“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles.” – David Foster Wallace on “The New Sincerity”
One nice thing about New York City is that the definition of “young” here extends at least to 40 (as long as people don’t have kids or a mortgage payment). The city’s size, pace, and overall unsuitability for living allows even the most irresponsible or flaky behavior to be forgiven. And with so little time for personal improvement, it often feels like a race to the bottom in terms of emotional maturity.
But Bonnaroo is not New York City. Here, at thirty years old, I am ancient, surrounded by swarms of shirtless high schoolers and college students covered in beer and body art, for whom a Skrillex concert is a downright religious experience. In fact, for sociologists (or marketers) who wish to learn about the nation’s youngest consumers, Bonnaroo is probably a great jumping-off point.
As a comparatively-geriatric man born on the cusp of Generation X and Millennialdom, I didn’t know what to expect from the young crowd, but I sort of figured they would be little more than louder, more narcissistic versions of the idiot kids my friends and I were (and occasionally still are). But while the presence of so many people born after 9/11 into a world of wars and Wikipedia felt pretty alien at first, there were a couple dominant traits that quickly emerged: An overwhelming sense of sincerity and an intrinsic resistance to “hate.”
Nowhere was this felt more powerfully than at Saturday night’s Lionel Richie concert. When the schmaltzy 64-year-old soft rocker was announced to the lineup, many were left scratching their heads. With the exception of a brief moment in 1997 when P.T. Anderson used the Commodores’ “Machine Gun” to great effect in the film “Boogie Nights,” Richie has never been “cool” to anyone currently under 30. Did Bonnaroo’s organizers want to appeal to that certain set of hipsters who have made an ironic affectation out of appreciating cheesy, yacht-ready 80s music?
Who knows, but I suspect the intention was much simpler: Richie, who’s been writing and performing songs for over forty years, is one of the greatest entertainers alive. While the crowd for Richie certainly skewed a bit older than, say, the audience for EDM superstar Zedd, the teenagers who stuck around possessed an appreciation for the singer untainted by irony. Most of the concertgoers around me knew very little about Richie, but it didn’t take long for the performer to have them eating out of his hand through a combination of charm, charisma, and talent.
Richie took on the quality of a grandfather, gathering the children around to tell stories of love and loss and explain that the pain of heartache is always the same, whether it’s backdropped by an 8-Track or Spotify. Never mind that the punks laughed at Richie during his prime — the kids today don’t know that and wouldn’t care if they did. While the “New Sincerity” movement predicted by David Foster Wallace constituted a rejection of irony, this “New New Sincerity” operates under the ignorance than irony ever existed at all.
Twenty-four hours earlier, however, there was one major performance that this young audience was unwilling to accept on its own terms: Kanye West.
West’s last album “Yeezus” is a ferocious assault on propriety and good taste that revels in making nice people uncomfortable, while making the rest of us marvel (and often laugh) at the sheer gall of the thing. It’s angry, it’s shocking, and at times legitimately offensive (every Kanye fan has a line they won’t cross. Mine is “Blood on the Leaves,” where Kanye raps about how much he hates groupies over a Nina Simone sample about the horrors of lynching). He may rap about Alexander Wang and “French-ass restaurants” but this is punk rock, albeit with a heaping dose of irony. (You think a guy who names a song “I Am a God (Feat. God)” is completely serious?). “Yeezus,” quite frankly, is one of the greatest musical achievements of the 21st century.
But Kanye’s negativity, whether feigned or real, got the best of him Friday night, as he repeatedly cut songs short to whine about how he’s never been asked to play the Super Bowl or to talk shit about Pearl Jam. I thought it was a hilarious. Most people around me did not. It was too mean. It was too meta. It was too much about himself talking about himself. And while there was more cheering than booing throughout the set, cheering is a passive response to stimulus. Booing is active rejection.
Elsewhere, the brutish, self-aware sexual frustration of Nick Cave alienated some audience members who bolted for the intimate minimalism of Frank Ocean or the emotional maximalism of Flaming Lips. Cake won few fans over after it asked the audience whether they were drug-addled escapists or angry conservatives spouting polemics, as if there was no third option. Conversely, EDM artists like Zedd and Kaskade attracted huge crowds with music that was free of pretension.
The good vibes extended beyond the music, too. By and large, the attendees both young and old were unfailingly polite. If you were accidentally jostled by a 17-year-old fist-pumping Skrillex fan, you likely had a profuse and sincere apology headed your way.
Granted, the crowd of youngs at Bonnaroo isn’t necessarily indicative of youth culture in general. The kindness of the audience was at least in part attributable to the fact that Bonnaroo is a destination festival for Southerners and Midwesterners. A friend of mine recently attended Governor’s Ball in New York City and said that while the crowd was equally young, their attitudes were far less positive.
Nevertheless, there was a strong sense that the snark and irony of Generation X and older millennials had no place at Bonarroo. As marketers struggle to appeal to the fickle tastes of young Americans (who, to make it even harder, don’t buy anything anyway), they may be able to look to celebrations of youth culture like Bonnaroo as a guide post.
The age of irony is over. And it’s not even enough to be sincere. The grunge kids of the 90s were sincere, but they were sincere about detachment and apathy. Now this sincerity is rooted in connection, even across generations. Just look at Lionel Richie — this might be the first generation to not rebel against the music their parents listened to. Furthermore, when I was growing up, if something was over-the-top or bombastic (unless ironically so) it was definitely not “cool.” But there is literally no music more over-the-top or bombastic than Skrillex, and that guy makes millions of dollars a year off the backs of young listeners.
With every trend, there is an inevitable backlash, but for now it seems this unpretentious sincerity is here to stay. Kids want to feel good. They want others to feel good. Once again, it’s hip to be square, (though in 2014 being “square” doesn’t preclude you from ingesting massive amounts of drugs). Just remember that next time you try to win over youths with a “cool” or snarky ad campaign. It won’t work.