Hearts on plaid sleeves

They say we’re living in a post-ironic age, that irony died on 9-11 and post-modern cynicism just isn’t doing it for us anymore. For our indie rockers this means it’s not enough anymore to be angsty, dissatisfied crooners. The people want hope, they want change, and they want their music heartfelt. So, if irony and cynicism are dead then out of their ashes has risen their younger, cuter progeny: “The New Sincerity.”

The mid-‘90s to early-2000s was a dark time for all of us. Growing out of grunge and facing its glossy counterpart in the bubblegummiest of pop, it seemed cynicism was inescapable. Yet, another movement was quietly gathering momentum, one that was tentatively embraced — a new brand of sincerity. The term “The New Sincerity” was popularized as a movement by radio host Jesse Thorn with the credo “Be More Awesome,” but it has since been applied to a variety of things from a specific music scene in Austin, Texas, to contemporary philosophy, to film. Perhaps it’s best understood as a general cultural climate — one that’s about being wholehearted over half-assed, heartbroken over disillusioned, and earnest instead of “whatever.”

It’s difficult enough to make art without having to mean what you say, but that is precisely what many contemporary musicians are finding the guts to do. Following in the wake of acts that were ahead of the sincerity game, like Cat Power and Will Oldham, the musicians getting critical attention nowadays wear their heart on their plaid sleeves. Indeed, two of indie rock’s most successful singles this year were about a man professing his love and dedication to his wife and daughter (Animal Collective’s “My Girls”) and a singer bemoaning the loss and inevitable disloyalty of his girlfriend (Grizzly Bear’s “While You Wait For the Others”). Both bands even eschewed their usual experimental flourishing so that the lyrics wouldn’t lose their directness. Also, think pretty much any song by Bon Iver or Winnipegger Christine Fellows.

In fact, we Canadians have embraced The New Sincerity, whether intentionally or not. We need only to peek at our nation’s fancy music award, the Polaris Music Prize, awarded last week, for examples. This year’s nominees were rife with all brands of sincerity, from earnest melancholy to full-on joy. Elliott Brood’s nominated album Mountain Meadows covers the melancholy with lines like “’His love went south, and he’ll go west/A mountain of song couldn’t fill that hole in his chest.’” K’naan’s Troubadour has it all, but he states his mission best in the song Somalia — “’In this tenement, I’m sentimental, What?/Plus it’s only right to represent my hood/And what not. So I’m about to do it in the music.’”

The best part is that, out of all the bands nominated for the Polaris, the winner of the $20,000 prize was a hardcore band called Fucked Up. You could argue that there is something necessarily balls-to-the-wall about hardcore, what with all the yelling and the loudness and all. But you can be angry and still cynical; you can be screaming and not mean it in the way that the New Sincerity requires. In this way, Fucked Up has as much in common with the sensitive, whispering indie rockers as any Conor Oberst or Mountain Goats fan. Those guys are not kidding around.

Jesse Thorn was right, it is really about the “awesome.” Awe is the antithesis of cynicism and irony; that’s the common denominator in this music and all the other art forms The New Sincerity encompasses. It allows itself to be affected by life; its joy, heartbreak and occasional suckiness. It’s not restricted to a style or agenda, only the same answer when asked if authentic art can be made.