Sydney has a problem with sincerity. Some artists abuse it, some totally discard it, and very few actually espouse it. We seem to be uncomfortable with the concept. There is a perception that sincerity equals weakness, or inversely, that sincerity equals power—authenticity.
Some time between the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s, a movement nicknamed New Sincerity came into focus in America. It positioned itself as a resistance to the postmodern, the ironic, the heartless art that early proponents of this New Sincerity noticed. David Foster Wallace was one of them. He prophesied that a new generation would grow weary of droll, sardonic eye-rolling and take up arms against this foe with sincerity as their leading charge.
As I walk past, it’s hard to tell whether the music that wafts out from the Newtown Social Club or The Union, or the Madeira Club is aware of this (now faded) movement. How could it be aware? New Sincerity never really took hold as Foster Wallace envisioned. In this scene, there seems to be no sincerity in abundance enough to warrant subversion. Still, these hip bands are doing the same old wry take on rock music again and again. Do they privately prepare a persona of ironic disdain for endeavour? Or is this an artistic statement, a dismissal of sincerity? I believe neither case to be true. What I hear from these venues, when I go inside, is at best mere restlessness and at worst it is posturing.
Sydney’s youth have an honourable admiration for all things working-class. We express this admiration with the standard set of personality portals: The beers we drink, the clothes we wear, the way we talk, the way we sing. Each can serve to illuminate some aspect of this working class mindset. Which is cool. But when it comes to sincerity, something get’s lost in translation when we picture what working class is. There is a dread of appearing to try too hard. This attitude is at odds with local artist’s conception of themselves as working class. It’s cool to drink VB and generally embrace these values, but it’s not cool to try hard? Aren’t hard yakka and VB beers connected? If we Australians had a bill of rights you would find both of those words on the same line.
The inverse of the above types can be seen in the uncountable young voices silting up in the vast data storage facilities at YouTube. The archetypical example goes thusly: A girl, too young to know of the realities of the adult world, sings a sweet, faint rendition of a popular tune, with acoustic guitar accompanying, strummed softly. Presumably, the idea is that her version is not only uniquely pared back, but that it also has a sincerity which the original recording artist failed to communicate. No one can be faulted for making music for the pleasure of it, but there is something strange about the way this form has begun to dominate search bar results. For every big money pop production, there is an equal and opposite pared back acoustic cover online, somewhere. The amount of acoustic covers flooding into sites like YouTube is symptomatic of a yearning for true, sincere music.
Sadly, ironically, few of these mega-big-time recording artists are still holding on to their sense of duty, a sincerity which probably got them noticed in the first place.
At the early, blossoming stages of their career, a great artist will invariably be rebelling against something. Hendrix destroyed easy-to-listen-to ‘pop’, which to him, meant ditzy melodies and sunny harmony, music that was blind to the realities of the world. Elvis did the same with mores of sexual modesty. Picasso with perception and reality. So what are we rebelling against, when we show no outward signs of passion, of rage? Could it be the case that these bands are fed up with sincerity? “I’ve had it up to here with all these hard working, honest people!”
For some of the most fatally trendy artists circulating through these Sydney venues, the rejection of sincerity can be explained as a defensive mechanism: How could you deride me if I don’t really care about anything at all? For these artists, sincerity is a weakness. If their social media campaigns are anything to go by, it’s clear that they desire success. This desire is not unwholesome or greedy, it is an honest goal for any aspiring musician. But, to quote David Foster Wallace, real rebels risk disapproval.
For the millions of people typing those two magic words into the search bar, appended to the titles of mainstream pop tunes, sincerity is something in high demand and low supply. The point of the girl doing the acoustic cover is that she wants to hear sincerity and perhaps she hopes to set the melody right by giving it the sincerity that it lacked in the first place. This is an attitude prevalent enough that it dominates the amateur music making scene online. The problem with so many of these young musicians performing for the camera and publishing the result online is that sincerity - or it’s appearance - is used as a way of seeming authentic and real. In fact, the trend of the acoustic cover has been going on for long enough that this vapid appearance is wrapping around on itself. A second wave of performances has arisen wherein the formulated appearance of sincerity is the norm, it’s business as usual.
Sincerity is neither a source of power nor a weakness for musicians. It is not a policy, it’s a sense of duty. Sincerity is what makes Hendrix so disarming, so charming to listen to. Yes, he has towering album sales figures but sincerity means he wasn’t in it for the money. It’s not a necessary thing to have with you on your ride to fame and glory, but it might help you get started in the first place.