The concept of cool is messed up for me, and perhaps for everybody. The two bands that remind me of this more than anyone else are the Strokes and the Kings of Leon.
The first part that’s messed up is knowing what being cool actually means. Being cool can’t mean being most popular, because otherwise U2 would be cool. While they are considered awesome and even iconic, they aren’t very cool. In fact, Viva La Vida-era Coldplay would probably be very cool if not so many people liked them. But it’s not a specific number of fans either; I can give examples of bands at every level that are cool and equally liked (roughly numerically, by number of fans) but very not cool.
It’s not a look, either; because the Strokes and Kings of Leon don’t look anything like each other (or at least, they didn’t until recently, which may play into this argument). But they both are/were undeniably cool. What is it that makes a band cool? The Kings of Leon have slick new songs on their new album, but I can point you toward bands that have equally slick songs in a different vein. And Is This It?-era Strokes were cool, and they sound nothing like Kings of Leon.
I wish I could say that the only way that I can tell when a band is cool is when someone tells me; then I could pass it off as a totally objective concept passed around through need to be socially accepted. But it’s not that. I can tell when a band is cool and when a band is not cool. Is it confidence? Is it swagger? (Probably part of it, but not all; I mean Pete Doherty made it entirely on swagger, but Gogol Bordello misses out? who made that rule?)
What’s even more nefarious than coolness is keeping coolness. It’s obvious that Death Cab is not as cool now as they were in the Transatlanticism days, but that can be attributed to major-label washout and new-found prog leanings (now and forever, uncool). Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Vampire Weekend were victims to the fickleness of “new” and thus are not cool any more. Radiohead is still cool. CSS! is still cool (I think). The Postal Service emerged cool and got cooler, even with their stuff being co-opted for commercials galore (anyone who’s anyone has covered a Postal Service song; I have five versions of “Such Great Heights” on my computer, including the original, and I know of several more).
Yes, coolness is fickle. It’s created by something, and it is taken away by that same something. I am astonished when the entire indie-rock world turns on a person, and even more baffled when it celebrates something it seems to not be capable of celebrating (The Decemberists still get play? Really?).
And every time I hear a Kings of Leon song, I know they’re freakin’ cool. But I can’t tell you why, or whether they’ll still be cool in a week.