Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
Reviewed by Alex Sayf Cummings
In his lovely new book on John Maynard Keynes, The Price of Peace, Zachary D. Carter paints a portrait of Bloomsbury, the economist’s artsy egghead neighborhood of the 1910s, as a place of Bohemian defiance against Victorian norms. “They sat and debated everything—art and poetry, good and evil, love and sex, all the way down to the mechanics of each,” Carter writes of this libidinal corner of London, where Virginia Woolf and other luminaries clustered. Grace Elizabeth Hale’s book about Athens, Georgia’s alternative music and arts scene hits a variety of uncannily similar notes: lots of coffee, lots of booze, long afternoons and longer nights, where iconoclastic young people took a wrecking ball to conventions about gender and sexuality and a bazooka to the well-sentried boundaries of artistic expression. In Cool Town, though, the revolutionaries are not Oxbridge sophisticates railing against Victorianism; they are young punks, freaks, and queers, primarily from the suburbs of the new Sunbelt South, gathering in a small college town to rebel against postwar America’s stultifying bourgeois conformity. The key detail here is the town.
Indeed, Hale makes a bold argument for Athens as the vanguard of a cultural revolution in the late-twentieth-century United States, one that spawned, among other things, alternative music; the college rock circuit; DIY culture; and a broadly dispersed empire of nodes of indie culture which eventually criss-crossed the breadth of America. Cool Town contends that the home of the University of Georgia was the notable first in a series of small, local scenes where indie unconventionality flourished since the 1960s, far from the metropoles—such as Keynes’s London or Warhol’s New York—where such enclaves of artistic expression had traditionally been expected to grow. As bands such as the B-52’s, Pylon, and R.E.M. put the South on the map, a bunch of adventurous college kids and townies showed that the reveries of the iconoclasts could happen far from Bloomsbury or Greenwich Village. In the process, Hale suggests, Athens created a template that Chapel Hill, Austin, and other local scenes could plug into and emulate.
It is hard to argue with Hale on a few key points: the B-52’s really did show that a wild, postmodern remix of rock & roll culture could emerge from the benighted South, to the amazement of New York snobs. R.E.M. really was the quintessential college rock band of that new, amorphous genre in the 1980s, captivating bros and hipsters alike precisely because they found a way to straddle the indie and the mainstream – all while influencing a next wave of artists ranging from Pavement to Pearl Jam, Nirvana to Radiohead. Hale makes a convincing case for the novelty and primacy of Athens as not only a small-town haven of bohemianism, but one geographically separated even from its nearest metropole, Atlanta.
Hale also highlights how the emerging bohemian culture of Athens in the 1970s and 1980s took an ambivalent position toward politics. As suburban Middle America pushed back against the social revolution of the 1960s, young people sought refuge in an alternative culture that let them create their own worlds and imagine alternatives—while looking somewhat askance at activism. For instance, critics perceived something obliquely political about the lyrics, attitude, and aesthetic of the iconic early Athens band Pylon, thought they could not quite put their finger on it. Athens bohemians might have thought of traditional politics as hopelessly square and generally hopeless, as the nightmare of Reaganism broke over them in the 1980s. “If you want to think about youth culture as one spearhead that’s gonna make a difference in the world,” R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills wrote in SPIN in 1985, “it’s not gonna happen.” Hale portrays the Athens bohemians as creating a new society in the shell of the old—a posture frequently taken by the Left when the chips are down. Athens was their escape and their new world.
These young people hunted for authenticity, a troubled concept that Hale treats warmly but somewhat uncritically. In Cool Town, the authentic seems to mean a state of being unencumbered by confining social, sexual, gender, or aesthetic norms—to be one’s true self. But cultural debates about what is or is not authentic typically unfold over swampier terrain, where it is often not clear who is truly being themselves or what that means in any case. Curiously, the author also tends to treat all gender identity as a variation on gender play, collapsed under the broad rubric of drag. Defiance of gender norms was undoubtedly a crucial (and truly liberating) part of the alternative culture that flourished in Athens, but not all forms of identity are just plays or postures.
In the end, though, Cool Town is a lovingly rendered and richly realized panorama of a new alternative aesthetic in the making, elbowed by kudzu and cheap beer, in a place that the Village Voice considered the unlikeliest of places. Hale’s lucid prose vibrates with generosity as she tells the story of a small town on the move, that surprisingly moved the world. Cool Town is a must-read for anyone interested in the ideas of place and placemaking, and the history of bohemian cultures, alternative music, and the New South.
Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of History at Georgia State University and the author of Democracy of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of Copyright in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2013) and Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy (Columbia, 2020). She is also a co-editor of East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte (Rutgers, 2020), a senior editor of the blog Tropics of Meta, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).
Featured Image (at top): Vanessa Briscoe Hay and Pylon On-stage in 1981. [Jimmy Ellison (1981), Wikimedia Commons]