"Cool" has always been difficult to achieve. It can be accidental, or innate, but want it too much and you're at risk of being marked out as a phoney, or a narc, or a try-hard. The very idea of cool is defined by how arbitrary it is, of how things can totally change, of how something is one thing one day and another the next. It's why Steve Rubell wouldn't let people who looked too much like they wanted to be there into Studio 54; it's why my mom didn't like The Clash. It's being something of a cunt, preserving what's yours with an increasingly niche set of codes and aesthetics, metaphorically and literally keeping the norms at the door. It is the cornerstone of youth culture.
But as time has gone on, this concept has become better understood by the squares. Capitalism has long known that cool sells, but for most of that time, it was always on the back foot, desperately trying to appeal to the kids with ludicrous campaigns like Pepsi's "Generationext" in 1997, where a bunch of Lollapalooza kids ollied over stacked soft drink cans and wigged out to something that sounded a bit like Sneaker Pimps. Don't remember it? That's because it was totally forgettable. Unsurprisingly, it failed in its attempts to rebrand Pepsi as the soft drink for kids who've read a bit of Douglas Coupland.
History is full of examples of ill thought-out attempts on youth culture. Take Billy Joel becoming a new wave groover, or Madonna rapping, or Garth Brooks's deranged attempt at cashing in on the alt-rock market, or Robbie Williams doing grime. But in recent years, it seems that those at the top have finally got hold of what the kids want, not by following, but by leading.
Brands that would have once been ridiculed and condemned for trying to hitch a ride on the wave of youth culture are now basically in charge of it, covering events, websites, and music videos with their logos and heavily targeted slogans. The household name celebrities who would have once been laughed at as bandwagon-jumpers are now held up as trailblazers, whereas those in the underground, paving the way for that all-important cultural acceleration, are largely overlooked, save for a commission or two from an energy drinks brand and a feature in a fashion mag.
The root of this all lies in economics—the money simply fell out of the underground. The old school, cold hard cash injections—when people who bought music, bought magazines, and bought clothes from independent retailers still existed—were almost totally taken out of the equation by the neo-liberal nature of the internet. The underground had to look towards the people still making money, the people who were selling things that could never be disposable, the people whose work was always going to be bought by someone. Thus, this new internet-led culture became totally reliant on brands, major record labels, and the very rich. These monied few were seemingly happy to become patrons of the underground, wearing young designers' clothes to fancy parties, paying to advertise in trendy magazines, paying not-quite-there-yet artists for production jobs and music videos. But, in return, they wanted something. They wanted to be cool. They wanted a piece of it.
What's left is a deal with the devil where the idea of cool has been studied, analyzed, quantified, and commodified beyond all integrity. Where anything that's interesting or exciting becomes something that a brand can jump on, where the idea of "selling out" has become almost hilariously archaic. The belief we have in our creations and our creators has been breached. The whole thing is up for sale to the highest bidder, and it seems almost anybody, or any brand, can suddenly reboot themselves as a swagged-out standard bearer of cool.
An example of how easy it is to reinvent yourself with the right people advising you comes in the unlikely form of British Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton. He's never been a particularly cool guy: a teenage go-kart prodigy from Stevenage turned Formula 1 world champion, Hamilton is undoubtedly a momentous talent and seemingly a nice bloke, but a trailblazer, a pioneer, a maverick, an arbiter of sex, and style and controversy, he is not.
On the track he's excellent, steady, reliable. Off the track, his profile had, until recently, been defined by standing in front of cardboard Santander signs and an on-off relationship with Nicole Scherzinger. In 2008, he listed Natasha Bedingfield and Chaka Demus & Pliers as two of his favorite musical acts. He is, like much of the British sporting establishment, a polite, hard-working, apparently religious young person, tailor-made for the Pride of Britain Awards and Corn Flakes ads.
But over the last year or so, Hamilton has changed. Not content with fake-laughing at Phil Tufnell on Question of Sport, he now hangs out with Gigi Hadid. He wears Givenchy, he "parties too hard," and he claims to be working with Drake. He's got some tattoos, some round-framed shades, some Mark Ronson suits, and a Ruben Loftus-Cheek hair-do. He 's gone from being Prince William to Prince Harry to Prince in no time at all. And fair play to him.
There will be a lot of other people helping him achieve this personality shift: stylists, personal advisors, PRs, agents, party promoters, and a litany of dubious hangers-on. And that's where it becomes a problem. Because it means that being cool is just a series of things you can buy, people you can be seen with, places you can go. Perhaps that was always the case, but now it's more achievable, easier to understand, much less weird and arbitrary: there are entire industries dedicated to making you cooler, as long as you've got the cash. Entire lifestyles and ideas can be bought like Action Man outfits.
This problem runs that gamut of modern culture, from just about every brand under the sun, bar Fray Bentos and Peacocks, to the likes of Kim Kardashian, whose past as a slightly naff valley girl has almost been forgotten since her high-fashion Pygmalion reinvention. See also: Cyrus, Perry, Malik, Bieber. See every other pop star or actor or politician who has employed someone who can change the public perception of who they are.
But what happens to the people who are trying to push culture up from the ground floor? The people who wear the clothes a few years before everyone else does and take all the dodgy looks in the supermarkets, the bus-stop beatings, and the "not tonights" from bouncers? What about the musicians who miss out on the big money and have their ideas ripped off by Disney younglings years later? What about the designers who see their looks watered down and repackaged by the high street, while they struggle to pay the bills? As much as a co-sign from Philip Green or Beyoncé might be great for a struggling artist, ultimately all this system does is keep culture firmly in the hands of an elite, whose wealth and influence means they can pick and choose from the underground whenever they want to while giving little to nothing back.
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Sportswear brands might fetishize the Skepta look and ape the styles, sounds, and language of kids from Tottenham and Brixton, but are they remotely interested in their lives, other than trying to repackage the aesthetics for a high street market? Lewis Hamilton's people might look to the kids who go to Visions in Dalston on a Friday night for stylistic inspiration, but has he ever been there? Is he gonna stump up the cash when it inevitably gets threatened with closure? Don't think so. Does Kim Kardashian have any vested interest in the minority cultures in New York, Paris, and London that birthed many of the designers whose clothes she wears? No. She stays in the Dorchester and hangs out with Anna Wintour. Granted, she might whack a few of them on the payroll every now and again, but there is a shocking lack of real investment in the worlds that are giving them so much. They make left-field creatives servants of real capitalism, gifting them the crumbs from their empires.
The problem is that while the culture is moving upwards, the wealth is staying where it is. And in an economy where very few people are exchanging cash for culture, celebrities, and brands have gained almost total power over it. They can look at someone who is doing something new and exciting, and buy a little bit of what they've created. But that money goes nowhere, and soon they'll be on to the next thing, leaving everyone in a weird gold rush for cool that keeps those at the top where they are, but gives little in the way of longevity to those who are actually responsible for it.
Right now the hipster industrial complex is in its infancy, the distribution of power is still being established. But what happens when brands really start exercising their power? The reality is that we're not far from brands telling artists what to do, how to cater to their interests, how to make them look better and, most worryingly, what they can't do. We're staring down the barrel of an era of corporate censorship—an unprecedented new nightmare, the ripples of which will be felt for decades to come.
The solution is simple, but unpalatable: We probably have to start paying for stuff again. We probably have to start investing in the things we think are exciting earlier than we're used to. Because until we start supporting the underground from the underground, rather than waiting for it to land on a household name's shoulders, on their next album, on an advert for a new pair of football boots, we're going to see a lot of great work being stopped in its tracks.