Athens’s Revolutionaries: A Review Of "Cool Town"

Historians in the News
tags: subcultures, urban history, cultural history, counterculture, colleges and universities

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American CultureChapel 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.

Read entire article at The Metropole

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