In the summer of 1978, the B-52's conquered the New York underground. A year later, the band's self-titled debut album burst onto the Billboard charts, capturing the imagination of fans and music critics worldwide. The fact that the group had formed in the sleepy southern college town of Athens, Georgia, only increased the fascination. In Athens in the eighties, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible.
...with this meticulously reported microhistory, Hale, who once played in a band and ran an underground club in Athens, delivers more than a love song to the music. Cool Town also serves up a textured portrait of a generation caught between baby and tech booms, wriggling under the thumb of the mainstream ... Hale is dead-on in the details she relies on to evoke a scene that was in full swing in Athens when I arrived. She wisely emphasizes its L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly and female-empowering flavors ... She is smart on the way Athens art and music were defined by the tension between the rejection and embrace of Southern culture, both aesthetically and politically. She has a keen eye for fashion too ... [Hale] is right to criticize the Athens scene for its failure to attract a sizable group of nonwhite participants, even as its politics were antiracist.
... you are in for a wild ride with Cool Town, Grace Elizabeth Hale’s hybrid ethnography-memoir. And even if Pylon and Love Tractor are old hat to you, Cool Town is still going to teach you a whole lot ... she toggles back and forth between relatively standard historical narration and memoiristic exploration, and even a little bit of sharp score-settling ... Hale is refreshingly up-front about the evolution of her own artistic and political subjectivity in Athens ... Hale’s attention to the local is thrilling ... One of the most fascinating—and certainly one of the knottiest—threads in the book has to do with the Southern identity formation that was so crucial to the Athens scene ... Hale mostly leaves race alone as a category of analysis, except for a broad claim that it is unlikely that African Americans would have found much appealing about the willful bohemianism of the scene. That is a compelling counterfactual that elides as much as it explains ... Cool Town makes a convincing—and blazingly readable—case for the arty youth of Athens having invented a generative new form of bohemian life and artistic creation that would exert an influence well beyond the environs of the university, the town, and the region ... another Athens-based band, The Mendoza Line, would release a dark and haunting record they called We’re All in This Alone. The strength of Grace Hale’s Cool Town is that she convinces us that, at least for a time, the bohemians of Athens, Georgia, gave the lie to that darkly ironic title.
... it’s hard to deny that the Athens Effect was of unusual proportions ... It propagated a thrift-store, sexually fluid, avant-pop aesthetic that seemed more accessible than the extremes of punk or of successors such as goth. The fun of Cool Town is to hear where those elements came from, illuminated by Hale’s theories about why, and, most poignantly, what it means today ... Hale’s account clarifies that all this didn’t just sprout fortuitously like kudzu. It was cultivated like sweet corn ... she pushes back at claims that white indie scenes necessarily serve as advance agents of gentrification by saying that Athens has avoided the drastic upheavals that have beset Seattle, the Bay Area, or Brooklyn—but it would have helped to explore all that in more depth ... But Hale does us a favor by recapturing the experience. Something goes astray when people forget what it feels like to have those ideals and aims, to immerse themselves in that long conversation, and, as the B-52s put it, to dance that mess around.