Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age's Ethos

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A recent hipster-hating New York Times column got this pop-cultural moment exactly backwards.

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Cultural critics love hypothesizing about hipsters. And certainly hipsters make for useful lab rats if you're interested in the culture of young, gentrifying, trendy, affluent, and white college graduates. But it's easy to let this hypothesizing go too far, and you get into trouble when you try to charge hipsters with representing the "ethos of our age." They're just kids making their way from young adulthood to the rest of their lives.

Yet that's exactly what Princeton professor Christy Wampole does in her recent New York Times op-ed, titled "How to Live Without Irony." She tells us, with disconcerting certitude, that irony is the ethos of our era, and she knows because, I mean, just look at those hipsters with their ironic mustaches, record players, and trombones, right?

If hipsters aren't convincing enough, Wampole offers a second proof that we live in the "age of Deep Irony": advertisements. Not a specific advertisement, mind you, but, she writes, "an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it." You know, that one. That's irony, she says, and because she's raised the specter of an unidentified advertisement, along with the unidentified hipsters, we're supposed to believe that the overwhelming ethos of our time is irony.

Across pop culture, it's become un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country.

But you can't determine the ethos of an entire age by looking at a sub-sub-sub-sub-culture. Rather, there are far more prominent indicators like, for example, a society's cultural output. Take that into account, and a different picture emerges. The success of filmmakers like Judd Aptatow, the increasing popularity of ultra-sincere indie artists from Arcade Fire to Vampire Weekend, and the proliferation of wholesome, though not traditional, family-centered television shows like Modern Family point to a rise in what some call the "New Sincerity."

If that phrase sounds familiar, it may be because Professor Wampole brings it up toward the end of her essay as an example of an attempt to banish irony. She notes that the New Sincerity has been around since the 1980s, and is a response to "postmodern cynicism, detachment and meta-referentiality." She's right about that, and the examples she cites—David Foster Wallace, Wes Anderson, and Cat Power—are right too. But the New Sincerity failed, she tells us. She wants us to take her word for this, even though each of her examples still wield a great deal of cultural influence and continue to model the New Sincerity even, in the case of Wallace, posthumously.

Now, I'm not one of those "irony is dead" people (otherwise I wouldn't be having so much fun with irony here), and I really don't like the descriptor "post-ironic," which came to popularity in the wake of September 11, 2001. Rather, I like how Jesse Thorn, host of the PRI show Bullseye and an early promoter of the New Sincerity, describes the ethos as a joining of irony and sincerity. He says it better: "Irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power." Irony is not dead—it's (ahem) a useful rhetorical tool—but it's certainly not the ethos of our age.

Looking back all the way to the 1950s and tracking the trajectory of pop culture, I do see an over-emphasis on irony for sure, but early in the aughts I see a change. Maybe it was September 11, and maybe it was that combined with the pendulum swing of time, but whatever the case, around the turn of the century, something began to shift. Today, vulnerability shows up in pop music where bravado and posturing once ruled—see artists across every genre, from Conor Oberst to Lady Gaga to Frank Ocean. Television sitcoms and "bromance" movies depict authentic characters determined to live good lives. And respected literary authors like Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and Michael Chabon write sincere, popular books with a strong sense of morality.

All across the pop culture spectrum, the emphasis on sincerity and authenticity that has arisen has made it un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country. And pollsters find this same trend in the up-and-coming generation from which Wampole culls her hipsters, Millennials. A recent Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll survey found that among Millennials, six out of 10 prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else. For those in Generation X, family was still important, but the second priority was not spirituality—it was making a lot of money. Clearly, a change has been underway.

Wampole agrees that there's been a shift, but she sees it in reverse. She thinks that for Millennials, "Irony is the primary mode with which daily life is dealt." In her telling, the '90s were the height of sincerity; looking back, she writes, the '90s "now seems relatively irony-free." And to a certain extent she's right when she brings up the "grunge" movement; the roots of the New Sincerity are there. But she doesn't see the disconnect when she describes the apathy of the '90s, the slacker archetype, the anger and the melancholia. That's how I remember it too; the only thing I'd add is ironic detachment.

It just goes to show that you can't trust a person who claims that the era in which she or he came of age was the height of anything. Think of aging Republican politicians pointing back to the 1950s as the height of morality, but failing to mention that it was also the height of inequality. Wampole admits that perhaps her memory is "over-nostalgic," and I'm right there with her: I have a half dozen Spotify playlists dedicated to music from the '90s. But I can also still remember the cool, detached posturing of the teenagers I looked up to as a child in the '80s, and still as a teenager myself in the '90s. To be vulnerable or authentic, to be sincere, was death in those days.

It's obviously difficult—and arguably impossible—to define the ethos of an age. But that doesn't excuse Christy Wampole for missing the mark so dramatically. She let her distaste of hipsters—of which she makes no secret—blind her to the larger culture in which they exist. Those hipsters, with their funny facial hair and too-tight T-shirts, will grow out of the hipster phase and realize that their stable upbringing, college education, and life-long consumption of popular culture informed by the New Sincerity has made them well-adjusted and productive members of society. Maybe they'll even join us in scrutinizing the behavior of the next generation of hipsters. As for that next generation, I know that there's a good chance its members could shift back toward the ironic detachment that Wampole thinks she sees today. But let's at least recognize and enjoy this New Sincerity moment while it lasts.

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