The Death of Cool

The settlement between the tobacco companies and the 40 state attorneys general has been widely noted as a landmark in public health and consumer safety. And it is. Perhaps most interesting about the deal was that it targeted images—the Camel, the Cowboy, those swim-suited Newport smokers—as key elements of the tobacco threat.

As a former smoker, and practicing cultural critic, I can tell you that the image war matters. I can also tell you that banning images from actual cigarette advertising is only the first shot in the battle.

Pardon an autobiographical anecdote, please. Ten years ago this December, my wife, Polly, and I saw Penn and Teller do their stage show on Broadway. Today Penn and Teller have settled into an honorable, mid-level, anti-magic career. But back then they were on fire. They were a revelation. They were the world’s first and only punk rock magic act.

These two entertainers amazed us with feats of illusion, and then amazed us even more by revealing how some of the tricks were done, in blatant defiance of the "magician’s code." They deconstructed the role of the magician, and their own role as celebrity performers. After the show they stood on the sidewalk outside the theater, in the freezing cold, and shook hands with the audience.

It was all about the old rock-and-roll ideal of breaking down the barriers between audience and performer—at least that’s what Penn said in a painfully earnest sermonette near the end of the evening. In the course of that rap, he also proselytized for his "straight-edge" philosophy: He claimed never to have been drunk or stoned, and insisted, persuasively, that alcohol and drugs only made you stupid and forgetful.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1997
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