Labeling the essence of cool

December 22, 1997|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WHEN DID ''cool'' come to mean ''fitting in''?

Christmas being one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar, my youngest boys plan to rise early that morning, steal downstairs in the coolness of pre-dawn, kneel reverently before the tree and pray that when they open their eyes, they'll see Old Navy shirts and Air Jordan athletic shoes. These are priority items on their annual gimme lists.

I used to think it was just all-American greed. Actually, I still do. But I've also come to realize that what motivates my boys is more complicated than avarice. The aim is not simply to acquire loot, but to acquire cool. I concluded this the day my youngest son asked how it was possible to be cool without having the proper brand name stitched on one's backside.

Chalk one up for Madison Avenue. They've got kids believing cool is something you buy in a store.

The thing is, cool was originally about standing out, not fitting in. To thine own self be true -- that was the essence of it. Indeed, the concept came into general usage as a synonym for the iconoclast, the maverick, the rebel with or without a cause whose sense of self was so strong that conformity couldn't contain it. From Miles Davis to James Dean, the truly cool never moved by popular consensus. They did what they felt and let consensus follow them.

What a difference a generation makes.

Now one is cool only if one is in a crowd, every decision of fashion and taste seconded by a chorus of like thinkers.

Alarming trend

In retrospect, the alarm bells should have gone off back when companies started marketing jeans factory-ripped to make them look worn. Suddenly the uniform of scruffy hippies was available in suburban malls. Now those same malls market baggy jeans and head rags -- the uniform of the inner-city gangsta -- to kids whose closest connection with the inner city is a freeway overpass at 60 miles per hour.

There's nothing surprising here, I suppose. We all need to belong to something.

It just troubles me to see how efficiently that need is exploited by those who market to young people. There's a reason, after all, that the designer label phenomenon finds less traction among older adults; by and large they already know who they are.

Young people, on the other hand, are still searching for self, still seeking ways to be cool, still trying to stand out by fitting in.

XTC Somewhere along the way, cool became too successful for its own good. Rebelliousness attacked the old conformist standard but became the new one. So now what? Miles Davis and James Dean are long gone . . . what does cool do for an encore? How does it define itself now, when hipness is just another product?

More importantly, what do you say to the kid who rushes downstairs on Christmas morning hoping to find the brand names that will send him back to school cool? You don't want to break your kid's heart or do something that ostracizes him, yet let us not forget that one occasionally hears of children being killed over a pair of shoes.

So I buy these things -- if at all -- with hesitation and a certain wariness for the power they hold. And, with a wish that more children might understand that they are important because of who they are, not what they wear.

Now, "that" would be cool.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 12/22/97

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