This piece was originally published in July 2011.
The concert had been delayed for two months, and anticipation was high. The last time the Avett Brothers had come to town was before the Rick Rubin-produced album, before the placement in Starbucks, before the performance at the Grammys. Last time, they’d been at the outer stage of a second-rate venue while a metal show droned away on the main stage. When their return finally seemed imminent, there was a last second snag. Scott Avett was whisking away to attend the birth of his son. Our town and several others on the tour schedule would have to wait. Until tonight.
So when the lights dimmed, and the three members of the band crowded around a single microphone for a hushed rendition of the elegiac “Murder In The City”, a proverbial hush came over the crowd. And when Scott made his way to the line about telling his sister that he loved her, we were surprised by his improvisation:
“Tell my son I love him…”
Lumps appeared in six hundred throats instantly, mine included. In some other context, this might’ve been a contrived tug at the heart strings, a crass attempt to gain the audience’s good graces. But that’s not the Avetts’ game, and the fact that Scott’s sincerity struck such a powerful nerve is indicative of what we normally expect from musicians and the culture at large.
Earnestness takes us aback. It elicits the question, are you for real? When the indie tastemakers at Pitchfork reviewed the Avett Brothers most recent studio album, the incredulity was palpable. “(A)fter a while, you may begin to wish they’d get angry about something, or, god forbid, crack an ironic joke,” the review pleads. It’s okay to express sincerity, but to actually be sincere is uncomfortable.
But music, as with all other art, is designed to elicit an emotional reaction. It can be attractive and winsome, or abrasive and repulsive, and both have a rightful place as honest expressions of human emotion. Yet we are often loath to approach the heights of real emotion in art, so we put on a protective cloak of irony, a distancing that allows us to laugh off any real sincerity.
“You didn’t really think I meant what I said, did you?”
Irony allows us an out in our personal lives. It also provides an armor when we explore unfamiliar or dangerous territory. Most of all, it maintains our cool. Hidden behind sunglasses, covered with a smirk, and swaddled in a snarky t-shirt, we cruise by unaffected and uninfected.
Artists are by no means to shy from this. In fact, after the optimism and idealism of the mid-twentieth century wore off, glossed over with disco and Saturday Night Live, then subsequently deconstructed by “alternative” rock and Fight Club, irony and detachment provide a unified theory of culture in the past forty years.
Even though there were voices calling in the wilderness during these times, harkening back to a purer spirit of expression, even some of these artists found it necessary to slather on a slick sheen. The earnest Weezer of the Blue Album and Pinkerton becomes a YouTube joke soundtrack, and innumerable indie darling actors and actresses “sell out” by doing a Hollywood blockbuster between small-budget films.
I think Ryan Adams alternates albums based on how “cool” he’s feeling at that time.
Does it then follow that ironic entertainment and art are inherently inferior to their sincere counterparts? Of course not. It would be elitist and unrealistic to think so, and there have been many excellent examples to the contrary. Nor is this tied to any particular genre of music or art. There is as much true emotion in some rap music and Modernist architecture as there is in the most plaintive folk musician’s discography. But if you’re inclined to pursue beauty and excellence as ends unto themselves, a certain amount of concreteness is assumed and necessary.
As anyone who has been in love can tell you, moments arise when the emotions are too strong to contain, when they boil over seemingly of their own accord. Being audience to sincere art, even when we’re feeling cold and detached, spills some of that emotion onto us, and we can’t help but feel it. We sing along. We pause to take in the canvas.
Our hard shell finally cracks and we weep.
Their emotion becomes our emotion. Their soul speaks to our soul, and reminds us that we have one in the first place. It’s healthy and it’s right. It’s art at its most human.
The tide of cool often takes us away from this emotion. We retreat into the cocoon, and take our cues from a culture that is aggressively indifferent, oxymoronic as that might seem. To get too invested is to invite a label: Nerd. Fangirl. Dork. Parrothead.
Okay, I even made myself shudder at that last one.
This isn’t a call to revisit the Good Old Days, when songs were honest, skirts were longer, and only Kennedys wore Wayfarers.
We must play the cultural hand we’re dealt. But just as we can’t gorge on junk food without the occasional salad, we can’t deny the importance of allowing ourselves to feel through art, directly or vicariously. Scott Avett could no sooner ignore the impact that the birth of his son had on his identity as a musician and on his music than he could stop breathing and expect to live. So also we can feel free to let our context and our lives flow into the art we choose and the way that we experience it.
Just remember to bring a hanky.