Jesse Thorn claims to be beyond irony. Using his popular show The Sound of Young America as a bully pulpit, the ever-buoyant podcast star advocates for a New Sincerity. Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it? A New Sincerity. It comes off as simultaneously intelligent and humane, like a cross between a critical theory treatise and a note from Grandma. There’s a problem though: Thorn’s idea is bunk, and Daniel Johnston already provided a better approach back in 1983.
In his “A Manifesto for The New Sincerity” Thorn points to Evel Knievel as the icon of his movement. The Carter-era daredevil is presented as an irony obliterating figure whose outsized persona and accomplishments put him beyond any academic eggheading.
Evel is the kind of man who defies even fiction, because the reality is too over the top. Here is a man in a red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit, driving some kind of rocket car. A man who achieved fame and fortune jumping over things… [He] boggles the mind.
Essentially, for Thorn, Knievel is beyond discussion; his mythic stature can only be approached in a state of awe. Which is fine for Thorn, because in his formulation, New Sincerity boils down to seeing things as awesome. Here, sincerity means complete uncritical appreciation. To put a point on it, he claims his movement’s credo is “Be More Awesome.” That is his path out of irony: thinking things are neat. It’s a personal philosophy about as much as “Restore America” is a political platform.
Thorn’s millennial take on New Sincerity is plain boring. Its definition of sincere is uncomplicated in a way that suggests complicated and sincere are mutually exclusive. It’s a lazy heuristic through which to engage the world. But here’s the thing: complexity and sincerity are not mutually exclusive. They often have a very direct relationship where the former supports the the latter. This is where Texas comes in.
The phrase New Sincerity was in use before Thorn applied it to his bro-friendly philosophy. It referred to a music scene localized to Austin, TX where the trappings of gen-X prickliness was being eschewed in favor of more direct expression. The embodiment of this sincerity wasn’t a motorcycle-mounted carnival entertainer, but the slightly strange singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston.
Having built a following based on his highly idiosyncratic self-produced tapes, Johnston was already a prominent figure around town when he released his fifth album on Stress Records, Yip/Jump Music. It is not an easy listen. While the tracks have an endearing sing-song quality, the lo-fi production and Johnston’s quavering vocals create a certain bar for entry — a close analog would be the late-60s outside-pop trio The Shaggs. Listen to the opener “Chord Organ Blues” and you’ll get an idea for the aesthetic. The combination of the raw audio quality, rudimentary instrumentation, and straightforward lyrics creates a song that feels overwhelmingly genuine.
You have to keep in mind that this was before the success of twee acts and lo-fi labels like K Records codified these stylistic markers into marks of authenticity. If listening to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances” sounds uncomfortably intimate now, it certainly did in 1983. This track — one of the album’s standouts — finds Johnston delivering a pep talk from a place of real vulnerability. When he sings “Do yourself a favor/ Become your own savior,” the crack in his voice hints that this bit of advice was probably hard-won from personal experience.
The emotional directness throughout Yip/Jump only becomes more affecting when paired with Johnston’s biography. Within a few years of the cassette’s release, Johnston’s eccentricity would give way to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, debilitating conditions that would frequently threaten his life and career. This isn’t to make Johnston out like some kind of savant. His creative triumphs aren’t the result of his emotional difficulty and psychic pain, it’s more nuanced: His triumph is the ability to articulate these interior states. Songs like “I Remember Painfully” work because Johnston doesn’t shy away from letting the world know how he feels, even when it’s awkwardly personal.
This is what makes Johnston’s New Sincerity more deserving of the title. Thorn’s concept is defined by unmitigated appreciation of something in the world; Johnston’s is about unfettered expression about something in himself, even when it’s complex and difficult. It’s self-conscious consumption versus sincere creation. Essentially, it’s easy to think a speeding motorcycle is awesome, but it’s even more awesome to write a song like “Speeding Motorcycle.”