Washington Post writer Linton Weeks recently wrote a fascinating big-picture essay about the long, sad decline of sincerity and sentiment in America, symbolized by the public loathing of the 1975 Morris Albert pop song "Feelings." It wasn’t merely the whoa-whoa-whoa chorus that drove the criticism, he suggested, but the mere act of the singer putting the heart on the proverbial sleeve that became phony, cheesy and hopelessly square.
It’s been said before that we live in an age of irony, and irreverence is king. But Weeks added the irresistible term "Snark Ages" to characterize it: "The revolt against sincerity — the Snark Ages, still upon us — began as a rebellion against corny, over-the-top displays of emotion in movies, songs, TV shows. But the rebellion spiraled out of control, and any public expression of emotion, no matter how sincere, was a target for mockery. Old war movies and romantic dramas, taken seriously the first time around, were consumed by a younger generation as farce — as ‘camp.’"
That’s all true. But 1975 is a little late to mark the beginning of a revolt against sincerity. The revolt began with the arrival of a "counterculture" that bloomed in the "Question Authority" 1960s. "Question Sincerity" could have been one of their buttons, but the revolt didn’t speak to that directly. The leaders of the counterculture mocked everything their parents had been and all they had done. These enlightened people proclaimed themselves as the sincere ones, the opponents of plastic patriotism and flannel-suit conformity.
The Beatles sang "All You Need Is Love," but the counterculture thought love was overrated, especially if it meant long-term attachments, like marital fidelity. Love was a "groovy" feeling, but it had to be "free," which often meant it was best carried out in a long series of "random acts of kindness" with a string of strangers. The counter-culturalists professed to be apostles of love, but counseled self-absorption in narcotic highs. Timothy Leary advised, "Tune out, turn on, drop out." He told his devotees to seek detachment from troublesome "involuntary" commitments and find happiness in "mobility, choice, and change." Sincerity in love doesn’t happen without commitment, and it doesn’t merge well with an ardent desire to seek mobility and change.
Even today, the counter-culturalists — now aging academics holed up in university English departments — see sentiment as an enemy. Weeks cited Temple’s Joan Mellen, who demeaned sentiment as "friend to the status quo, and to passivity. A formidable enemy, of moral no less than of artistic integrity, in art as in life, in these beleaguered times it is best quickly identified, and then scrupulously avoided."
Hollywood’s most influential cultural commissars also live by this code. They would claim to be the champions of authenticity, but in their endless attempts to persuade us through their "art," they often suggest that nothing is authentic on its face, that no one can be trusted and everyone deep down is a phony, living a lie. I’m not talking merely about the manufacturers of movies and television shows and music, but about the critics who constantly proclaim for the whole country what is the best in art, and the award-show managers who now slavishly follow what the critics pronounce.
Insincerity is also rampant in Manhattan, in national magazine publishing. There is no greater irony than Kurt Andersen, one of the founders of a Snark Ages trendsetter, Spy magazine, to proclaim to Weeks that "If someone were to look at 2008 culture from 1963, I suppose it would look strangely unsentimental." How priceless. Watch as the polluter looks out on his black oil spill of mockery and decides it isn’t all good.
Weeks turned to experts who suggested that sentiment is strangled in our private lives as well. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, theorized that the culture "has lost the capacity to be nice, to appreciate, to be modest, and even to be reverential — all relatives of the appreciation family of emotions." Keltner added the theory that we spend more and more time with strangers than family and old friends, people who spur us to occasions he called "deep niceness."
But Weeks protested that people are still sentimental in their private lives, that they still say, "I love you" to one another, they still send flowers and greeting cards, they still cry at funerals and at tearjerker movies. Of course they do. We have not lost the ability to love and revere and be sincere. There are still songs and shows that reflect that feeling. They’re just dismissed as hopelessly cheesy and square.
Throughout our lives, we privately resist the Snark Ages peer pressure of popular culture. Even today’s young people can learn to reject it. Call it rebelling against the rebellion. Who’s the counter-culture now?