Conventional knowledge traces the birth of “cool” to 1957, with the release of Miles Davis’ aptly titled LP Birth of the Cool. Sure, there was cool before “cool.” In renaissance Italy, sprezzatura was used to describe a sort of unaffected nonchalance of demeanour highly coveted among young courtiers. Plenty of young bohemians in the following centuries cultivated recognizable aspects of coolness, but the particular convergence of attitude and cultural flair we now associate with the term didn’t begin to coalesce until the 20th century.
While plenty of academics have tried, most layfolk don’t attempt to define “cool.” It’s enough to know it when you see it. Kanye West is “cool,” OneRepublic less so. The Velvet Underground is, The Partridge Family isn’t. But while “cool,” as both a construct and a slang term, has proved surprisingly durable over multiple decades, its offshoots don’t have as much staying power. Try calling one of your friends “radical” or “gnarly” in 2014, and watch them snicker. The latest iteration is “swag.”
Of the Top 40 set, the figure most associated with term “swag” is one Justin Bieber, the international teen idol who has spent the last year or so publicly engaging in behaviour that some pop culture observers might describe as “being the worst.” His fascination with the phrase/general concept of swag acted as a bridge between the two phases of his career – from Beatle-mopped, puppy-dog-eyed crooner to tattooed, debauched wannabe-Chris Brown with a semi-permanent squint. He’ll serve as a useful microcosm.
An important note: Bieber is white, and “swag” was not his invention. The term is directly lifted from black American hip hop. His (and his ‘handlers’) likeliest introduction would be from rap behemoths like Drake or Jay Z, but there’s an entire subgenre called “swag rap,” exemplified by collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA), famous for their fusion of hip hop with influences from both do-it-yourself punk culture and the weirder corners of the internet. Another candidate is Lil B, the Based God himself, who you almost certainly know from Twitter. Some have called swag rap a successor to the socially conscious, anti-mainstream, subgenre of backpack rap of the previous decade (crossover successes from this movement include Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, and even Yeezus himself). While swag rap isn’t as rigorous in its rejection of the mainstream and its capitalist trappings, both movements can be seen as a reaction to the blatantly materialistic leanings of the gangsta rap that came before them.
It appears that the specifics of this history have found their way to Mr. Bieber. Bieber seems to have little interest in OFWGKTA’s surreal digital class clown vibe. His swag seems to largely involve layered hoodies, jewelry, and certain vaguely-defined affectations. “I’m very influenced by black culture, but I don’t think of it as black or white,” Bieber told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s not me trying to act or pose in a certain way. It’s a lifestyle – like a suaveness or a swag, per se.” He famously employed a “swag coach,” another white man (Ryan Good, assigned by Usher, officially titled “tour manager”) to teach him different “swaggerific things to do,” in the words of the Toronto Star. But no aspect of swag intrigued him like the word itself. At certain points, it seemed Bieber has become a swag Pokémon, incapable of saying much beyond his borrowed catchphrase (see the masterfully crafted lyrics to “Boyfriend”: “Swag, swag, swag on you/Chillin’ by the fire while we eating fondue”).
Hip hop isn’t the only aspect of black American culture to be pillaged for sexy new vocabulary. A small cache of slang that’s recently emerged into the mainstream can be clearly traced to an extremely specific area: the black queer community of New York City. Years ago, “throwing shade” (to talk trash about someone) was something said by black drag queens, and not too many others. Now it has a starring role in E! Online and Gawker headlines. Your mom probably understands it. Currently in the process of making this journey to white straight North America are “getting life,” (to receive accolades) and the noun “kiki,” which refers to a very specific type of gossip session among friends. But you probably knew that. The Scissor Sisters wrote a song about it, aptly titled “Let’s Have A Kiki.”
There’s no point in going into detail regarding white appropriation of black “coolness,” especially with regard to music – it’s an old story and many of us already know the specifics. Led Zeppelin stole from Muddy Waters; before them, Elvis stole from everyone. “Cool” was born in black culture, specifically jazz, and appropriated by the white mainstream, presumably thirsty for a type of perceived authenticity that could only be found in the cultural product of those who have been oppressed.
We should, of course, note that the Biebs declared swag to be “played out” sometime in the fall of last year. He’s grown up, moved on, presumably. He can do that, as a white pop artist: take up aspects of cultures not his own, use them to further his own success, then discard them at will. Not even just the mainstream, if we’re to be honest; white rapper Iggy Azalea wears saris in her music videos, and indie rock group Vampire Weekend rode to fame on gussied-up afropop. Pop cultural cool is a museum in the truest sense – full of cultural artifacts “curated” (stolen) from disparate cultures by the privileged oppressor.