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I don't want to feel this way forever.
On Thursday, New Sincerity, and the Internet.
“I don't want to feel this way forever
A dead letter marked return to sender”
--”Understanding in a Car Crash,” Thursday
I listened to an old interview Chris Ott did with Geoff Rickly of the band Thursday over the weekend. I’d hardly listened to them when they seemed ubiquitous in the “self-mythologizing adolescent” marketing demo I belonged to as a teen, but Ott’s a great interviewer, and I had to clean house. In it, Rickly talks about his aspirations when he formed Thursday. He wanted to be dangerous, but he didn’t want to be macho like Swiz, or the typical straight-edge fare. Instead, he wanted to ditch the postmodern irony that had gathered steam since the 1970s and take up David Foster Wallace’s “New Sincerity.” Ink & Dagger gave him some clues for a way forward. Maybe, he thought, being direct, sincere, and vulnerable could be its own kind of dangerousness? And maybe it could create a new, transcendent we?
If anything captures the “third wave” of emo, that’s it: an arch-romanticism, an operatic register, and an almost threatening emotional vulnerability that grew out of the New Sincerity.
If anything captures the “third wave” of emo, that’s it: an arch-romanticism, an operatic register, and an almost threatening emotional vulnerability that grew out of the New Sincerity. This is also what life felt like on the internet. And that can tell us a lot about how my generation--the millennials--grew up online and the arc of our cultural and political sensibilities. Crucially, it can tell us even more about the highly commercial lives we lead today.
I look at postmodern irony and see a response to the managerial New Deal order that predominated from the 1930s to the 1970s. It’s hard to believe all that Atomic Age “Better Living Electrically” nonsense after you watch collapse right in front of you. Even worse if it feels papered over by Reagan’s put-a-smile-on-your-face-you’ll-feel-better can-do moralizing. Postmodern irony “clearly evolved as an intellectual expression of the ‘rebellious youth culture’ of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” DFW wrote.But television made that rebellion possible as it “erased communicative boundaries between regions and replaced a society segmented by location and ethnicity” with something stratified generationally. The greatest trick advertisers ever pulled was the creation of the teenager, so to speak.
But that rebellious culture gave way to postmodern irony because it broadcast the gap between what America advertised itself as and how it seemed to really be. “[E]arly television helped legitimize absurdism and irony as not just literary devices but sensible responses to a ridiculous world,” Wallace continued. That sourness turned GenXers into a savvier marketing demographic than their predecessors. David Foster Wallace called his generation “metawatchers,” and described the updated marketing tactics deployed on them as “heaping scorn on pretentious to those old commercial virtues of authority and sincerity” in order to protect “the heaper of scorn from scorn” and to reward “the patron of scorn for rising above the mass over people who still fall for outmoded pretensions.” I think it was Mark Fisher who said that Nirvana, a band that hated MTV, was the perfect band to put on MTV.
The New Sincerity can look like sweet reprieve from that brand of self-indulgent cynicism, even “dangerous” or subversive once that cynicism had become its own orthodoxy. But, as humdog’s essay on the Board Ho reminds us, when it comes to the internet culture dovetails with the “corporate data mining project” that makes for online community. And in those communities, “posts are scanned for personal information, preferences, buying habits etc. [T]hey are, by virtue of their contributions, giving away valuable information about themselves – valuable to corporations that” want to create new products. Culture is one of those products; emo was one of those products.
After all, sincerity is about transparency, confession. Transparency is foundational to the internet and its political paradigm. To emphasize how fundamental this transparency is, we only need to point to WikiLeaks, which seeks to provide a kind of populist counter-surveillance on the powerful. Thus both the status quo and its insurgent antagonists frame their needs and desires in terms of a radical, universal transparency. Thus emerges a mutual demand for surveillance that is meant to mitigate the power to conspire and thus to exert power. The logical structure is similar to that of the market--competition is meant to neutralize political ambition by providing a less dangerous replacement.
There’s plenty to be concerned about with state surveillance, but the more prevalent factor seems to be corporate advertisers. What better way to get a strong marketing demographic signal than to corral people into social interfaces that allow them to say in front of God and everyone what’s on their minds? The internet was the Millennial version of television, which achieved much of the same effects DFW noticed about TV and amplified them.
Another thought: if you want to make friends in a disembodied space, purged of the rich tapestry of physical phenomena that makes for meatspace, then you need different rituals and different in-group, out-group signaling. The internet does that in two related ways: fandom and personal pain. First, you find yourself naturally looking for like-minded people, then you find yourself ‘fessing up to all your deepest secrets. Great relief and hope came from this at first, as can be seen by the BDSM community in this old Channel 4 documentary from the nineties on the internet.
This is all to say that the New Sincerity, and thus emo, didn’t provide escape from postmodern irony, though it did perhaps create a “transcendental we” but it was like all contemporary collectives: a marketing demographic. And this demographic quickly became the doyens of internet life: my generational cohort.
How did this happen? A seemingly exogenous event provided a surprise cultural coronation: 9-11. After the Towers fell, many were quick to hold irony’s funeral.Indeed, we can even see the cultural fallout from the attack in the lyrical and video content of Thursday’s title track from their 2002 album, War All The Time (their major label debut). Rickly repeatedly invokes the New York skyline (forever absent the Twin Towers now) in the same breath as burning oil fields, the hydrogen bomb, and Three Mile Island, situating growing up in America with a string of well-known disasters.
This is around when the internet became a ubiquitous experience for millennials as we came of age. Part of how many of us formed ourselves came through this paradigm of hyper transparency in which confessional sincerity, a conservative culture of sentimentality, and new informational opportunities for advertisers formed a new gestalt of youth culture. In the way that absurdity and irony became prisms through which Xers came to understand American life, deadly earnestness and confession became prisms for Millennials.
The major throughlines from the early 2000s of Millennial culture experience and today is mental health, which on the internet involves self-diagnosis, social triangulation, and boundary policing. It’s a consensual panopticon of mutual psychologism, moral invective, and scapegoating tinged with the typical American self-helpism and self-serving concern.
In my eyes, the consumer object that sums up the entire Millennial political and cultural sensibility is the To Write Love On Her Arms t-shirt. TWLOHA is a non-profit founded in 2007 that grew out of the MySpace third-wave emo scene.
Here’s an encapsulation of its origin story from the About section of its website:
Our founder, Jamie Tworkowski, didn’t set out to start a nonprofit organization. All he wanted to do was help a friend and tell her story. When Jamie met Renee Yohe, she was struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury, and suicidal thoughts. He wrote about the five days he spent with her before she entered a treatment center, and he sold T-shirts to help cover the cost. When she entered treatment, he posted the story on MySpace to give it a home. The name of the story was “To Write Love on Her Arms.”
This became a t-shirt line to help fund people’s mental health needs. They’ve donated $3 million to treatment and recovery organizations to date. I’m not knocking whatever good they’ve done--I’ve been sober for nearly thirteen years myself--but TWLOHA captures something elemental about Millennial culture: subcultural experience sublimated into merchandise and the NGO sector that has come to replace civil society upheld by a “community” of consumers encased in a demi-therapeutic product cycle.
But isn’t this overly neat? Is it strictly generational? Isn’t that prescient humdog essay from the 1990s, just like “A Rape in Cyberspace, or TINYSOCIETY, and How to Make One,” which perfectly captures the dynamics of cancellation of internet community drama played out on a scales grand and small today? And what about the hyper irony that has co-existed on the internet this whole time? Don’t you remember /b/?
And what about the hyper irony that has co-existed on the internet this whole time? Don’t you remember /b/?
I see this more like a passing of the torch from a certain subset of Gen X to Millennials. Let’s take an example.
Eric Wareheim and Tim Heidecker of Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job played in a deadly sincere (and surprisingly good) mid-90s emo band: I Am Heaven. He played briefly with Rickly’s inspiration Ink & Dagger, too. That Wareheim and Heidecker stood on the barricades of guitar music’s New Sincerity moment only to become a Millennial hyper-irony comedic favorite speaks to how these are intertwined. After all, Heidecker would go on to hire emo scenesters who grew up into the indie chic set for his short-lived absurdist internet project Super Deluxe--I would know, I went to college with some of his employees.
In many ways, this irony now appears to be closer to plausible deniability or an amplifier of sincere commitments in the same way we now colloquially use the word “literally.” We don’t mean literally literally, but we do mean it seriously. We’re not being sincerely ironic, but ironically sincere, in so far as the adjective takes priority over the adverb that modifies it.
All of this boils down to something uncomfortable about the internet and American Life writ large: it’s all commercial. Many, as I have, would like to locate the “narcissism” of the therapized and commodified self back to the seventies. Often Christopher Lasch gets cited--I’ve done that too. In truth, it goes back further, perhaps to the Gilded Age, where commercial life came to overtake folkways and traditional understandings. From there, America, always a commercial republic, became something of a cultural and trade juggernaut. We’ve always struggled to sort out artists, magicians, conmen, entertainers, salesmen, and politicians from each other, often preferring in every public persona some admixture of each.
Here’s the punchline: it is easy to tell yourself you’ve found a neglected corner of the carnival, refuged from the greater forces and temptations of the greater fair. But what you’ve really found is a new market to break into if people think it’s cool enough. After that, it’s all more or less honest advertising. Punk rock and its offspring--including emo--ended up being about one thing: owning and running a small business. Culture flows downward from there and with it all other kinds of weirdness.
All DFW quotes herein from David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (New York: Back Bay Books, 1997), 21-82.
For a brief catalog of “death of postmodern irony” declarations in the press after 9-11 see: Joan Didion, Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11 (New York: New York Review of Books, 2003), 10, 11.
As a passionate advocate for nuclear energy, I have to point out that no one was harmed by radiation at Three Mile Island and that the other reactor ran until 2019. If you want to know more about the rise and fall of the atom, you can read a long-form piece from me on the topic here.
TWLOHA hosted Emo Nights in major cities into the late 2010s.
If you want to pursue this trajectory further, see: Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1995), Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007), Wendy Wall, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), Lizbeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), Paul Sabin, Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021).