For more than two decades, Joel Dinerstein, a cultural historian and professor of English at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, has been asking his students who and what they consider cool. The author of multiple books on the subject, including 2017’s The Origins of Cool in Postwar America, Dinerstein teaches a course on the history of cool. About five or six years ago, or perhaps a little more—he can’t remember exactly—he noticed a change in what his students were telling him.
“They no longer thought of any given iconic figure or celebrity as cool if they didn’t also have a social activist or political activist—if not an agenda, at least a stance,” he says. “That was completely new. Cool and politics were not really connected for a long time, and certainly not at the beginning.”
When Black Americans first coined the term in the jazz clubs of the late 1930s, a period of racist Jim Crow laws that left little hope of political change, cool described a composed detachment and emphasis on the musician’s individuality. It wasn’t about correcting injustices, but keeping your head despite them. It has since mutated a good deal, growing into an alternate form of status that applies as much to products and brands as people.