There have always been two poles of cool: square, normie, basic stuff at one end; cutting-edge, avant-garde stuff at the other. Marvel movies versus musique concrète. Between the two is what can crudely be termed “semicool”: things that confer status but aren’t too weird or impractical. Reading the London Review of Books, wearing Acne Studios, wearing pleated trousers, going to the Barbican, bouldering, watching films at the BFI, subscribing to Mubi, collecting vintage art gallery posters, collecting mid-century furniture, collecting Fitzcarraldo Editions books, holidaying in the Balkans, and thinking George Harrison is the best Beatle all come to mind.
So does the more tasteful, in-the-know end of electronic music. One quintessential example is Kieran Hebden, the 45-year-old DJ and producer known as Four Tet. His varied catalogue includes muscular techno and 20-minute interpretations of Indian raga. The garish build-ups and bass drops of more commercial dance music are almost entirely absent.
Which is why seventeen thousand Americans waving smartphones in the air is not what he usually sees when he looks up from his DJ decks. But that’s what greeted Four Tet last month when he played a sold-out show in Madison Square Garden, the Manhattan sports arena that more often hosts the New York Knicks. He was DJing as part of an unlikely trio, alongside Skrillex, a 35-year-old American producer best known for his obnoxious, bass-drop-heavy take on dubstep, and Fred Again, 29, son of a KC and godson of Brian Eno.
Since he stopped producing for Ed Sheeran and started releasing his own music, Fred Again – Frederick John Philip Gibson to his old housemaster at Marlborough College – has become very popular. His gigs sell out in seconds. When tickets are released my Instagram stories are a slide show, alternating between delight and despair. His more melodic, accessible slant on “underground” dance music has attracted fans who weren’t typically into the genre before. They live in Clapham, or Balham, or certain bits of Brixton. They might work in digital marketing, or for a second-tier corporate law firm. They didn’t go to many techno nights at university.
But increasingly, they do go to the day festivals – such as Field Day, Waterworks, and Junction 2 – that now spring up in London’s parks every summer. These have three-figure ticket prices and are usually (and successfully) marketed towards young professionals. Four Tet is one of the many respected DJs who play at them. Another is Bicep, a Northern Irish duo who began by blogging about obscure house music and have now become hugely successful. Their second album, released in 2021, reached number two on the UK charts. That year they were nominated for two Brit Awards.
Now Bicep are in danger of becoming a punchline. One of the more obnoxious characters in the first series of Industry does MDMA and babbles about wanting to “sell the business and follow Bicep around Europe”. A friend of mine has “you shouldn’t go out with me if you think Bicep are cool” on his Hinge profile.
Popularity has, in most cases, not debased quality. These DJs still play and produce great music. But there’s no social cachet in liking something everybody else likes. Unless you’re a 20-year-old fashion student or a 70-year-old multidisciplinary artist, pure, uncut, 100 per cent cool is hard to pin down. I’m not going to attempt to describe it because I don’t really know what it is. Semi-cool has usually stood in for cool in the popular imagination, because the latter – well, because the latter wouldn’t be what it is if it troubled the popular imagination. Cool is, to repurpose the late Donald Rumsfeld as a cultural theorist, an unknown unknown.
But semi-cool is now dissolving as a distinct aesthetic and social category. This is partly down to the internet democratising cultural knowledge and accelerating trends. The Berlin magazine 032c has termed this “the big flat now”: once culture is digitised, its historical and geographical structures evaporate. Everything is here, not there; now, not then. The same is true with hierarchies of taste. You can see where a trendy restaurant is because an in-the-know acquaintance has tagged it on Instagram. A celebrity wears a certain hoodie, then it’s all over your feed, then it’s all over the fashion media, then Shein and Boohoo have made and marketed their rip-offs of it, and then it’s over, and it all happened so dizzyingly fast.
Cool is more resistant to this than semi-cool, because it’s more difficult to digest. Normies won’t trek to a restaurant on a distant industrial estate to try any given cuisine, but they will go to a small-plates reimagining of it in Bermondsey. They won’t try and pull off the deconstructed shirts and dresses of Comme des Garçons, but they will array themselves in the Scandi-Japanese minimalism of Muji, Uniqlo, Arket and Norse Projects.
There’s a social parallel involving the kinds of jobs associated with semi-cool – things like journalism, academia and arts administration, which are a step removed from being a full-blown poet or painter. They now incur much more of a financial penalty, relative to a corporate job, than they used to. These professions never promised luxury, but they did deliver a respectable middle-class lifestyle for even the moderately successful. But try buying a house in centralish London today off an income that isn’t made in, or by servicing, the City. So instead, people commit to full-on artistic penury, or, as is far more common, drift into something more corporate. The market provides options: content writing and PR for hacks, jargon-heavy brand consultancy for PhDs, visual-heavy brand consultancy for gallerists.
The result is a polarisation of cool. Like ink landing on wet paper, culture that can diffuse will do so quickly; the rest will remain unknown to all but a few. Those with the luxury of choosing their profession, meanwhile, will be choosing between living in a warehouse or townhouse, with all the restrictions and social biases that come with either. Call it Claphamisation, after the London neighbourhood of choice for graduates with dependable jobs and straightforward tastes. Gentrification took your money, or forced you to care about money more than you would’ve done otherwise. Now Claphamisation is coming for your cool.