Irony, Sincerity, and Fountains of Wayne

In the video for "Someone to Love," the first single from Fountains of Wayne's new album Traffic and Weather, the tropes of early MTV are reheated with that mix of affectionate nostalgia and gentle mockery that has come to define so much of contemporary culture as it re-circulates the images, sounds, and narratives of the past. The video for "Someone to Love" tells a story about a boy and a girl--exactly the story told by the lyrics. When Fountains sing of a woman spending an hour in the shower or a man working as a lawyer, that's exactly what we get. For the choruses the band lipsyncs on a television in a character's apartment against stylized colored lights, and that's about as cheesy a device as you'll find in music video. Like the band's only real hit, "Stacy's Mom," the video for this new song tries to play to two audiences: young people with no memory of the first crop of MTV videos, for whom the text plays straight, and aging hipsters of the band's vintage who get that they're a stylish, knowing knockoff of the early 80s new wave pop sound and recognize the slight goofiness of these video homages--especially the excessive Lolita-meets-Fast Times iconography of "Stacy's Mom." In an interview about "Stacy's Mom," Schlesinger talks about the very specific early 80s sounds they're after, including Rick Springfield and The Cars. He even calls it ripping off, though he obviously means that in the nicest possible way.

Fountains of Wayne's music is a perfect blend of sincerity and sendup, with moments of honest pathos passing imperceptibly into revival style that goes a bit too far. On the new album, the rhythm guitar over the percussive piano line of "Yolanda Hayes" is straight out of a Joe Jackson intro ca. Stepping Out, while the panting vocals over a sexy bouncing synth line in "Someone to Love" might segue any second into "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)" (...baby right round round round). Adam Schlesinger is an ace at dreaming up songs that make you smile even as you cringe a little, as he has done in composing for films like That Thing You Do! and Music and Lyrics. The whine of Chris Collingwood's voice works well with Schlesinger's sad sack suburban themes in songs for Fountains of Wayne. The lead characters in "Someone to Love" are lonely twentysomething New Yorkers who need each other but fail to connect. The narrator of the wistful "Hackensack," off the band's previous effort, Welcome Interstate Managers, pines for a high school classmate who became successful in showbiz while he remained stuck in his hometown working for his dad. I'm sure Schlesinger doesn't mean to be putting anybody down, but his portraits of post-adolescent white middle-class angst are basically about what his life might have been like had he not found himself some success as an indie rocker. In other words, they can come off as gloating.

A tension between irony and sincerity is a tone that we find now too frequently in rock music, television, film, and other pop culture. All forms are indebted to the past, but in a genre like indie music where authenticity counts for a ton, reviving an old form with low authenticity, like early 80s AM radio pop, requires a smirking suggestion of being in on a joke. (This is different from, say, Billy Joel adopting 50s doo-wop style in "Uptown Girl"--these two things were on the same level, more or less, authenticity-wise.) And yet Fountains of Wayne clearly adore the music of their youth. They don't love it in spite of its cheesiness--either they don't find it cheesy, or more likely cheese is part of what they love. The influential Tarantino school of cultural appropriation exploits a similar contradiction between affectionate and parodic relations toward one's nostalgic fixations. To some leftist critics of corporate culture (e.g., Naomi Klein), the ironic consumption of corporate kitsch is an exercise in bad faith. But the acceptance of debased commercial entertainment as aesthetically legitimate can be quite liberating. It allows for the honest appreciation of the things mass audiences really love even when they are "guilty pleasures" and it celebrates the people's taste. Further, it decouples critical appreciation of culture from a kind of economic formalism that dictates that the creative output of corporate culture industries are less authentic or legitimate than other kinds of culture simply by virtue of their origins in exploitative business practices.

"So bad it's good" is a put-down. It's an arrogant, cynical stance. The key to appreciating a culturally delegitimated form is to own it, to insist on appreciation that avoids mockery or derision, to stand up for your taste. In a better world there would be no guilty pleasures-- just pleasures. I think the Fountains guys get that. I don't know if their fans do, too, though. Popular sentiment seems to be that the band could be doing so much more with their talent (e.g., a 3.0 rating Pitchfork review--which might actually be evidence of artistic triumph). I hope this isn't code for "stop reviving early 80s crap."

1 comment:

the sad billionaire said...

Great post, zigzigger. I am not very familiar with the music of Fountains of Wayne, so I don't have much specific to add to the consideration of their music. But I am curious about your thoughts regarding the following questions:

1)Recently i have become aware of a resurgence of interest in the old Lionel Trilling "sincerity and authenticity" distinction, and a renewal of interest in the category of sincerity. Is it useful to pursue the question: Are Fountains of Wayne sincere? Or, given the means by which the impression of "sincerity" is constructed by musical artists, do FOW comply or violate the "rules"?

I think that a few of the key criteria of "sincerity" are formal-- not so much the "content" questions of whether the growl of the voice or use of slang is "earned" through "real experience," but commitment to the presentation of a coherent vision by demonstrating stylistic integrity--for instance, maintaing "one sound" throughout an album, or even a career. (Consider the totally "inauthentic" rock band Kiss, who lost millions of fans when they made the "insincere" gesture of making the disco record "I Was Made For Loving You"). Jumping from one pastiche to another over the course of an album might indicate powerfully to listeners and consumers that artists are "insincere." Consider also the perhaps curious critical neglect of groups like Phish and They Might Be Giants, who otherwise would seem to fulfill at least a few of the criteria dear to music writers;

2) Recently i have been rereading Peter Burger's Theory of the Avant Garde and revisiting his thesis regarding the crucial division separating the modernist avant garde from previous movements, by "reverse-engineering" the artistic process-- focusing on the question of what resources are available to different artists at different historical moments. In the twentieth century, a radically different situation confronts the creative worker from that of any artist in the history of representational and expressive practice. According to this way of looking at art, the pre-modern and modern artist worked with the tools and techniques available given the state of the art and the development of technique-- in a profound sense, we understand that a Van Gogh or a Rembrandt didn't "choose" between their style and Byzantine portraiture, Lascaux wall painting, or renaissance fresco. In contrast, we "know" that the 20th century artist has at her disposal all of the tools of expression that have ever been used or could theoretically be used.

The notion that a certain set of techniques define a period-specific "state of the art" continues to be a powerful myth within rock discourse. Most fans don't imagine that Joey Ramone "chose" to chug away at power chords rather than play like David Gilmour or Chet Atkins, even though, of course, he did. They think of Joey Ramone as having used what was "available at the time" to fulfill his particular creative agenda. Strangely enough, this kind of thinking manages to make both heroic innovation and folk participation in a common culture--even obstinacy in the face of theoretically available musical resources--central to its understanding of artistic "greatness." Has any punk true believer ever seriously wondered why Joey Ramone wasn't interested in moog synthesizers or saxophones?

This kind of thinking privileges an organicist narrative of rock development, which sits oddly against the postmodern conditions of its birth and development--if we think of postmodernity in art as precisely this new condition of indeterminacy regarding style and the theoretical availability of all historical materials and techniques. I am not sure how this all connects to FOW, but I feel like it might be an important part of the puzzle.