of Pop Music.''
Newsweek writer John Leland laments the polarization of pop music from 10 years ago when concern for starving Ethiopians was cool and the schmaltzy ''We Are The World'' set a new sales record.
Today's angry racially polarizing rap stars like Sister Souljah, Public Enemy, Ice-T and others pose themselves as Malcolm X once did, as white America's worst nightmare.
Yet, the article goes on to interview some of rap's most enthusiastic consumers: vanilla-white suburban kids. Angry black rap is cool, even if you're white.
It is by fulfilling the moral obligation every teen feels to upset his or her parents that rap becomes cool enough to cross racial and class lines with remarkable ease.
Cool is a litmus test: Who's more cool, Dan Quayle or Sister Souljah?
Need you ask?
Politics ain't cool, today's kids say. Participation by young voters aged 18 to 25 dropped off sharply in this year's primaries -- down to 12 percent from 14 percent of total turnout in the 1988 primaries, according to Georgetown University's Michael Robinson.
''Politics ain't happening,'' said one cheerful but turned-off young man surveyed on MTV's hour-long rap session with Bill Clinton.
Pardon my generational chauvinism, but the politics of the '70s and '80s have not been as cool as politics was in the '60s. The '60s showed many of us how government can improve people's lives, especially those of us who were minorities, poor or elderly. Younger folks know government as an agent for scandals, corruption, fraud, abuse, disappointment and cynicism. Not cool.
Our generation saw tremendous economic growth in the '50s and '60s. Today's youths are unable to afford a house as good as the one they grew up in. Super uncool.
So what's a young person to do in an era of shrinking possibilities? They try to be cool.
For young blacks, the incubator culture of rap, cool is a ''coping strategy,'' according to ''Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America,'' a new book by Richard Majors, of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Janet Mancini Billson, of Rhode Island College.
It's a way for young black males in particular to deal with the ''dilemmas'' of their lives, the authors say. They describe at length the hostile environment faced by most young black males: poverty, violence, racism, negative peer pressures, limited life chances and constricted aspirations, to name a few.
Unfortunately, ''acting cool'' can compel black youths to reject as ''acting white'' the values and behavior that are most likely to bring success in life.
When young men act too cool, deliberately repressing their feelings of love, concern, compassion and sacrifice, it can destroy otherwise healthy romantic, marital and parental life.
''Cool Pose'' is a tantalizing but unfortunately frustrating book. In its 144 pages it teases us with exhaustive documentation of what we already knew, then concludes that ''cool'' cries out for further study. It does. But not in the limited way Mr. Majors and Ms. Billson examine it. There's more to cool than coping with feelings of oppression.
As they point out, quoting African anthropologists, cool probably was born in West African culture long before it was alloyed to the European experience in the crucible of America. But today's youngsters suffer from a lack of a clear definition for cool. It is only in the absence of positive versions of ''cool'' role models and behavior that many turn to destructive, even suicidal versions.
Jesse Jackson didn't help bring clarity when he sided with Sister Souljah after Bill Clinton criticized her imprudent remarks after the Los Angeles riots. Mr. Jackson took the political personally, lashed back at Mr. Clinton's ''character flaw'' and probably helped confirm in the minds of many already skeptical youths that mainstream political involvement, like other mainstream values, isn't worth the bother.
Perhaps now they will depend even more on rap for their ''edutainment,'' as rap star KRS-One calls it, if they bother to listen to the words.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.