Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I bring you Sufjan Stevens.
Reindeer headbands and Santa hats are most commonly associated with your Grandma’s kitschy attic — but at his concert Sunday night, these things were the centerpiece of Sufjan’s performance. In the audience, there were more tacky sweaters than at a faculty holiday party.
This milieu is exactly what Christy Wampole, Princeton University professor and author of the recent New York Times op-ed “How to Live Without Irony” seems to find irritating. In the article, Wampole writes of Generation Y’s inability to be sincere, describing the mythical hipster as someone who can “frivolously invest in sham social capitol.”
Audiences relate to the heavy religious and suburban references in Stevens’ music — a self-professed silliness that somehow accompanies the sacred. He wears American flag T-shirts while spinning parables about consumer culture. This, I suppose, is ironic.
But it is also redemptive, and emblematic of what writer David Foster Wallace might call the “new sincerity,” or the radical idea that there is more than one way to express what we mean.
Irony, like any other social lubricant, has the ability to be both vapid and truthful.
“Nostalgia,” Wampole writes in her essay, “needs time.” But, ironically (yes, ironically), by holding the 20th century up as a ledger of social morality, she suffers from the same malaise she accuses hipsters of: turning toward an incomplete notion of the past in order to achieve a more authentic present.
Sure, there are many ridiculous elements amplified in the hipster lifestyle (as with the hippies and punks) that make for very funny parodies. We have the TV show “Portlandia” for that. But rejecting the hipster for the colonization of the Kef scarf is like rejecting organic food because of the overzealous lady at the grocery. There is always a risk that identity can become an ideologue of performance, and technology accentuates a fear of vulnerability.
I find most of my friends (traditionally hipster or not) occupy the same sort of space that Stevens does — tender toward the composition of the American Dream, but desirous of a better personal and political landscape. This may be ironic (by Wampole’s odd definition), but it isn’t wrong.
Insincerity is not the affliction of irony: insincerity is the affliction of insincerity. I am leery of the sort of academic provincialism that distills Generation Y to a flannel shirt — and then calls bluff on flannel. That’s cultural reductionism at its worst. If you want to live a genuine life and communicate genuine things, the exterior should matter little.
Instead of disassociating with specific habits (as if biking and vinyls are mere parodies of choice) let’s write more thank-you-notes, say “I love you” in person rather than online and unapologetically declare a quiet ownership of our beliefs.
To Wampole, and whoever else sounds the dirge of sincerity: delve deeper. In prematurely eulogizing authenticity, there is the risk that it will walk right past us.
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