How the “New Sincerity” Changed Popular Culture

In an excerpt from his latest book, Not Your Mother’s Morals, Jonathan D. Fitzgerald explains the origins and basic theory behind the New Sincerity.

The following is an excerpt from Not Your Mother’s Morals (2012, Bondfire Books), a new ebook that examines the moral messages in pop culture,  compares those messages to cynicism of past decades, and makes a case against the separation of art and faith. 

I would like to be able to tell you that I invented the phrase “New Sincerity.” I’ve always wanted to coin a word, or be the first person to label an era, and so if I thought I could get away with it, I would absolutely go around telling people that this “New Sincerity” thing is all mine.

But I’ll be honest and give credit where it’s due. My friend Christopher Cocca, who is an excellent writer as well as something called an “urbanist,” introduced me to the “New Sincerity.” In a blog post he wrote for the newly created Huffington Post Religion page back in 2010, he observed that when Conan O’Brien signed off on what would be his final show on NBC, he did so in a refreshingly sincere and authentic way.

You remember the saga that unfolded when O’Brien was finally given the “The Tonight Show” (hooray!) only to have Jay Leno take it back less than a year later (boo!). A lot of Conan fans were angry. I was angry. I had spent many nights risking serious punishment by defying my bedtime in order to watch Conan on the tiny TV my parents let me have in my bedroom.

Conan should have been angriest of all, but he wasn’t  he was amazingly gracious. On that final show, he got kind of serious, insisting that, for the moment, he wasn’t joking as he left his audience with these words:

“All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people that watch: Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism; for the record, it’s my least favorite quality. It doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

As Christopher Cocca observed, Conan’s words were a pinnacle moment in the New Sincerity. For many of us, this is the moment the movement coalesced. Conan helped us recognize that it had become cool to care.

The phrase “New Sincerity” had been in use long before 2010—it has a Wikipedia entry that dates it back to the mid-1980s and locates it within the context of music, film, and literary criticism. Back in 1999, critics pointed to Wes Anderson as part of the vanguard of the New Sincerity in film. But even if New Sincerity has been a long time coming, it has only come into fruition since the turn of the century. Since then, we’ve been living in a rare moment in which the postures of ironic detachment and cynicism have receded in popular culture and given rise to a spirit of earnestness and authenticity.

If you think about it, this transition makes perfect sense. In the pendulum swing of popular culture, the New Sincerity was the logical next step after decades steeped in post-Vietnam, Cold War irony.

But, around the turn of the century, something began to change. Suddenly the nerd stereotype—always the object of derision in popular culture—became kind of cool. Vulnerability invaded pop music where bravado and posturing once had ruled. Television shows and movies depicted characters determined to do some kind of good in the world. And respected literary authors began writing books about morality again.

Overall, this renewed interest in moral storytelling has come about through a de-emphasis on image and irony and an open embrace of the virtues of sincerity and authenticity. But this begs the question: is there anything inherently moral or ethical about sincerity and authenticity? Sure, people feel free to be true to who they are (or whatever), but is that in itself is a good thing?

For an answer to this question, let’s step for just a moment out of popular culture and into the world of overgrown beards and difficult-to-parse word play—no, not Indie rock, but philosophy. Charles Taylor, probably most famous for his massive tome A Secular Age, touted by hipsters, pseudo scholars, and legit philosophers alike, wrote a much smaller book titled The Ethics of Authenticity. In it, he argues that authenticity is more than just the fleeting “do your own thing” mentality or the resultant moral relativism that many people assign to it. He acknowledges that in many places in our culture, authenticity is manifest in such self-serving ways, but he goes on to show that authenticity also has rich moral implications for how we live our lives.

The importance of being true to oneself, Taylor would argue, doesn’t affirm the right of a person to make her own choices simply because she can. He calls this “soft relativism;” rather, there is a “moral force” to authenticity that insists that individuals understand their originality. But even this we don’t do alone. We discover who we are and achieve this kind of self-fulfillment in relation to other people and, ultimately, in relation to something “more or other than human desires or aspirations,” as Taylor writes. I’m pretty sure he’s saying that yoga alone won’t do it.

What I argue in my book Not Your Mother’s Morals isn’t necessarily that authenticity and sincerity are high moral virtues in and of themselves, but rather that their emergence in popular culture has created opportunities to discuss moral questions openly and honestly. If an artist can, without fear of recourse, explore issues of faith and family, environmentalism and politics, and come to definite conclusions about the morality or immorality of these things, then there is inherent value in authenticity.

So, while the New Sincerity is not itself the new morality I’ve been building to, it is what makes this new morality possible. It provides the bedrock for pop culture creators to build on. And, as culture runs all through life, what they build touches just about every aspect of how we live now. The television and films they create, the music they make, and the books they write teach us lessons that reach into the most crucial areas of our life—our attitudes toward, and beliefs about, God, Family, and Country.

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is the author of Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity Is Changing Pop Culture for the Better and the editor of Patrolmag.com

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Jonathan – In the book do engage with the effects of 9/11 on culture and in helping to create this phenomenon? I know with the whole retuned hymns movement that many of the early innovators directly tie their longing for deeper lyrical content with that event. I wonder if this was the same in the wider culture?

  • http://geeksofchrist.wordpress.com Mickey

    Fascinating.
    I wonder if this new sincerity does not merely follow an age of cynicism, but is truly borne out of it. Sort of a version of the old theory that “One generation learns it, their kids assume it, and their grandchildren reject it.”

    The ‘it’ that is learned, assumed, and rejected would be a skepticism about the world, probably resulting from a genuine and authorized distrust following two world wars. Maybe the kids assumed this was the way to view the world, hence the social upheaval of the 60s perhaps? And their kids have rejected it. The world is pleasant to my generation. We have never wanted for food. We have Nintendo. Just when we’re starting to be curious about the world, the internet pops into our homes. Why be cynical when you’re living in Eden?

    Protected from the ugliness of the world by overprotective parents, this new generation seems to really think that people are basically okay. Then Sandy, or Sandy Hook, or James Holmes come on the scene, confusing this worldview. So we throw a LiveAid-type concert, rock out to our parents’ music (which is significantly, the last of good music), and pat ourselves on the back for raising funds for … food or something.

    Being genuine or sincere or meaningful is really just a way to rebel against our parents. We see our parents assume our grandparents’ cynicism and think, “I’m not gonna just follow a stupid tradition,” as if it were a Christmas Tree or a style of worship music.

  • http://www.notyourmothersmorals.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

    Hi Matt, I do indeed engage with 9/11. How could I not! The last section of the book deals with attitudes toward “Country” specifically, and it is there I mostly consider 9/11. I’d encourage you to read the book…I’m told it is only going to be $0.99 for another day or so. Thanks!

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Jonathan – So I am halfway through your book and I really like it. Favorite line so far, “Pintrest exists.” Made me laugh literally out loud. I am looking forward to the second half of the book. :)

  • Pingback: Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is Not Your Mother’s Moralist: How The New Sincerity Is Changing Popular Culture for The Better « CHRISTOPHER COCCA

  • kevin

    That term has a lot of cache in austin going back to the 80s.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Sincerity

  • http://www.catholicalcoholic.com Number 9

    i love this line: “the postures of ironic detachment and cynicism have receded in popular culture and given rise to a spirit of earnestness and authenticity.” This makes me happy, if it’s true.

  • Pingback: La Nueva Sinceridad o la redención sentimental de los hipsters. | Palomitas en los ojos


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