By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008
First there was the Epoch of Sincerity. Then the Snark Ages. Now we are on the verge of a whole new period in American popular culture.
We'll name it in a moment.
For the longest time, we were a nation of nurture. We sipped cider through a straw, choosily chose Jif, trusted our cars to men wearing stars. Hollywood played along, reminding us that "It's a Wonderful Life" and that the hills were alive with "The Sound of Music." It was a time of innocence, simplicity, respect -- in pop culture, if not always in real life.
Sentimentality reigned, frequently expressed through "the happy ending." We laughed together, wept together, said "awww" together when Andy Griffith or June Cleaver gave us a parental talking-to.
In the last decades of the 20th century, however, the American mood shifted, our mores morphed. The planet may have warmed, but the culture cooled. Sarcasm overswept the zeitgeist like a glacier. Our worldview became less trusting, more cantankerous. And we buried sentimentality in cement.
Its demise began in the 1960s and '70s with the rash of political assassinations and Watergate and, arching over all those events, the rise of the counterculture. For our society, "that was the beginning of loss of faith and trust," former poet laureate Billy Collins says in an interview. In order to be earnest, "you have to expose yourself to emotions. We have become a lot more guarded."
And a lot more cynical.
The revolt against sincerity -- the Snark Ages, still upon us -- began as a rebellion against corny, over-the-top displays of emotion in movies, songs, TV shows. But the rebellion spiraled out of control, and any public expression of emotion, no matter how sincere, was a target for mockery. Old war movies and romantic dramas, taken seriously the first time around, were consumed by a younger generation as farce -- as "camp."
Remember the cover of the January 1973 issue of National Lampoon? Everybody was talking about it; this was back when provocative magazine covers were the exception. The controversial image was a gun pointed at the head of a cute black-and-white dog. The cover line: "If You Don't Buy This Magazine, We'll Kill This Dog." The lovable pet, an icon of sentimentality, was taken hostage by a new attitude.
Perhaps the perfect expression of the collision between the Epoch of Sincerity and the Snark Ages was a little song by a one-hit wonder named Morris Albert. It was a Top 10 hit in the summer of 1975 but soon, and forever after, it became the emblem of phony, cheesy, hopelessly square culture. It was lampooned relentlessly, and still is.
The song was titled "Feelings."
In 1979, John Irving wrote an essay in the New York Times defending the emotional work of Charles Dickens to the modern, anti-mush reader. He exhorted contemporary authors to risk exploring and exposing those much-maligned feelings. "As a writer it is cowardly to so fear sentimentality that one avoids it altogether," Irving wrote. "A fear of contamination by soap opera haunts the educated writer -- and reader."
* * *"Saturday Night Live," which first aired in 1975, put sentimentality in the town square stocks. Soon sarcasm and irony (poster boy: David Letterman, circa 1983) flooded television, leading to perhaps the most unsentimental of all network sitcoms, "Seinfeld." The first commandment of the series, according to head writer Larry David: no hugs and no lessons.
Of course, a nation's popular culture is never monolithic, and it doesn't entirely cease being one thing and become another. There were always pockets of snark in the Epoch of Sincerity. Check out, as a few examples among many, the movies of W.C. Fields, the novels of Nathanael West, Bette Davis in the 1950 "All About Eve" declaring, "I detest cheap sentiment."
Conversely, treacle has survived into the Snark Ages in Mitch Albom books, Thomas Kinkade art and ballads on country radio. But we are talking about the predominant, uber-tone of the respective eras.
Today, in the Snark Ages: The daytime TV screen is alive with angry people airing weird grievances in mock courtrooms, demanding paternity tests to prove that some no-good bum is the baby's father. The Huxtable family of "The Cosby Show," perhaps the last bastion of sitcom sweetness and light, was replaced by "The Osbournes." It could be argued that a vast majority of TV shows exploit, if not celebrate, the darkest aspects of human nature.
The World Wide Web is awhirl with vitriol: Gawker, Wonkette, Perez Hilton and other wicked Web sites -- some whose names we can't even print -- all dedicated to the daily takedown.
The culture "has lost the capacity to be nice, to appreciate, to be modest, and even to be reverential -- all relatives of the appreciation family of emotions," says Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the school's Greater Good Science Center.
In our lives, Keltner says, we spend more and more time in chance encounters with pure strangers rather than with the people we trust. Because we are more self-oriented, snug under our iPods, we spend fewer moments with old friends, grandparents, extended family -- those who give rise to occasions for what Keltner calls "deep niceness."
* * *Kurt Andersen, a founder of mock-all-things Spy magazine in 1986, is now a novelist and host of the public radio show "Studio 360." "If someone were to look at 2008 culture from 1963," he says, "I suppose it would look strangely unsentimental."
For college students these days, columnist Zach Jones of the Cornell Daily Sun wrote in 2006, "sincerity and earnestness are better taken when they are delivered behind a wall of violence, sex and cynicism. Face it, instead of 'All You Need Is Love' we have 'Milkshake,' and instead of 'Romeo and Juliet' we have 'Kill Bill.' This is the new romanticism."
At Amazon.com, the No. 1-selling game for the No. 1-selling Nintendo Wii game system is Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which pits once-lovable icons like the Super Mario brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog against one another in brutal combat.
Sentimentality, writes English professor Joan Mellen of Temple University in an essay on literature, is "the cousin of self-pity . . . friend to the status quo, and to passivity. A formidable enemy, of moral no less than of artistic integrity, in art as in life, in these beleaguered times it is best quickly identified, and then scrupulously avoided."
* * * Where did all this antisentimentality come from? For one thing, so many of us have become alienated from the institutions that have traditionally bound us together -- our government, our jobs, our extended families. Unfulfilled by our institutions, we feel forced to be cool culturally, in ways that we aren't when dealing on a one-to-one level.
Amitai Etzioni, who teaches sociology at George Washington University, suggests that perhaps we have grown more cynical because we can no longer freely express our feelings. "Once upon a time, we had a rich social fabric," Etzioni says. "Sometimes it was too rich, too binding. It defined clearly the norms of good behavior and the kudos we could expect when we behaved and the criticisms we could expect if we failed. These norms also defined what emotions we could show and when we could show them. It made their expression safe.
"As we have lost a good part of the social fabric, it is now risky to say 'I love you' -- it might be too early -- or to allow a tear to form when singing the national anthem. It may not be cool. Hence, we hide behind aloofness and cynicism."
There has been a disconnect between the emotions in our real lives and the entertainment we consume. Popular songs and images used to reflect our inner feelings. But we've become too jaded to join together anymore.
And yet . . .
We still have feelings in these Snark Ages. Sentiments, if not sentimentality. People still say "I love you" to each other. They still send flowers. They cry at funerals and at movies (in the rare instance where movies try anymore to make them cry). Greeting-card shops are still in business.
We still aspire to the happy marriage -- or relationship -- and to have well-adjusted children in our lives, even if it makes us suspicious and uneasy to see such things portrayed onscreen or in songs.
* * *We live in a complex age and an age of complexes. We have been abused as kids, betrayed by the church, duped by advertisers. How could we possibly return to an age of innocence? We have, as Shakespeare put it, "drunk and seen the spider."
And so we have reached a point when we want to have it all ways. We want to hold on to our feelings in an unfeeling world. Somehow, we are learning to celebrate sincerity while we continue to eschew spoon-fed soppiness. We look for ways to tightrope between sentimentality and cynicism.
We are on the threshold of the Cynicmental Era.
Sentimentality, says Billy Collins, is on the "low end" of emotions. "Its opposite is cynicism. What I enjoy seeing is this thing that avoids both sentimentality and cynicism: irony."
He says that irony "exists in the middle range, mixing the meanness of sarcasm with the soppiness and weakness of sentimentality."
Collins is a cynicmental poet. In "Picnic, Lightning" he observes that the heart is no valentine, and it can unexpectedly "quit after lunch, the power shut off like a switch." He contemplates the cold heartlessness of the possibility, which leads him to the tender, life-affirming thoughts that "Then the wheelbarrow is a wilder blue, the clouds a brighter white, and all I hear is the rasp of the steel edge against a round stone, the small plants singing with lifted faces, and the click of the sundial as one hour sweeps into the next."
* * *Balance is what it's all about. We see through pandering political ads, but we can still be moved when Clinton chokes up or Obama's rhetoric soars. We've read about corruption in the churches, yet we read Jan Karon's sweet Father Tim books by the millions. We cheer on bloodthirsty full-contact Ultimate Fighting Championship gladiators while stuffing hearts into Build-A-Bears. On MySpace, you find countless photo albums of college students looking all peachy and sweet in one pic and throwing up beer on each other in the next.
The online dead-flowers delivery service, DeadRoses.com, based in, no kidding, Bloomington, Ill. -- has been growing steadily for 10 years. A hearty majority of its commerce comes in February, for Valentine's Day. How sweet! And sour!
Cynicmental movies abound. "Garden State," "Juno" and "Superbad" are bittersweet tales of youthful angst packed with snarkastic dialogue and ironic situations. Dave Eggers writes stories that are at once heartwarming and heartbreaking .
In music, the No. 2 song in a recent Billboard Hot 100 chart was the lowdown "Low" by Flo Rida featuring T-Pain. An expurgated excerpt: "Shorty was hot like a toaster/Sorry but I had to fold her/Like a pornography poster." But the No. 1 song was Alicia Keys's soppy "No One": "No one no one no one/Can get in the way of what I feel for you."
We still work crossword puzzles though we know there are computer programs that work for us. We gather to play poker with friends instead of playing online all the time.
* * *Kurt Andersen says that he, like Billy Collins, is looking for a place to stand where he can still be moved by the world. The ground has shifted and what has happened to the culture's sensibility, he says, "can't be put back in the tube."
But he still wants to find the sentiment in the cynical and the ironic in the sincere. "We are also human beings who want to experience emotions and sentiments when something happens. Like when our parents die."
"We are in a dialectical period," he says, finding a third way to respond to the human condition that encompasses both compassion and coolitude.
We are entering the Era of the Cynicmental.