By Mitchell Ryan

Fenn is cool: Tracing the Outline of Cool

The word “cool” is one of the few words I actually remember entering my vocabulary. Sometime around the age of four, speaking in the playground to a friend of mine who had two older sisters in primary school at the time—a vital lifeline to a world of more colourful, expressive language. Although I remember my friend trying to describe and explain the new expression to me, the words he used have long since been forgotten. But this sense of “cool” has nonetheless lingered with me since, weaving itself in and out of my speech patterns with a regularity that has eluded other less enduring slang words—gnarly, rad, hip, groovy, etc. The endurance of “cool” is in part because of its slipperiness; its adaptability to a range of contexts. A quick scan of the trusty Pocket Macquarie Dictionary brings about these definitions:

adj. 1. a. pleasantly cold b. giving a feeling of pleasant coldness. 2. a. calm; unexcited. b. not enthusiastic; unfriendly. 3. without shame; unperturbed. 4. colloq. (of a number or sum) without exaggeration. 5. (of colours) with mostly green, blue, violet. 6. (of jazz) controlled, subtle, and relaxed. 7. Colloq. a. attractive; excellent. b. smart; up-to-date; fashionable. n. 8. a. the condition of being cool. b. a cool time, place, etc. 9. Colloq. calmness of manner; composure.           v.t., v.i., 10. to make or become cool.         v. 11. cool off or down colloq. a. to become cool. b. to stop being angry; become calmer or more reasonable. 12. cool one’s heels, to be kept waiting.

*

55: the number of times the word “cool” is sung on The Definition of Cool, the debut album from Fenn is cool, the new project by Sydney-based musician, Fenn Idle (otherwise recognisable as the drummer of Okin Osan).

*

And in the darkness of the night
I watch TV
Channel two
And in the darkness of the night
I watch TV
Me and you

1964: Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan designated television a “cool” medium. In opposition to a “hot” media like film or the printed word, which he read as high definition sources that provided audiences with an excess of information, cool media such as television were low definition, condensed, and participatory; the viewer was required to fill in the gaps of communication. A lot has changed in the 64 years since McLuhan made this distinction. For one thing, his role as the first-cab-off-the-media-studies-rank has resulted in the ongoing influence (and dissection) of his ideas. 

Yet can a media theory of the 1960s be applied as readily today as it was back then? McLuhan sitting on a sofa watching TV in his Toronto living room in the dead of winter offers a radically different experience to that of watching TV today. Over the past two summers (It’s so fucking hot this time of year), Australian TV audiences were treated to regular ads from the notoriously hot-headed cricketer David Warner as he lounges back and endorses the crisp clarity of the new LG OLED TV. Out of this, a sort of social and medial entropy emerges. As TV becomes hotter (with the increase in high definition screens and big-budget shows that are becoming more and more cinematic), viewers are becoming cooler. The digitisation of TV over the last five years has enabled a shift in the landscape—one where the large national broadcast companies that controlled the air are gradually being taken on by even larger multi-national streaming ‘services.’ TV has become unmoored. Viewers binge entire seasons on the couch or in bed, no longer dictated by broadcast schedules, ad breaks, and the rhythms of the clock/calendar. The hot build-up of anticipation while waiting for next week’s episode is lost to the cool stasis of watching an entire series in one sitting. 

I watch movies
I watch TV and then
I obsess about people I see
If I could be
I would be just like them
Rich and famous like them
Not a nothing person
So important like them
Not a waste of a person
That would be the best

Like McLuhan and Warner, Fenn spends a considerable amount of the album poised in front of the TV. He ponders the lives of celebrities that are played out on the other side of the world in a considerably different social and economic situation to his own. In such a mediated reality, the relationship of Chris Pratt and Anna Faris bears a direct relationship to our own lives; if celebrities (the demi-gods of today?) break up, then what hope do the rest of us have? It leads to a long, anxious train of thought to which Fenn disparagingly reminds himself: You need to chill and not let it get to your head/You’re not that hot. Here we are back at the hot/cool dichotomy. Thumbing through my out-dated dictionary, ‘hot’ can be defined as “new; fresh” and “popular”, but, more colloquially, it is a certain attractiveness—perhaps pertaining to a level of social cool?

He sat opposite me on the couch
Said he could not see the TV
I did not listen to him
Instead, listened to the sound of the man on my screen

The TV crops up once more on the album in ‘Cathedral,’ a re-writing of the Raymond Carver story of the same name (following in the footsteps of Paul Kelly, who rewrote So Much Water So Close To Home into his song ‘Everything’s Turning To White’). Carver’s prose is cool and minimal, it breezes by as you read, yet the best of his short stories leave me with a whisky-warm comfort through my chest. Cathedral centres around a meeting between an unnamed married couple and a friend of the wife’s, Robert, a blind widower who had been in a tape-recorded pen pal relationship with the wife for many years and had come to stay the night while on his way to visit his in-laws. The reception between the husband and pen-pal is frosty and awkward as they sit to watch TV together after the wife goes to bed. The husband channel-surfs, landing on a late-night program about cathedrals. Robert, who has been blind all of his life, asks the husband to describe a cathedral. He struggles with the task, becoming embarrassed and exasperated before telling Robert: “The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything to me. Nothing. Cathedrals. They’re something to look at on late-night TV. That’s all they are.” The physical building is ultimately reduced to an image or a symbol. For the husband, it is this projection of European architecture that appears on his American TV screen that is more important than the actual experience, use, or texture of the building. It is only when words fail to adequately describe a cathedral that Robert suggests a new exercise—one where both men hold the same pen with the husband guiding Robert’s hand through the shape of the building, “I put in windows with arches. I drew flying buttresses. I hung great doors. I couldn’t stop. The TV station went off air.”

*

The task of defining cool, or even determining what is cool, is fruitless. It’s a silent, shifting, and collective signifier. Every time you take hold of it, it seems to melt and slip through your fingers. While some individuals may hold greater sway in determining what is cool for certain social groups, it is an unspoken influence.

But when this influence is (on the rare occasion) spoken about, it becomes clear that much of it comes from being seen. In late-October it was announced that social media influencer, actor, model, and rumoured boyfriend of Kourtney Kardashian, Luke Sabbat, was being sued by PR Consulting because he failed to pose wearing a pair of the latest Snap Spectacles. It is alleged that Sabbat was approached by the PR group just a day after he was first spotted with the Kardashians and offered a $60,000 contract to appear with the glasses in three of his Instagram stories and one post on his feed. It becomes clear that there are different layers of influence operating here. Despite his own public profile (and the level of cool that he himself exerts), it was coming into the orbit of the über-cool Kardashians that he was offered the deal. But then again, have you seen the glasses? Designed by Snap Inc. (the parent company of Snapchat), the specs have cameras built-in to the frames that are intended to record content to be broadcast to the social media platform. The glasses themselves are clunky, and frankly look a bit odd. They are, for all intents and purposes, the ill-fated Google Glasses stripped of the sci-fi tech aesthetic and sold at a lower price-point. What makes Snap think that they can succeed with a product that had failed previously? Is it because they feel they are more in touch with the cool new(er) millennial market?

After all, what is social media influence but the further encroachment of financial capital onto the realm of cool.

*

It’s this same slipperiness that defines Fenn is cool’s debut release. Is there anything less cool than professing your own coolness? The lead single, ‘I Am So Cool’, repeats the titular phrase ad nauseum but in a manner that skirts the edges of irony. In one verse Fenn tells us earnestly of his belief that being “cool” is an acceptance of an authentic personality or identity; who you really are. But in this acceptance, he also admits to decidedly “uncool” habits, an underlying nervousness that results in sleeping with the light on, not watching horror movies, keeping things light—tendencies that buck the trend of being cool, calm, and collected. But then again, flicking back through the dictionary we can find that cool can also mean being “without shame; unperturbed.” Does openly professing your uncool traits and tendencies thus make you cool?

This same challenge to cool is continued beyond the lyrics. To crudely characterise the aesthetic trends of Sydney’s ‘underground’ for a moment, the last few years have seen punks leaving behind their guitars and drum-kits, gravitating towards synthesisers and drum machines, to make music that bears genre signifiers such as industrial, darkwave, and techno, all conjuring the chilly winds of Germany, the cold steel of heavy machinery, and a distant emotional state. Rather, Fenn opts for what can only be described as pop, and a kind of pop whereby all the songs are both melodically driven and musically technical. The only trace of a drum machine is the type that is added on to cheap Casio keyboards. Although he sings of economic and social nervousness in such an earnest way, the tracks are buoyed by a sing-songy sensibility that belies the content of the lyrics. Yet the album is still lo-fi and DIY, both markers of “cool”, right?

But perhaps this is what Fenn means by a definition of cool. Like the husband trying to describe the image of a cathedral on TV to Robert, by the time you get around to finding the right words, the picture has changed, perhaps to a different shot of the same subject, or to a different program altogether. This album in particular is not unlike the hand-in-hand act of drawing that Carver describes. Like the edges of the page, there are definable boundaries within which the album traces its definition. The record begins with a welcome (a multi-purpose thank you note for both the live and recorded contexts) and departs with a goodbye (an instrumental that reprises a number of motifs from across the album into one track). Between these two bookends Fenn outlines a particular notion of cool both with and without language. Yet even with a more stable signifier such as the word ‘cathedral’ how do we draw it? Flying buttresses were an important architectural addition to these buildings but are not a feature of all cathedrals. Should they be drawn in? Ultimately what Fenn is cool’s album offers is a guided drawing of ‘cool.’ It recognises the term for the slippery word that it is and acts accordingly; skirting around edges and dodging simple categorisation. It offers meaning through the act of tracing, rather than supplying us with straight answers.

Fenn is cool – The Definition of Cool
Released November 2018


Mitchell Ryan is a writer, researcher and musician based in Sydney. His work has previously appeared in TEMPERED music journal and SPLIT.

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