Some Sincere Artists Who Are Sincerely Good

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Tom Dougherty
Yesterday, in response to this week's ongoing Macklemore/The Head and the Heart/"Sincerity" discussion, commenter joshc asked:

"I guess that it might help if you let us in on some sincere bands that you don't think are corny?"

Outstanding idea, Josh! Obviously, I mention Shabazz Palaces in the original piece as an example of someone who can do sincere without it being his only mode and without being corny about it. But Shabazz is not (quite) the alpha and the omega of music. And, really, most of the artists who strike me as being able to do sincere manage it precisely because it's not their only lane. So, then, a few more artists who I think can pull of sincerity without spelling it in 40-foot high flaming letters and while still being sincerely good (fair warning, this is basically just gonna end up being a list of my favorite bands full stop):

1. LCD Soundsystem

Sure, the shallow read on James Murphy's act is that it's the very height of ironic h-word detachment. You hear the deadpan vocals on "Losing My Edge" cracking jokes about bands swapping guitars for synthesizers, and the knee-jerk reaction is that this is all one long sarcastic rant set to a canned Killing Joke/A Certain Ratio rhythm. But even "Losing My Edge," their earliest and arguably cheekiest song, has an ultra-sincere core: the fear of growing old and out of touch, of all the things you've done and seen amounting to nothing, of quite literally losing your edge. And, sure, Murphy is gently making fun of this fear, as he rattles off his Forrest Gump cameo adventures in music history, parodying the kind of person who would gauge their self-worth by their record collection--but GODDAMN, if you can't hear the real worry in his voice when he talks about the "footsteps of the kids every night on the decks," then you aren't listening. And that's just their first song! Down the line, they get even more unambiguously sincere, with songs like "All My Friends," "Someone Great," "All I Want," et.c--but without ever losing, if you will, the much-needed balancing edge that is Murphy's lyrical and musical wit.

2. Vampire Weekend

Old news, I know, but same deal as above: Fools mistake these guys for being all arch grammar jokes and starched polos, and entirely miss the point. Yes, there are arch grammar jokes (and, a bit further in, interrogations of the notion of authenticity vis-a-vis Lil Jon, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, and Joe Strummer of the Clash), but there are also songs about college romances, fondly remembered vacations, nostalgia, and youthful exuberance--all of which positively brim with genuine feeling.

3. Why?

Figured we should get a white rapper (etc.) on this list, so here you go. Why?'s Yoni Wolf drops brutally truthful confessions about shitting his pants, getting caught masturbating, scamming on girls, and (over and over and over again) being afraid of death. The stuff he says onstage is risky as hell, way more risky than any cornball schmaltz about liking his hometown or yearning for some old-timey Thomas Kinkade pastoral. And the stuff he says is artful and complex, animated by recurring symbols and themes and metaphors. People always talk about how song lyrics don't need to be poetry, and, sure, they don't need to be--people will tolerate mediocre lyrics the way box-office audiences buy mediocre movies--but that doesn't mean the best lyrics can't be.

4. Carissa's Wierd

And since the discussion largely centers on Seattle, on what's good for it and on its possible blind spots for its home teams, here's a local example (and about as close as this list is likely to come to "folkie"). Carissa's Wierd might also be the band here that comes most perilously close to being precious about their sincerity, but I think they hold that line extremely well. In a lot of ways, they're like the negative or inverse image of The Head and the Heart--male/female vocal harmonies, acoustic instruments (including a violin)--but CW's songs are for the most part tortuously glum where The Head and the Heart's range from merely wistful to downright happy-go-lucky. CW's songs could easily read as over-the-top, with lyrics like "I want to die right now" or, say, "Some days are better than others/Some people are too," but they're delivered with perfect subtlety, rather than sold with the overemotive acting of a used-car commercial.

I could go on and on, but scanning the above acts and some of the comments I've received here and elsewhere (on Twitter: "I would love for you to explain how someone is making music that is too sincere") makes me think that maybe it's just worth me ending by condensing, for ease of digestion, the main argument of the article that started all this, just so we know we're all talking about the same thing. Here it is then:

The problem here isn't so much whether or not Macklemore is actually sincere--any decent art is almost by definition both sincere and contrived, and once you start guessing at creative intent, you're lost.[...] The problem lies in his reliance on hackneyed signifiers of sincerity, aesthetic tics and traps that shout from the top of Mt. Rainier, without irony, "I mean it, man!" [...] On a purely practical level, this stuff works--audiences do join in. But "heartfelt" is a hard thing to nail in music. Go a hair too far, and you start reducing the wonderful complexity of real emotion to the two-dimensionality of a Hallmark card.

We're not talking about intent, remember (because it's impossible to parse and really not very useful.) We're talking about technique and effects. We're talking about the performance of "sincerity."

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