The Importance of Being Earnest

I HAVE LATELY BECOME slightly fixated on music and other cultural artefacts that have a specific quality to them: that they are straightforward, uncomplicated, unashamedly enthusiastic, and completely lack sardonic detachment. There is almost a dialectic here, between works that have the quality, and works on the other end of the scale, which must be appreciated only as context. Bluey, the children’s show about talking dogs, is earnest, straightforward, lovely. Muppets films like Muppets Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island have the quality too. Seinfeld, on the other hand, can only work as comedy at multiple levels of awareness of humour, that the nothingness of the show’s jokes are key. It’s impossible to enjoy TISM, for example, without enjoying the double- and triple-entendres, and being aware of the many levels of irony going on, and appreciating that the jokes come mainly at the expense of the band themselves (if only because the rhymes don’t often scan, and the music isn’t very good). Movies by Tarantino are just violence and slurs on the surface, on top of a context of layered, appreciative irony and meta-context, that is, if you can stomach the blood.

Let’s call it earnest vs. ironic. Neither is inherently better than the other, this is simply a model I’m proposing. Salt ‘n’ Pepa were earnest, the Wu-Tang Clan ironic. The best of punk music is earnest, but the moment any kind of punk music requires a ‘scene’ to be enjoyed it shifts to the other end entirely. Folk music is earnest, shoe gaze ironic. Sometimes it’s counterintuitive: WWE wrestling is earnest, despite none of it the ‘kayfabe’ being technically true, because it’s the single-level appreciation of fans that matters, while all ‘mixed martial arts’, Ultimate Fighting, combat sports, and the like are essentially ironic riffs on their fans’ weird ideas, on multiple levels, about violence. Prince, despite the many layers of his pop performances, was essentially an upfront, simple, earnest soul singer at heart. Madonna was infinitely ironic from the beginning, and challenges everyone to find the next onion layer of meaning there. Some cultural products have shifted in time between the poles, like Star Wars, which started out as deadpan-earnest Western Ninja Space Opera pastiche, and has gained an accretion of context-driven catchphrase fan-service.

The apotheosis of earnest, I think, of this is Neil Diamond’s 1972 double album Hot August Night. How can anyone resist lyrics like:

I got a song been on my mind
And the tune can be sung, and the words all rhyme…

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