The death of uncool

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The death of uncool


EnO-300x225It’s odd to think back on the time—not so long ago—when there were distinct stylistic trends, such as “this season’s colour” or “abstract expressionism” or “psychedelic music.” It seems we don’t think like that any more. There are just too many styles around, and they keep mutating too fast to assume that kind of dominance.

As an example, go into a record shop and look at the dividers used to separate music into different categories. There used to be about a dozen: rock, jazz, ethnic, and so on. Now there are almost as many dividers as there are records, and they keep proliferating. The category I had a hand in starting—ambient music—has split into a host of subcategories called things like “black ambient,” “ambient dub,” “ambient industrial,” “organic ambient” and 20 others last time I looked. A similar bifurcation has been happening in every other living musical genre (except for

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  1. November 25, 2009

    the wanderer

    One aspect along those lines, because it’s a great point you’re making here, but it’s that I’ve often felt that part of the great appeal of the internet, internet chat and message boards, and downloading of mp3′s, is that it’s there when you want it and you are not under much of an obligation. You can change pull off a chunk whenever you feel like it. The key being that these are types of things that if you had to put too much effort into them, in some extent, then it would diminish you’re broader enjoyment of them. It’s the access methods that are a big part of changing the role of the art in our culture and allowing forward movement in our art/culture.

    Under the new technology my entire world changed, not just because of the technology, but to a large extent it was due to the fact that one of my largest problems was lack of a way to casually absorb a large quantity of stuff, and in effect to cull through that stuff easily enough in order to meet with my own creative inclinations/changing ways of living/thinking. Expansiveness without many barriers and need to have easy, broad access. Acting in a multi-tasking high pressure situation until something springs forth.

  2. November 26, 2009


    I don’t know which record stores Brian Eno shops in, but in my experience, the “genre dividers” in the racks have become less specific rather than more so. So in my local HMV for instance the “Pop” category now seems to include rock, soul, reggae, blues etc. which seems to me to be a symptom of the shrinking CD back catalogue range on offer – so much for the “long tail”! It’s also a reason why more and more people are turning to Amazon to find deep catalogue.

  3. November 26, 2009


    I cannot agree more. In my opinion, the different categories referred above are created since the boundaries between cultures, countries, people around the world keep blurring and allowing for creation of even more unique styles. “Cherry-picking whatever makes sense to them”! Daily I observe this to be true in my generation (late 20s these days). It’s fascinating, because we can no longer categorize people as we “used to”. Such a relief!

  4. November 27, 2009

    Philip Houtekier

    Dear Brian,

    Love your article.

    I agree in principle, that that is all good news. But don’t you think we see alack of core, style in many creative products – music, fashion, art ? Culture principally consists of mixes of influences, ideas, inspiration. Has it not become over-mixed, diluted ?

    I wonder also about the following. Technology permits so many things – that were hard even to imagine before – that we could ask what older \masters\ would be able to do with these new tools. Would they not show more core, more style ?

    Looking forward to know your opinion,
    with my best regards,

    Philip Houtekier

  5. November 27, 2009

    Julia Masi

    Cool is relative. It used to take a little effort to be cool. But thanks to the internet and social networking nothing is obsure anymore and everyone can be in the loop. I remember when Brian Eno’s music was hard to find on the radio dial. These days all you need to do is ‘google’ him and you can purchase his songs or watch him on “You Tube.’

  6. November 27, 2009


    I think Brian is totally right (when has he been wrong?) but while the uncool dissappears and art, relationships, ideologies etc become more free flowing, syncretic and open to all, there is a flipside to this, which is increasing fragmentation also risks increasing alienation. The shared experience of the group becomes less common and people begin to lose many of the identifiers they may have had between them. So the goth kid, stops talking to the hip hop kid, while ignoring the fact their similarities are greater than their differences. Greater individualism in art etc is definitly a benefit to most people, but loneliness can still rise. I think thats why big mass cultural events, like American Idol or the XFactor see the huge popularity they do, outside of being fluff, its common ground that everyone else is still on and people still seek it out.

  7. November 27, 2009

    Enrique Lasansky

    I agree completely with Brian Eno. This is why it no longer makes sense to have “pure” ideologies such as capitalism, communism, democracy , socialism, etc. running the world. Instead we need to study each one, choose the best feautures and come up with something that works!

  8. November 27, 2009


    I just wanted to comment on a particular aspect of your introduction. I think it’s funny that ‘Classical’ music isn’t sub-categorized as it probably has as clearly distinguishable sub classifications – if not more so – than some of the styles mentioned above.

    First, let’s forget that ‘classical’ is a term used that only really refers to west European art music (a pretentious mouthful of a label, but a bit more accurate) written from about the 1750′s to the 1820′s and only encompasses widely known composers such as Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven.

    There are enduring classifications such as solo, chamber (like string quartet), orchestra, choral, and opera that if billed as such, might draw more interest due to their similarity to today’s ‘long tail,’ cherry-picking preferences. I know that if I am much more likely to walk past the ‘classical’ section without looking, than if I see “J.S. Bach: Solo Cello Suites” listed. Like most people, I know what a cello is, I know what ‘solo’ means and (if your high school music program did a decent job like mine, you do too), I know a bit about who Bach is. I DON’T know what ‘classical’ means!

    BTW, nice Hildegard of Bingen reference!

  9. November 27, 2009


    What means this \record store\?

  10. November 27, 2009


    Dunno if I can go with this as being anything really new or even being indicative of what he thinks it means. For one thing, there are distinct factions of classical (neo-classical, Baroque, etc.). But what is being discussed here is the fractioning of labels into smaller more distinct subsets. Most of this is a matter of form; as there is more data to filter through now, these more compartmentalized labels serve to narrow down the streams of information into pockets that are digestible while still being able to find new media that we may like based on our preferences. This has more to do with machine intelligence and design than with our own personal need to associate ourselves with a style or a trend. As it stands, we still tend to like to lump ourselves into Left or Right, This or That, and blend several of those extreme labels together to form ‘identity.’ But now that there are more choices (new styles are emerging, after all), it does indeed become fuzzier to decry one as the main era-defining trend, because that will vary based on your specific worldview & vantage point.

  11. November 27, 2009

    Dorian Douma

    I think there’s a whole new uncool breeding in those who’ve left themselves behind in some frustrated isolation, clinging to media ownership and self-promotion.

    I like that genres have deprecated in general. I’m not sure they ever served us well.

  12. November 28, 2009


    Thus begins the end of copyright.

  13. November 28, 2009

    Frank Hardisty

    Very insightful, Brian. I think it goes hand in hand with the democratization of the creation of art, especially music. People can create almost anything almost anywhere, all it takes is a laptop.

    Someday we will look back on this era as the beginning of musical democracy.

  14. November 28, 2009


    It’s always has been that fashion repeated several years later, but maybe now it is several seconds later so old and renewing the old doesn’t mean much. Classical music per VH1 is the hits of 2 weeks ago by now.
    A funny example of what you say regarding hipsterdom:

  15. November 28, 2009


    nice post — and while I do enjoy the blurring of the cultures and being able to access music and art from all over — I am starting to see a problem with it: there is no local anymore.
    You can’t travel to a different place, and go into a record shop there and find a plethora of unheard of artists and different music that you’ve never seen before — because you can access that information from home via the net. So that kind of ‘different’ is being lost rapidly …for better or worse. I realize that I thought that was always kind of c00l that people in different places had different tastes…but if we’re all listening to the same thing, the rush we’re all getting from the ‘blurring’ isn’t going to be happening much longer and that’ll be a loss. Think Glocal. hehe

  16. November 28, 2009

    michael roloff

    Well, come into the provinces, come to Seattle, they may think they are hip because they drink lattes – bigger hicks have never drunk lattes than these!

  17. November 29, 2009


    If there was a genre that might even remotely become dominant it would just as quickly be mocked and ridiculed, besides what recored shops?

  18. November 29, 2009

    Boris Anthony

    I think the word you meant instead of “bifurcation” is “splintering”.
    The phenomenon you are refering to is casued by a great many things coming together at once, but mainly the “democratisation” of the means of producing usic and distributing it.

    Interesting you point out classical, which still needs years of training on old, analog instruments, rehersals with lots of other people and lots of group organisation, not to mention the culture of the institutions involved in the production, promotion and distribution of this genre. Wonder when they’ll wake up. I mean afterall there are many contemporary composers doign very modern things in what one might still call “classical”…

    But I digress. ;)

    Also, you may want to google Momus’ insightful statement, made over a decade ago, that “in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.” This speaks directly to this phenomena.

  19. November 30, 2009


    Ha, I kind of agree. But also I’d say that: “Oh man that’s SO last year.” has now become: “Whoa, SOMEone hasn’t been online since this afternoon”

  20. November 30, 2009


    Record stores? You got to be kidding? Even the second hand shops are disappearing faster than the American dollar. . .

  21. November 30, 2009

    Roy Murphy

    We are all cultural magpies, and devoid of any sense of time and place, our references become diverse and challenging. This will ultimately lead to a more creative society.

    This is generally a good thing, though it has interesting implications for an individuals sense of self. Having generational references in common is in direct conflict from the first law of growing up. I.e, You hate whatever your parents like – whether it be music films, art, or fashion.

    Where to now for the bobbysoxers, teen rebels, mods, rockers, punks, rude boys, indie kids, ravers or goths? are they all to be merged together in one unedifying mix?

    In a time of cultural soupifying, where everything references everything else and a mish-mash is seen a a thing to aspire to – spare a thought for originality.

    There is something to be said for standing out, being different, being the first and not joining the stew.

  22. November 30, 2009

    Jon Spooner

    While in one sense “uncool” has died thanks to the Internet. If you really like the “Macarena” yet all of your friends think it is lame – simply search the Internet and I am sure you can find some niche group of likeminded Macarena enthusiasts who deem it the “coolest”!

    But there still is a difference between experiencing the birth of the “dark ambient” genre at some London club’s open deck night versus listening to it online. It still has to be “done” by someone and that someone is the confident creator aka the arbiter of cool in this case. And it has to be experienced by another who highlights and follows the new genre. And the rest of the world merely wows at the cool new genre divider at their record shop.

  23. November 30, 2009


    Wrong. There is still such a thing as “uncool,” it’s just not based on the criteria used here. If something is “old” or “foreign,” it has the capacity for hidden value that has gone unappreciated by one’s peers, which makes it more cool.

    Shopping for CDs is uncool, because what are you doing buying CDs? Why do you even own a CD player? CD collections are a 90s relic. Shopping for records is cool, because records are timeless treasures. Shopping for music on iTunes is neither cool nor uncool, it’s just mainstream.

  24. December 1, 2009


    Dear Brian,

    I think it is bad form, or “uncool”, when a reader’s comment is longer than the article.

  25. December 2, 2009

    Andrew Spingarn

    Personally, I disagree with Mr. Eno.
    I agree that the many sub catagories are difficult to keep up with and constantly becoming more minimal (pun intended), but all in all, I believe still uncool. Sure the borders of style keep changing and in many cases are enriched, but in many cases I believe they are degraded as well. Today people are afraid to say what is uncool because it might be politically incorrect, and the media wants to support every two bit tramp to sell media exposure (Paris, Brittany, etc.) but cool remains cool and uncool is still uncool. Can anyone convince me that Reba McEntire or country rock rehash tenth generation originality is cool? (just for an example) I am sure some people will think otherwise, but once upon a time there were standards and people had to live up to higher or lower standards. People used to be allowed to even have opinions (can you believe that?) There used to be clear directions and trends in music and not just mish mosh commercialism. There used to be standards that made things and people cool. Now a ton of money and a good press agent can make any dope cool or anything cool. Just not in my book. Ten million followers on facebook does not qualify them as cool. I can still have an opinion.

  26. December 2, 2009


    actually mr eno is mistaken with his thoughts on classical music. the classical period was 1750 to 1825 but is seems that a orchestral music from all periods gets grouped in “classical”.

  27. December 2, 2009


    u2 is the only uncool thing i can think of. oh wait. coldplay. you used to be cool brian. you must have enough money. how about finding someone prolific to work with.

  28. December 3, 2009

    cloudface Von Ruckus

    Yes Brian, The Future Labratory did a report in 08 detailing how what is currently being widely refered to as “Generation Y” being more aptly fitting the title of the “slash/slash” generation; I highly recomend giving it a read if you’ve got the time as it ties into the points you’ve made here.

  29. December 4, 2009


    “Distinct stylistic trends” are an ongoing phenomenon, the reason why they seem to disappear as you approach the present is because it is impossible to define a movement currently underway. As to the problem you refer to regarding record store classifications, I would recommend going to less pretentious and obsessively organized record stores. I think that cherry-picking music the way the aforementioned record stores do just leads to vainglorious music snobbery. Now instead of heartfelt pride in a local scene we have a generation of kids looking for the ultimate reincarnation of the “old and foreign” as the new cool.

  30. December 4, 2009


    Tower of bablyon! Does it have a lightning rod? We understand each other! Is your tongue confused?

  31. December 5, 2009

    daniel senning

    brian eno will always be cool

  32. December 5, 2009


    Of course, “classical” doesn’t get genres for one main reason: “classical” music has for generations been too diverse to be contained in genres, and there is often such variety within each piece that the number of genres required would be much more than impractical. The other main reason, of course, is that, whatever you may say in your column, “classical” music is *still* uncool. I’m amazed you missed that, since you even mentioned “classical” music! “Classical” itself is as much a genre label as “popular” — encompassing everything from rock to R&B to reggae — but due in part to public ignorance and indifference, not even any attempts are made to classify, most of the time.

  33. December 5, 2009

    Herb Al

    “Cool” got co-opted and corporatized. Where once, from the 1960′s on back, it was down to a few “teen magazines” and AM radio to set the tone for, pretty much, organic and localized ‘coolness’, that 60′s generation entered the workforce recognizing that the world of teens, pop music/culture and young adulthood was a virgin forest for marketing strategy and exploitation. The WW2 generation who were running things in the 1950′s and 60′s were never quite sure how to tap that emerging market but the ‘boomers’ did – and in the process destroyed both its vitality and ‘specialness’. “Coolness” is now a contrived, self-conscious, totally commonplace – and totally safe expression. One perfect example are pierced ears and earrings for the average, everyday male. Once upon a time something like that could get a guy beaten up or, at least, verbally assaulted. Male earrings were the sole domain of the avant-garde, gay men and pirates, not your average joe. Now, they’re as common – and as boring – as printed T-shirts and bumper stickers.

  34. December 6, 2009


    I’m not sure I buy this argument, and I’ll tell you why: elementary school children. I imagine they’re just as cliquey and brutal as they were when I was younger (many moons ago). Ask some nine-year-olds what is and is not cool – I’m sure they’ll be glad to inform you what is “uncool,” and probably tell you who in their social circle likes “uncool” things and, as a result, is ostracized, beaten up, etc, etc.

  35. December 6, 2009

    mike the bike

    We’re THROUGH being cool….

  36. December 6, 2009


    seems strange to be correcting Brian Eno, but Classical is just one period in what music schools would call “Art History of the Western World”, which has many “subgenres” if you’d like to call them that. I think “stylistic periods” is often more accurate until you get past the turn of the 20th Century when many styles exist simultaneously like Russian Nationalism, Serialism (12-tone music), Minimalism and Electronic Music.

  37. December 6, 2009


    I saw a presentation years ago by am Anthropologist (Grant McCracken – sp) who explained Platos theory of Plenitudes.

    This is an example of that theory.

  38. December 7, 2009


    dude doesn’t know much about classical music. there is opera, symphonic, chamber, choral, piano/keyboard, and so on; then there are the different and distinct eras: baroque, classical, romantic, 20th century (with its numerous sub-genres [12-tone/serial, minimalist, Cagian dada]). the list of genres under the inferior heading of “classical” goes on but mr. eno already knows this. right?

    and all music is ethnic music. if one’s frame of reference is boss then we call it “world music” but even there the categorization of genres could depend on what record store you are in and where.

    the general point, though, is valid. styles are crossing paths like never before. crossing paths but not intermingling too ambitiously, i hope.

  39. December 9, 2009


    I would concur. The youth that I know seem to take it all in, sound tracks, joiking, gamelan, Hildegard, Roma music, thrash.. all are on equal footing. This is indeed a good point to be at.

  40. December 16, 2009


    The fact that classical music is undivided is ironic, since it is one of the genres that has actual concrete subdivisions, spread out over hundreds of years (vs the handful of years some of the “parent” genres you mention have existed, not really enough time to evolve that much imo. Further, the classical sub-genres are almost scientifically definable. Yet since classical is only appreciated by old people and nerds, it all gets lumped together.

  41. December 30, 2009

    Br. Cleve

    We have the digital revolution to thank for all this. Once upon a time, before CD’s and DVD’s, you had to trek through moldy used record and charity shops to find vintage LP’s, books, etc (or watch the ‘Late, Late Show’ on TV to see old movies). Today, you can find just about anything from anywhere in the world, in a shop or on a blog, with a few keystrokes. The result is a world of pastiche, where yesterday has become today in a multitude of styles, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
    Digging up the past is frowned upon in many countries, though : “Why do you want those, they are old?” is a question I’ve been asked many times when digging for LP’s in the Third World; “We have the latest here, it is better!”

  42. January 18, 2010

    Carle Groome

    As one of the contributors made mention of the fact that another’s post was somewhat excessive (longer than the original article), I had to agree, in principle, that one’s response should not be greater than its inception. (With the exception of religio-politico nonsense which requires the marshalling of ideas and facts to counterpose the points of faith-based statements.)

    So, with that in mind, I present the following as a response to the responses:

  43. February 6, 2013

    toe ring gold

    Smart way of seeing things – I’m a bit more of a monochrome individual, myself

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Brian Eno

Brian Eno
Brian Eno is a musician and record producer 

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