Marshall McLuhan’s ideas on hot and cool media are more complex than you might expect. Hot media, such as the radio, focus intensely on one sense, yet leave you, the audience, able to lose yourselves in it -intense in execution, passive in involvement. Cool media such as song lyrics, on the other hand, are not so focused on any one sense in particular, but they require much more mental work to fully understand and enjoy.
At first, it seems that music would be categorized exclusively under the heading of hot media, as it primarily stimulates your sense of hearing. However, if you take a look at different genres of music, you’ll find that some are cooler and some are hotter than others. For example: pop music. Dance pop. Some hip hop. Techno. The stuff you listen to while dancing in the clubs or walking around the mall, maybe singing a catchy chorus or two -the stuff likely to even be called “hot” on the radio. This is hot music. This is music that is super attractive to your ears, but your brain could care less; in fact, if it gets too involved, the song gets ruined. What does “There’s no distance between our love” even mean?! And as for techno, and I know I’m going to make some kind of horrid generalization here but IN MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, the techno I’ve listened to is only engaging for the first time the loop goes, and each time a subsequent development arises.
Now cool music would be something less in-your-face, but with really complex lyrics. More popular examples would be Damien Rice, whose lyrics, you can associate your own meaning to while figuring out the story, and Regina Spektor who draws from and refers to many literary and historical sources in some of her music (this one refers to Napoleon and uses a stanza from a Russian poem as a verse). Perhaps less well-known, but incredibly cool, are the musicians of the BC spoken word scene, such as The Fugitives and Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long. Here we have incredibly complex and beautiful poems/lyrics set to simple music.
I’d also argue, that heavy metal is cool music. Even though its intense volume is indicative of a hot medium, the complexity of the composition whether it be in melody, rhythm, or lyrics make metal cool (in the final link, I post the lyrics and not the song, because the lyrics are nigh indecipherable in the song -another example of the cool media-esque brainwork that goes into the heavy metal experience).
The hot and cool music divide even presents itself among individual bands. Early Beatles (She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…) are decidedly hot, with their catchy toons and hooky lyrics. Later Beatles have much more cool lyrical and compositional complexity -“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” anyone?
What the internet gives us is a further intermingling of this hot and cool continuum, and this is due to the growing popularity of the mashup. We can take the hot and hooky Lady Gaga and mix her melody with some coolly complex Behemoth instrumentals and get something completely awesome. Or, we can mix two genres to make for a cooler listening experience, like with this Snoop Dogg and Jimi Hendrix mashup, or a hotter one with Benny Benassi’s remix of California Dreaming.
It’s so much fun to listen to things in a different context.