We boldly explore the weird ways people, things become popular

“Cool” is a tricky thing to pin down, and an even trickier thing to track.

But ever since the word assumed its jazz-based definition denoting “hip,” cool has been a haphazard sort of thing, arriving when nobody expects it and igniting what once was pedestrian to supernova hotness, often for no discernible reason.

Here, we try to unravel the calculus of cool by examining a few things, people and trends that weren’t necessarily considered cool not all that long ago, but which now have completed their journey to newly cool.

And, having done so, we still have no idea how cool works. But that’s OK because, if we could, “cool” wouldn’t be so cool.

Betty White

Then: Betty White was known mostly as an Emmy-winning actress, a stellar “Password” competitor and general TV legend.

Now: Thanks to an Internet lobbying campaign that came out of nowhere, White landed a guest-hosting gig on “Saturday Night Live” (which, as validation of her inherent cool, she totally nailed). She completely stole one of this year’s most buzzworthy Super Bowl ads. Now, on TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,” White continues to demonstrate how an earthy sense of humor, innate class, self-effacing charm and do-anything gusto have made her, at 88, the coolest grandmother you wish you ever had.

What it means: Cool knows no age (a comforting thought, by the way, to aging baby boomers).

Cupcakes

Then: Cupcakes were dainty desserts among ladies who lunch and Mom’s economical way of turning two cakes into 24 treats when it was her turn to supply post-Little League game treats. Tasty, yet hardly as cool a dessert as, say, chocolate pudding or Jell-O dolled up with suspended fruit cocktail pieces.

Now: Cupcakes are the stars of at least two cable TV shows — and occasional players in cooking shows that feature colorful pastry chefs — and pastry of choice at numerous cafes that turn them into ornately decorated treats that mom wouldn’t remotely recognize.

What it means: Anything that can make us feel like kids is definitely cool.

Rolling Stone

Then: Born in the ’60s, Rolling Stone magazine was the counterculture’s bible, featuring music coverage not seen elsewhere and political coverage delivered through an ideological prism the mainstream media couldn’t offer. Then, during the ’90s and ’00s, Rolling Stone lost its way, succumbing to a vapid Hollywood sensibility, battling upstarts such as Blender for musical cred and developing this really creepy fixation on Britney Spears.

Now: Rolling Stone is back, thanks to killer political and national affairs reporting — ask Gen. Stanley McChrystal how relevant Rolling Stone is these days — and incisive coverage of a rapidly changing music industry.

What it means: Superficial isn’t cool, but substance always is.

Pabst Blue Ribbon

Then: Pabst Blue Ribbon was an affordable, dependable, workmanlike brew favored by World War II-era dads and enjoyed in blue-collar backyards and family-owned taverns where cool didn’t matter.

Now: PBR is a retro hip brew ordered by trendy youngsters in classy watering holes such as Las Vegas’ Todd English P.U.B., where cans of PBR are served in brown paper bags and 8-ounce drafts cost a nickel Tuesdays from 9 to 11 p.m. Further cool cred: PBR is the favorite beer of Dennis Hopper’s character in “Blue Velvet” and Clint Eastwood’s in “Gran Torino.”

What it means: Authentic is always cool.

Artsy women singers/performance artists

Then: Singers such as Kate Bush and Nina Hagen brought a theatrical sensibility to pop music in the ’70s and ’80s, delivering finely crafted songs that were beloved by art students, hipsters and anybody else looking for a break from the male-dominated music scene. Yet — and creativity and novelty notwithstanding — none achieved significant mainstream commercial success.

Now: The self-consciously artsy Lady Gaga is the biggest thing in pop music, thanks to her melding of catchy songs to incomprehensible but presumably profound — “She has blood on her face! What does it mean?” — theatrics.

What it means: Sometimes cool just takes a while to catch on.

Nerdy glasses

Then: In an age before laser surgery and disposable contacts, heavy-rimmed glasses were a necessary but much-hated nonfashion accessory among the myopic and farsighted, but wearing dorky glasses was at least slightly cooler than tripping down stairs and walking into walls.

Now: Thanks to Tina Fey, nerdy glasses are the latest fashion accessory among attractive women who wish to convey — particularly if their geek specs are fitted with plain glass lenses — either their good-natured self-effacement or a desire to be taken seriously.

What it means: That being able to see is cool. Or that guys will always be suckers for librarian fantasies. Your choice.

Austerity

Then: Saving for a rainy day? Please. Living a frugal lifestyle seemed so fuddy-duddyish in a time when financial experts assured us that the stock market always will rise over time and converting the three-bedroom/one bath into a vacation to Aruba seemed perfectly reasonable.

Now: Whether it’s voluntary or forced upon us by The Incredible Shrinking Economy, frugality is a necessity in these early years of the 21st century. For some reason, those stories Mom and Dad used to tell us about growing up during the Depression seem way more interesting now.

What it means: Mom and Dad are cool. Who knew?

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

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