Sincerity, Not Irony, Is Our Age's Ethos

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.

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