Friday, September 29, 2017

There's always something multilayered

Taylor Swift in "Look What You Made Me Do". As Lionel Trilling writes, "Society requires of us that we present ourselves as being sincere, and the most efficacious way of satisfying this demand is to see to it that we really are sincere, that we actually are what we want our community to know we are. In short, we play the role of being ourselves, we sincerely act the part of the sincere person, with the result that a judgement may be passed upon our sincerity that it is not authentic."

It's world-famous music critic David F. Brooks with an exciting new discovery ("What Sincerity Looks Like"): Chance the Rapper. He is sincere, whereas Taylor Swift is merely authentic.

In Lionel Trilling’s old distinction, sincerity is what you shoot for in a trusting society. You try to live honestly and straightforwardly into your social roles and relationships. Authenticity is what you shoot for in a distrustful society. You try to liberate your own personality by rebelling against the world around you, by aggressively fighting against the society you find so vicious and corrupt.
No, really. Swift's recent "This is What You Made Me Do" is "a song for a society without social trust." It "contains a string of references to Swift’s various public beefs — with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and so on. If Donald Trump or his political enemies made a video about their Twitter wars, it would look like this." Its crucial lyric is 'I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.' The world is full of snakes. The only way to survive is through combat."

In this Taylor Swift "has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era." She resembles Johnny Cash in his work of the 1950s:

Back in the 1950s, sincerity seemed treacly and boring, and authenticity, in the form of, say, Johnny Cash, seemed daring and new. But now rebellious authenticity is the familiar corporate success formula, and sincerity, like Chance the Rapper’s, is practically revolutionary.
In Cash's "I Walk the Line", "Oh, Lonesome Me", and his radical anti–Second Amendment anthem, "Don't Take Your Guns to Town", plainly songs composed for a society without social trust. I guess he was swallowed by the ethos of the Eisenower era, which so much resembles the one we live in today on the social trust metric. Does that mean Chance the Rapper resembles Doris Day?

There’s no superiority here, just an artist humbly baring himself before his audience, trusting them to understand, sympathize and receive his bid for intimacy. There’s always something multilayered when people tell you a story about the ground that they have honestly walked.
My own view is that Lionel Trilling probably would not have hailed the recent production of Taylor Swift as "authentic", or displaying "a more strenuous moral experience than 'sincerity' does, a more exigent conception of the self and of what being true to it consists in, a wider reference to the universe and man's place in it, and a less acceptant and genial view of the social circumstances of life" (Trilling quotes via a long essay by Adam Kelly making a case for a dialectic between sincerity and irony instead of sincerity and authenticity and appealing not to Taylor Swift but to David Foster Wallace).

The idea of comparing Chance to Swift, as if they represented the poles of some real-world sphere, like Rousseau and Voltaire or Faulkner and Hemingway or The Beatles and The Stones, is just bizarre. Chance and Swift are not in the same universe. It's more like comparing Faulkner to O. Henry—you may hate Faulkner, but you recognize that he has some kind of interesting ambition.

I would much rather go to a Chance the Rapper concert than a Taylor Swift concert myself, though more for aesthetic than moral reasons. I like authenticity and strenuous moral experience and Johnny Cash better than sincerity and Doris Day, but Chance's conception of the self is plenty exigent enough for me. I just don't think Brooks has this down yet.

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