Cultural Criticism

The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism BY Thomas Frank. University Of Chicago Press. Paperback, 322 pages. $19.

The cover of The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism

One of the best journals of the 1990s, The Baffler paired Frankfurt School contempt for mainstream consumerism with a relentless skewering of the “we’re all individuals” paradoxes of its ostensible foe: “alternative” culture. At a time when the template for the present-day hipster was just coming into focus, The Baffler’s épater le hipoisie attitude was provocative; its editors seemed to be saying “no” to all sides, rejecting both marketers’ lame attempts to describe the emergent Generation X and Xers’ inflated image of themselves as iconoclastic nonconformists.

Appearing in 1997, The Conquest of Cool was founding editor Thomas Frank’s dissertation and a distillation of his Baffler salvos to date. Its argument—that the conventional narrative of the ’60s counterculture as an “authentic” rebellion against the “plastic” consumer culture of the ’50s was oversimplified and falsely Manichean—made it an early and bracing example of the counterintuitive cultural analysis now typified (and run into the ground) by the work of Malcolm Gladwell.

Frank showed how the advertising industry’s “revolution” at the dawn of the ’60s away from “science” (the staid, statistics-based approach of ’50s account executives) and toward “art” (the irreverent, self-mocking style of ’60s copywriters and art directors) was symbiotically entwined with the nascent hippie movement, not a predatory co-optation of its aesthetics and values. Further, this symbiosis set the stage for the “countercultural style” in advertising, which reached its straw-grasping apotheosis in a 1992 television spot that equated the Subaru Impreza with punk rock. “No longer would Americans buy to fit in or impress the Joneses,” Frank wrote, “but to demonstrate that they were wise to the game, to express their revulsion with the artifice and conformity of consumerism.”

With the possible exception of the hip-to-be-square ’80s, which Frank strangely elided, this dynamic obtained until at least the end of the century. In the new millennium, something else has taken its place, most obviously in the prevailing “popist” mode of music criticism, but also in “normcore” fashion, in the instant canonization (by adults) of YA novels, and in comments on negative online reviews of mainstream cultural products.

Today, hipsterism is derided as elitist, while chart-topping, baldly commercial fare is celebrated. (First comment to the recent Rolling Stone piece “The Replacements: The Greatest Band That Never Was”—“No. If they were so good, they would have made it big.”) “Science,” in the form of Big Data, dominates marketing. Consensus (Facebook “likes,” demonization of “haters,” mass election of new pop stars on American Idol), not individualism, is the new mode of pop-cultural reception—even for intellectuals, aesthetes, and former hipsters. I eagerly await Frank’s follow-up, perhaps entitled The Conquest of Glee, which will assess our current anti-hipster hipsterism with the same acuity he applied to hippie exceptionalism.

Andrew Hultkrans was editor in chief of Bookforum from 1998 to 2003.