That’s it really, in a nutshell, distilled to its very essence. That is our simple entreaty, something held more vital than a manifesto, but not quite dogma.
It a sense, there’s not much to it, or at least not much concrete. There’s something about it, though, something compelling. Sincerity is one of those lovely little ideas both ultimately mutable and utterly inarguable. One can be sincere about almost anything, yet once you are, it is a statement of ultimate purpose and conviction. It’s a form of truth.
I’ll admit, the last few years have been a bit grim when it comes to finding sincerity, especially amongst the young, restless and hip. In an age where all the information and art that has ever existed is available on Youtube, the way a person interacts with the world changes. We have, as a culture, evolved in such a way that the young and savvy now have a built-in filter to keep from getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume, the torrents (not a coincidentally chosen word) of music and art and information that we are submerged in every day.
That filter is irony. That ironic detachment that keeps us at a distance, that keeps us abreast from the things we enjoy. Irony is the ultimate enslavement of culture; the idea that (with some intellectual finagling), you can enjoy and take part in something, no matter how ridiculous, offensive, insipid, or irrelevant, without it defining you. It’s a safety blanket, a pressure valve, and armor against critique.
I am, of course, avoiding the elephant in the room, that horrible, horrible word that gets tossed around so casually to describe the omnipresent cultural “other” that seems to occupy our periphery. The word everyone uses but no one want to be called. The word that is incredibly evocative and has specific cultural connotations, but few would ever profess to be.
I’m talking hipsters, kids. Stay with me.
The personality, the sense of self, is under siege by the insane volume of content, and so we embrace the avatar. That’s what “hipsters” are, real world avatars. That’s why, even though there is absolutely no debating that hipsters exist, they are never self-identified: no one would say they’re creating an alter ego through embracing specific cultural memes. But that’s what all the frumpy, ill-fitting sweaters, professed enjoyment of PBR, and ironic facial hair represent: the creation of the intellectualized, controlled “self” that is self-evident and well-defined.
Frankly, I find this tiresome. I imagine most do. It just seems like a lot of work, a grotesque distortion of the punk rock ethic of defining yourself in contrast to pop culture and somehow sanitizing it, making it safe. If culture is saturated with information with no real filter as to value, the hippest cat in the room is the one that embraces the most unlikeable, the most obscure, the most oblique aesthetic. Take crunk, chopped up and screwed grind beats, throw in a dash of Joy Division, a sample of "Ode To Joy," maybe a saxophone solo. Don’t forget to overdrive the amps and lay on that endless reverb. Storm the offices of Pitchfork on a crack binge. Repeat as necessary. Yawn, motherfucker. Yawn.
What I find so exciting is that this repugnant, knee-jerk defense of the ego seems to ebbing in favor of… Sincerity. Be here now. As the familiar forms of distribution are getting outmoded by technology, culture is twisted and turning surprising ways, and music seems to be at the foreground of this change. Those of us who are observers and participants in the Midwest indie scene (whether its Chicago, or the new home for several of our contributors, Ann Arbor, Michigan) have remarked that there’s something in the air, something palpable. You feel it at the shows by the local bands, some of them new, some of them scene stalwarts for years.
You can see it at work in the aesthetics of the bands we here at RFC have championed, both on a national and local level: Dawes, Blitzen Trapper, Local Natives, Okkerville River, the Tallest Man on Earth, Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart, Wye Oak, Timber Timbre, Lightning Love, Gun Lake, Matt Jones, and countless others. All these bands, while dramatically different from one another, seem to be eschewing the obscurity of the hip in favor of familiar sounds, lovely melodies, heartfelt lyrics, and often-acoustic instrumentation.
Of course, things are not always straight-forward, there may be an odd turn of phrase, an angular guitar lick, a troubled melody, an extra beat here and there; the idea however, is that the music fundamentally is heartfelt, rather than heady. Melody reigns, beautiful, transcendent melodies, often in chorus.
Also part of the excitement is the network forming to foster these artists, a loose confederation of musicians who play together regularly at friendly venues to a receptive, “turned on” audience as well as the websites championing them. In addition to ourselves and our modest family of blogs (Indie College, Mezzic, RFSL), Daytrotter might serve as a perfect example of this new forum: providing amazingly well-engineered recordings of bands they enjoy for free, they have changed the conversation about music. On Daytrotter, the critical intellectualizing is cut down in favor of, “Giving you exclusive, re-worked, alternate versions of old songs and unreleased tracks by some of your favorite bands and by a lot of your next favorite bands,” to use their words. With their amazing Barnstormer series, they take the artists to the kids, put on shows in barns and basements where the floorboards rattle from the sound of 50-200 kids stomping along with the beat. Then there are the shows where the kids sit in rapt silence while a single mournful voice rings out from the stage and pindrop would sound like a piano falling.
This is the essence of the New Sincerity: its less an aesthetic than an ethic. Seemingly without discussion or calculation, there is a minor renaissance going on with earnest, unironic arts and culture. We're seeing a surge of bands that make music that is melodic and unpretentious. The emphasis is less on it being heady and challenging and more on it being heartfelt; making music could have existed in roughly it's same form yesterday or 80 years ago (that is to say, TIMELESS); people singing fun, mournful, angry, beautiful songs with those great big harmonies.
It's not really meant to be a revolution nor is the music iconoclastic, it's just about having fun. It's the kind of music that swells your heart, the kind of music you sing along with when you're driving around late at night looking for a 7-11.
The WAY you enjoy music too is changing too. The idea of just loving something to death without having to worry about seeming intellectually compromised is something that gives us as writers, our audiences as readers, and the bands we write about an incredible freedom to just do what they love without fear of seeming less worldly and cynical. You can gush about something, expound on it at length in a way that is engaging and intelligent without losing sight of the fact that the reason it's relevant is because it totally fucking rocks.
That, friends, is what this artcle will be about. This first diatribe is merely an opening volley, a shot across the bow. While RFC has long held this sort of enthusiasm in high regard, the “Kings of the New Sincerity” article will be a forum for us here at RFC to discuss a band (or possibly a song, performance, a piece of music journalism, etc) that we feel epitomizes the New Sincerity, as specific or as general as we may see fit. We will be talking about what we think is flat out great and represents something unashamedly beautiful and joyful and emotionally true. We do not espouse to be tastemakers or have the armor of cool to protect us. It's just about us being open and championing openness in others.
Far more succinct words on the New Sincerity I think comes from the dearly departed writer David Foster Wallace in his discussion of the burgeoning movement in the literary world:
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.
We here at RFC take up the cause, hoist high the flag of the New Sincerity, risk the incredulousness and scorn of our peers, and we hope against hope that you will join us in our rank.