When I saw a list of popular musicians and bands recently, I thought I might be a victim of slightly early onset dementia. I could make almost no sense of it:
Trae Tha Truth ft. Diddy, Jeezy, & T.I.
A$AP Mob ft. A$AP Nast & Method Man
Big Boi ft. Big K.R.I.T. & UGK & Blue Oyster Cult.
“Is any of this English?” I thought. Is it some kind of code? The name that disoriented me the least because it’s been around the longest is actually the most surrealistic and nonsensical—Blue Oyster Cult. A cult devoted to blue oysters? It dawned on me that my own sense of “cool” has become outdated. My own sensibilities stopped progressing at some point while the popular concept of cool continued to change. I’m fossilizing. I’m unable to fully appreciate the alluring cachet of names like Charli XCX, 2 Chainz, Skooly, ScHoolboy Q, Juicy J, Pimp C, and Will. I. Am.
I haven’t always been so out of touch with cool. And I do know enough to look for it among band names rather than, say, names of law firms. Yes, popular music has always reflected the contemporaneous idea of what’s “with it” and “now.” No matter how rich or corporate they might actually be, musicians have rarely been associated with “The Man.” No, instead they are seen as among those who stick it to The Man. I’ve come to realize that cool is an attitude madly admired by the very young and loathed by the very old. By this gauge, I’m old but not yet “very old.” I don’t loathe current band names; they just confuse me.
In the 1960s I recognized the requisite anti-establishment rebellion inherent in such names as The Beatles. It was often an orthographical deviation, a one-letter misspelling as also found in Monkees, Byrds, Led Zeppelin, and Creedence. Just that one-letter difference let us know that these bands were too cool for school rules. No matter how much society had spent on their education, they’d spell their names however the hell they wanted to. These bands were courageously nonconformist. Yeah, they were far-out, Man. Additionally, many 60s bands were attuned to the power of the definite article “The”: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, The Who, The Doors, The Kinks, The Temptations, The Moody Blues. These weren’t just some rolling stones; they were The Rolling Stones. And they weren’t just any who. Sixties bands realized the uniqueness and ultimateness bestowed by this unassuming three-letter powerhouse in such designations as the Pope or the President. If someone called you up and said, “This is Stephen King,” a natural response would be to ask, “The Stephen King?” These The bands were the bomb.
A new development among 1970s band names was the belief that suave nonchalance could be implied simply by exploiting a typographical symbol—the ampersand. Why be hyper-correct and overly lettery with “and” when “&” does the same trick with much more sprezzatura? This was the aesthetic emulated by Kool & the Gang; Sly & the Family Stone; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and Earth, Wind, & Fire. (Earth, Wind, & Fire originally also auditioned Water but rejected it since it ruined the rockin’ flow of monosyllables.) These ampersand bands were awesome.
In the 1980s . . . . Oh, who are we kidding? Cool took a holiday during the 80s.
Band names of the 1990s compose a weird restaurant menu of spices, delicacies, and dainties: Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries, The Smashing Pumpkins, Hootie & the Blowfish, Pearl Jam, Ice Cube—and, for dessert, a single Eminem, your choice of plain or peanut. Among nineties band names, food was hot.
In the 1990s and in the new millennium, cool apparently suffered from a much shorter shelf life as indicated by individual performers changing their self-chosen freaky deaky names—once, twice, or even more times. Name changes showed a commitment to keeping it fresh. Calvin Broadus traded Snoop Doggy Dogg for Snoop Dogg, then Snoop Lion, then Snoopzilla. Sean Combs tweaked his musical moniker to Puff Daddy, then P. Diddy, then just plain Diddy or sometimes Swag. Prince Rogers Nelson—Prince—pushed the envelope till it burst by exchanging his name for an invented unpronounceable symbol that looked something like a male symbol stick figure crossed by a stylized trumpet, a trumpet presumably blaring out, “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Stick figure or not, it didn’t stick. This symbol, which Prince insisted meant Love Symbol No. 2, was so cool it was frosty, which is the kind of reception it got.
Yes, the evolution of band names is a history of the ever-changing concept of cool—from Kajagoogoo to Lady Gaga; from Kool & the Gang to LL Cool J to Coolio; from U2 to UB40 to E-40; from the King to the Boss to the Prince of Pop. It’s a chronicle of artistic rebellion, a timeline of the search for a name that says, “We are totally unique—exactly like all of you.” It’s a record of the quest for a name that signals, “We just like playing music; we don’t give a damn about money” but which also promotes making millions and millions of dollars.
And what could be cooler than cool millions? That kind of cool never does change.
(This piece previously appeared in Hobo Pancakes.)