What does it mean to be quintessentially ‘American Cool?’
But what makes the concept of “cool”? Cool expresses itself in numerous ways, as self-definition, and you know it when you see it
I was introduced to the concept of American Cool long before I learned English, and many years before I began my American experience. Growing up in Beirut, I was dazzled by the richness and vibrancy of America’s popular culture, the magnetic pull of its cinema and its intoxicating, innovative musical styles and forms. I was swept by the gritty magical sound of Muddy Waters’ blues, the way Elvis Presley sang, rocked and rolled, and the fierce individuality of Miles Davis, the elegance and strength of Gary Cooper, the rebelliousness of Marlon Brando, the taciturn loner John Wayne, the quite intensity of Lauren Bacall and the magnificent raw power and physical poetry of Muhammad Ali. I instinctively felt the allure of their originality, individuality and unique charisma.
First time I met my American cool heroes
The first times I watched classical American movies such as Citizen Kane, and heard my first Jazz ensemble were at cultural programs sponsored by the American embassy in Beirut. In the 1960s and early 70s, downtown Beirut offered a wealth of cultural gifts. Within walking distance you could go to theatres to watch classical and modern plays in Arabic, English and French. We were exposed to European avant-garde cinema, Egyptian films, American film noir and the great works of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Ford and John Huston. Gangster and Western films fascinated me. As a teenager I watched double features with my friends, at matinee time in cheap rundown movie theatres, where at times scurrying rats would interrupt our hurried reading of the Arabic subtitles. It was there that I met my American cool heroes; Bogie and Bacall, Gary Cooper and John Wayne among others. It was in one of those movie theatres that we watched, multiple times, West Side Story, and tried to hum some of the songs including the intense “Cool.” Sometime in the middle of the 1980’s while covering a visit by an Arab leader to the White House I found myself sitting exactly behind Rita Moreno who played Anita, the sharp confident character in the movie. I could not resist telling her where I was when I saw her on the screen for the first time. The whole room heard her roar.
The endless Western vistas and the lone rider on a galloping horse made me dream of someday riding into the sunset as well. Little did I know then, that thirty years later I would don a Western hat, saddle my Tennessee Walker horse Sonny Boy ( named after blues harmonica extraordinaire Sonny Boy Williamson) and literally ride off into the sunset.
The rhythm and the cadence
In America, in the early 1970s, while struggling to study Art History and Philosophy at Villanova University after a crash course in English, I immersed myself deeper into film and music and for the first time in my life I could afford to buy a turn table and some of the LP’s I used to listen to at friends who could afford them in the old country. From then on, my affection, or more accurately as members of my family would say, my obsession, with American music, particularly the blues - the mother of most American music, in addition to my love of horses and fascination with the American civil war would shape and define my private life.
Cool, as a signature style denoting individuality and an in your face attitude of “Don’t mess with me or my space,” is an original American conceptHisham Melhem
Finally, I could watch my favorite movies without subtitles; and repeat my favorite Bogie quotes from Casablanca and To Have and Have Not and imitate John Wayne’s distinctive slow drawl. Only then could I fully understand and marvel at the stoicism and silent strength of Gary Cooper in High Noon, while engrossed by the swinging of the pendulums in the numerous clocks in the God forsaken town of Hadleyville, slicing time indefinitely with each swing until the bloody crescendo. High Noon was quintessentially American for it celebrated individualism under adversity. Only the cool, tall, handsome and laconic Cooper with his considerable physical presence could play the lone Marshal Will Kane. Finally, I could sing along with Dean Martin my favorite Cowboy song My Rifle, My Pony and Me, from the movie Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks and John Wayne’s antithesis of High Noon) and read Hemingway and Steinbeck in English and not in less than excellent Arabic translations.
Saved by the bell
Years later, I discovered that I owe America’s popular culture a great debt of gratitude, because it kept me from drifting away from America, even when its policies in the Middle East and East Asia have alienated my generation of Arabs. Growing up in the tumultuous 1960s in Beirut, particularly after the disastrous defeat of 1967, it was natural that my feet would be planted deeply in the Left, with all that it would entail in terms of looks and outlooks, believing naively that Che Guevara was our secular saint and that the student uprisings of 1968 would change the world. (In due course the founding brothers would replace Marx and Engels, and Abraham Lincoln would become, and remains, my secular saint; and the more I mellowed politically, the more my hairline receded). The Lebanese press covered the struggle for civil rights in America and the anti-war movement, and we knew of the life and the tragic death of Martin Luther King and we were vaguely familiar with other black leaders such as Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael and of course Malcolm X. I watched with dismay many a friend who shared my leftist proclivities in those days, allow their alienation from U.S. policies in the Middle East whether over the Palestine question or support for Arab autocracy to turn into downright demonization of America as a polity and as a culture. I was never in such danger because how could you hate that which gives your soul never ending sustenance? I was saved by the bell of all those people and things that conspired to make the U.S. unique, original and truly exceptional not economically or militarily but culturally.
Cool, as a signature style denoting individuality and an in your face attitude of “Don’t mess with me or my space,” is an original American concept that found expression in countless - mostly African- American - musicians, artists, athletes, actors and writers. If you claim you are cool, then you are not; you are truly cool when others see, feel and sense that quality in you. It is an elastic concept that is difficult to define, in part because it is organic and keeps unfolding. It is American par excellence, because only in democratic America can individuals, regardless of their socio-economic or ethnic background, assert themselves and express their persona carving out their own place in music, cinema and literature. Both Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley were truck drivers before they revolutionized blues and rock and roll. Being cool has nothing to do with your political orientation. John Wayne and Gary Cooper were very conservative, while Angela Davis and Malcolm X were anchored in the Left.
But what makes the concept of “cool”? Cool expresses itself in numerous ways, as self-definition, and you know it when you see it. Cool is not earned for life. You could be cool today and uncool tomorrow. Young Elvis Presley was all cool; his style, persona, individuality and not so subtle sexual energy and he did what many cool people do; he broke the mold and left a lasting impact on his music form. Young Elvis’ social and cultural impact was tremendous when he fused “race music,” that is blues, with country and rockabilly and delivered his early blues songs (recorded originally by African-American singers). He introduced the blues to white America, thus helping improve race relations. However, the older, fatter version of Las Vegas Presley, with his gaudy costumes, was definitely not cool.
What does it mean to say someone is cool?
Trying to explain the nuanced meanings of cool, and why it is a “native” American phenomenon, and its roots in the tragic and artistically rich African-American experience - particularly in the two greatest American music forms in the 20th century: blues and Jazz - is the subject of the American Cool exhibit currently at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
The exhibit asks one main question: what does it mean to say someone is cool? The curators selected the photographs of the one hundred coolest Americans from a list of five hundred names. They used four criteria: originality of the artistic vision, a rebellious dimension, recognized distinction and a recognized legacy.
The exhibit traces the roots of cool to the 19th century long before the concept was given to such luminaries as the poet Walt Whitman who exuded artistic and stylistic originality in his poetry and life style, and Frederick Douglass the iconic former slave who struggled mightily to eradicate that scourge by forging a “public identity that attracted others to his side and that countered the demeaning stereotypes that traditionally adhered to black masculinity.” In the section titled “The Birth of Cool: 1940-1959” we see how legendary Jazz saxophonist Lester Young first disseminated the concept of cool and made it an integral part of Jazz culture. In this context cool meant poise, self-control, and autonomy where African-American artists had to work and create in a racist society. Here we meet Humphrey Bogart one of the coolest Americans to ever have lived. As historian Joel Dinerstein said “Bogart was recognized around the world as a new type and as a distinctly American character: the ethical rebel loner.” In this group we meet a Jazz icon, Charlie “Bird” Parker who popularized the word cool and helped create the bebop sound that radically transformed Jazz. Here we also meet Gary Cooper, the silent rugged man of the West, and Billie Holiday Who sang the blues like no other tragic woman and who was called “the essence of cool” by Duke Ellington. Muddy Waters, arguably the greatest bluesman in the post war era (and my all-time favorite) graces this section. The “Mojo Man” was the leading musician who electrified Delta blues and created probably the most beautiful blues style known as “Chicago blues.” It was Muddy who sang “The blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll.” In the section titled “Cool and the Counterculture: 1960-79” we meet actor Steve McQueen, nicknamed the “king of cool,” and Muhammad Ali, the champion of champions with his good looks, raw power and incredible grace.
The concept of cool has been an integral part of America’s popular culture since the end of the Second World War. Those Americans who personified cool played a crucial role in making America’s popular culture the Lingua Franca of an interconnected world. Is there a person in the world who owns a radio or a television who has not heard of Elvis Presley? Or Muhammad Ali? Or Hollywood? History will show that those American cool cats who best represented American Exceptionalism helped defeat the Soviet Union with their sounds, rhythms, words and motion pictures. It is so cool to contemplate American Cool.
Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem