Cool's Hot-and-Cold Constituency

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The cool hunters have embraced Barack Obama. Paper magazine, whose mission is to seek out, identify and support coolness, has dedicated a fashion editorial in its March issue to the Illinois senator.

Yes, a magazine aimed at self-identified hipsters, that documented the rise of hip-hop culture and chronicled the success of cross-dressers like RuPaul, has named a politician as inspiration for a story on style. A politician has a "look" worth celebrating? Has the Earth shifted on its axis? Or have the standards of cool sunk terribly low?

And in a culture where cool is equated with Ugg boots, raw-food restaurants and enthusiasms that long ago exhausted their 15 minutes of fame, is this an embrace a politician should welcome?

Called "Mr. President," the feature shows an array of young black men dressed in dark, slightly too-big suits. One of the models has particularly prominent ears. Another wears his suit jacket with an open-collar white shirt. They are not meant to be Obama doppelgangers, but merely to convey the candidate's "look."

The magazine's co-founder and editor, Kim Hastreiter, said Obama's slim build, his youth and, most important, his body language caught her eye.

"It's style not fashion," she said in an e-mail. "Most straight men aren't into fashion.

"Many men (especially not politicians!) don't have the ease and personal style and confidence that I see in a man like Barack Obama. Casual yet boardroom ready without being too formal or intimidating. He just seems to look comfy in his own skin."

We're used to politicians adhering to a uniform. Except for a few subtle differences related to quality, tailoring and choice of tie, the political suit is mostly interchangeable. Obama wears a traditional suit, too. His most distinctive aesthetic flourish is taking off his tie. But in a homogeneous landscape, at least that's something.

Yet mostly what distinguishes Obama is that he is a skinny man in a conservative suit. He looks boyish in fashion's most grown-up uniform. He is a black man standing where no other black man has ever been. And he appears utterly comfortable there. To Hastreiter, that looks like cool.

Hastreiter still sees a kind of cool embodied by the likes of Miles Davis, Mick Jagger or the beat poets. It is a 1960s version based not on attire but on confidence, self-satisfaction and life philosophy. The cool cats seemed to be living to the rhythms of a personal soundtrack. That notion meant something; it had longevity. Who would declare Jagger uncool even today?

But the definition of cool has changed over the years. It has become synonymous with trendy. Modern cool is fickle. It has a short shelf life. Like so many other things, the idea of cool has become slicker and prepackaged. It is signified by pop culture knowledge and more than a passing familiarity with slang. It's identified by the clothes one wears and the manner in which they are worn. (Do you wear laces with your sneakers? How terribly uncool.) Cool has become petulant and superior.

Today, coolness has been defined as something so distinctly of-the-moment that it cannot possibly last. As Heidi Klum says, "One day you're in. The next day you're out." And that makes coolness a volatile form of political currency. One never knows when it will suddenly bottom out. Yet politicians actively seek cool status in order to paint an image of grass-roots authenticity and iconoclastic thinking. They want cool to mean something it no longer does.

From irreverent blog postings on their campaign Web sites to chatty e-mail blasts, informality has become a way of getting cool credentials. Mike Huckabee hauled out both his bass guitar and Chuck Norris. Musicianship and irony? Surely they are automatic signifiers of cool. Hillary Clinton turned up on "The Tyra Banks Show" and on "Ellen," bearing a bag of kooky gifts and one-liners that emphatically announced that she can be self-deprecating and wry.

Kitsch may be the more sound investment. It lasts forever. John McCain's off-key rendition of "Memories" -- posted on his Web site -- is just as funny in 2008 as it was in 2002 because it's pure kitsch. But what's cool this week can be a yawn by next month. And beware the cliched death knell for cool: It turned corporate. It sold out. It's over.

The fleeting nature of modern-day cool doesn't matter so much when it applies to Frappuccinos or baby doll dresses. When people get bored, the company can come up with another caffeine-delivery system, another silhouette. But when "cool" is used to describe a person's character, outlook and state of being, the person risks being seen as insubstantial as the label.

By far, Obama has racked up the most coolness points, from appearing on the cover of Vibe's "Juice" issue last year to being the subject of the Will.I.Am "Yes We Can" video. Now, Hastreiter has identified him as 1960s-style cool for a new generation. Will all that add up to longevity? That depends on whether it's a poet in those roomy suits or nothing more substantial than a can of Red Bull.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company