23/11/2011 16:08 | By Tom Townshend, contributor, MSN Music

Can Cliff Richard ever be cool?

With Absolute Radio banning Cliff Richard for not being "cool" enough, Tom Townshend asks what makes someone cool? And who makes the rules anyway?


Cliff Richard (© Ian West, PA Wire)

Cliff Richard

The recent announcement by Absolute Radio that they had banned the music of Cliff Richard was a cynical, dated and inevitably backfiring publicity stunt.

Fans and critics alike were quick to point out what a vital force Cliff had been in the British rock 'n' roll boom of the late '50s and early '60s, meaning his place on a station specialising in that era should be assured.

But it wasn't his music that exiled the 71-year-old star; it was the fact that he wasn't perceived as cool.

A spokesman for the radio station told the press:

"His songs don't fit the cool sound of the swinging sixties we're trying to create on our new station. We believe timeless acts of the decade that remain relevant today are The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors and The Who - not Sir Cliff."

Our disgust on hearing this was punctuated with laughs of disbelief at the irony of someone using the phrase "swinging sixties" while judging other people's coolness. Somebody's been watching too many Austin Powers films, daddio.

So what is cool anyway?
The statement got us thinking, though. What is cool? How do we calculate who is and isn't cool in music?

There's no denying it (and we're sure he'd be the first to say) but Cliff Richard, for all his achievements, isn't cool. While The Beatles, The Stones, The Doors and The Who most certainly are. But why?

And before any of you say, "Well it's because they were good and he isn't", we'd like to point out that we personally dislike two of those bands, while Cliff has made a few records we never tire of. It's a matter of taste and we'll never all agree. Good and bad are subjective, and yet cool seems to be a constant; an intangible quality we can all recognise.

Cool has little to do with musical merit or popularity and everything to do with... well what exactly? When a scruffy urchin in a band only three people at the NME have heard of can be clearly and palpably cool, and yet a globally famous member of a chart topping boy band is so uncool you could employ him as a radiator, then what criteria are we using to judge?

And what of those who weren't cool but became cool? Kylie Minogue springs to mind. The buck-toothed soap star, singing songs handed to her by Stock, Aitken & Waterman? Completely uncool. The enviably-buttocked, burlesque-fabulous, disco icon of today? Completely cool. How is this possible?

Kylie Minogue (© PA)

Kylie Minogue

Interestingly, Kylie did the one thing no one should do when wanting to be cool - and that's to try and be cool.

In a phase that became known as Indie Kylie, Miss Minogue rejected her manufactured past, even parodying it in the video for the sarcastically snarling Did It Again.

But it wasn't her musical shift or knowing winks that made Kylie cool, but her associations with those with their feet firmly under the cool table.

Notably her duet with Nick Cave, and her cover shoot for defunct indie mag Select with Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie - men who sold their souls to cool.

You don't get to be cool just because you want to be. Witness the hapless Matt Cardle, who launched his assault on the pop charts by decrying the very TV show and voters who gave him this chance at a music career.

He didn't come over as cool by describing his time on the X Factor as "a pretty uninspiring situation to be in", but desperate - as far from cool as it's possible to be (without being Olly Murs).

As with much in life, cool is not what you know but who you know. Cool is a club where only existing members can grant you entry. And so our aforementioned examples of musical cool have achieved their status thanks to the continued approval of their cool contemporaries and successors. With no one making a claim for Cliff's coolness, he doesn't stand a chance.

Cool pretends it doesn't care... but it really, really does
The irony of cool is that for all its air of apathy, it actually cares very much what people think of it - it just makes sure not to show it. Most of those we think of as cool are, in all likelihood, hiding their insecurities and personality failings behind those Ray-Bans.

They're not moodily aloof, they're just terrified of saying, doing, wearing or playing the wrong thing.

Because cool is ultimately conservative; it abhors change. What was considered cool in the '50s and '60s - dark glasses, leather jackets, cigarettes, mooching, motorbikes, promiscuity, drug taking, night clubs, French accents, drinking cola from glass bottles, gangsters, subtitled movies, chewing gum with your mouth open, existential ennui and floppy fringes on boys - are all still signifiers of cool today, over half a century later.

Indie bands in 2011 still dress like they were in The Velvet Underground in 1967. Cool needs constant reassurance it's got the answer right; and what better vindication than the past?

The Kinks (© Rex)

The Kinks

Compare a forward looking movement such as the New Romantics of the early 1980s, with a backward looking genre like Britpop.

The New Romantics risked (and regularly received) ridicule by attempting new styles of dress, and by adopting new musical directions. Not cool.

Whereas Britpop looked to Mod tailoring and haircuts - images from the past that had already received the cool seal of approval, and made music that, on the whole, referenced The Beatles, The Kinks and The Small Faces, with touches of post-punk and new wave.

Britpop borrowed only from the preordained cool and so it was cool. It's not cool to be weird (unless the other cool kids say it is).

Death - the last word in cool
But the coolest rock star is, of course, a dead one. Death is the ultimate nonchalance. Your dead rock star literally couldn't care less. But in death we also choose to cryogenically preserve a shared image of the musicians we've lost. Sid Vicious gets to be a sneer in a torn t-shirt, rather than a hopeless junkie who couldn't play bass.

Johnny Cash is now the middle-finger waving man in black - forgetting the long years he spent ignored by the American music world as "unfashionable". And we'll watch as the much missed Amy Winehouse grows in stature to become a beehive-shaped symbol of doomed talent.

When you're cold, you're cool.

So by stubbornly clinging to life, Cliff Richard is not helping his chances of joining the Cool Hall of Fame. To be cool, he'd have to hang out with cool people, be considered cool by cool people, wear, do and say all the things cool people do. And if possible, choke on vomit after a three-day drug binge. Only then might his million-selling records be considered worthy of playing on an extremely uncool radio station.

It hardly seems worth the effort. After all, effort is not cool.

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Were Absolute Radio justified in banning Cliff Richard?

Thanks for being one of the first people to vote. Results will be available soon. Check for results

  1.  
    13 %
    Yes, he isn't cool and neither is his music
    76 votes
  2. 84 %
    No, it was nothing more than a publicity stunt
    481 votes
  3.  
    3 %
    Cliff who?
    18 votes

Total Responses: 575
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