David Brooks on Sincerity in Music

Do yourself a favor and give David Brook’s newest column on “What Sincerity Looks Like” a read and follow it up with Chance the Rapper’s live performance referenced in the article. A few guiding snippets:

Sometimes pop culture seems completely prepackaged and professionalized, so when somebody steps out and puts on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility, it takes your breath away.

That’s what Chance the Rapper did on Monday on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He debuted a new, untitled song, but which is about the perils of stardom — which is what you’d sing about if you were 24 and you’d blown up so big.

If you watch the video from the show, you see Chance just sitting on a stool, with his friend Daniel Caesar on guitar and some ordinary-looking backup singers behind him. 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.

Brooks goes on to compare the difference between Taylor Swift and Chance the Rapper.

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

A person has a soul, which is what Chance is worrying about. A brand has a reputation, which is the title of Swift’s next album. A person has private dignity. A brand is a creation for an audience. “I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams,” is how Swift puts it.

The second thing you notice is the difference between sincerity and authenticity. 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.

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.

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