The Magazine


Jan 19, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 18 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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The Conquest of Cool is marked by a certain dogged repetitiveness -- an almost exhaustive marshaling of proof -- that is perhaps owed to its start as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Chicago. At times, Frank overstates his case, leaving the impression that virtually everything sold in the sixties was first plugged as some hip artifact, and that big firms pumped the bulk of their ad budgets into huge countercultural-theme campaigns that extolled youth. But of course huge companies with diverse product lines have long sought connection with varying constituencies. Chrysler, for example, manufactured lots of boxy Dodge Darts during that turbulent decade, and, one assumes, didn't use some hip leitmotif to sing the car's dull but durable virtues. And even while pressing drivers to join "the Dodge Rebellion," Chrysler continued to sponsor Bob Hope's television shows, linking itself with a mainstream performer hardly at odds with "the silent majority."

Still, Frank has produced a refreshingly spirited book and some useful social history. He is right to note that much of what we have been taught to think of as "the sixties" in fact started in the fifties, its mental atmosphere glimpsed in the bestsellers by Packard, Wilson, and Whyte. He is also right to accept the premise that American culture is now Pop Culture -- or even Pulp Culture -- and that both free speech and a free market did much to democratize values and attitudes that previous generations would have largely dismissed as pernicious or infantile. And he is probably very close to the mark when he declares that "the counterculture," broadly defined, has become "a more or less permanent part of the American scene, a symbolic and musical language for the endless cycles of rebellion and transgression that make up so much of our mass culture."

Thus in films, advertisements, and elsewhere, one still routinely sees "the figure of the cultural rebel, the defiant individualist," whether he is "an athlete decked out in mohawk and multiple-pierced ears, a policeman who plays by his own rules," or "a soldier of fortune with explosive bow and arrow, a longhaired alienated cowboy gunning down square cowboys, or a rock star in leather jacket and sunglasses." This figure not only "rules supreme" in advertising, but has become "the paramount cliche of our popular entertainment, the preeminent symbol of the system he is supposed to be subverting."

One also recognizes the "central-casting prudes and squares" -- the schoolteachers, old folks, evangelical preachers, and pompous do-gooders -- " against whom contemporary advertising, rock stars, and artists routinely cast themselves." It is absurd, of course, the endless parade of these stereotypical sitting ducks. But, as Frank writes, such cliches thrive "on some cultural logic of their own: Rebellion is both the high- and mass- cultural motif of the age; order is its great bogeyman."

And after reading The Conquest of Cool, it's hard not to conclude that the folks who brought you Mr. Clean and the Marlboro Man helped bring the Cultural Revolution too.

Brian Murray teaches at Loyola College in Baltimore.