Irony, sincerity, normcore: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, David Foster Wallace and the end of rebellion

Stop mocking normcore: It's the natural result of our sarcasm and irony-drenched culture

Published May 18, 2014 5:00PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert, Jerry Seinfeld                   (AP/Evan Agostini/Flickr/Steve Rhodes/AP/Alex Brandon/Reuters)
Jon Stewart, David Foster Wallace, Stephen Colbert, Jerry Seinfeld (AP/Evan Agostini/Flickr/Steve Rhodes/AP/Alex Brandon/Reuters)

Frenzied talk of normcore — the fashion trend that encourages its adherents to fit in and be normal rather than stand out and be different — is not very old. It can’t even crawl yet, but articles about it over the past three months have appeared in New York magazine, the New York Times and the Guardian and on the websites the Millions, HuffPost and Vox – and even Newsweek. An article on the Quartz website, itself quite young, traced the Google search-engine returns of the term “normcore” from 0 to 55,000 in just one month.

Most other outlets have either debunked normcore as a “this too shall pass” phenomenon, or cheekily explained it away with stock photos of Croc shoes, fleece jackets, Jerry Seinfeld, and President Obama wearing dad jeans. Bucking the trend, happiness philosopher Alain de Botton curiously observed on Newsweek’s website that “normcore is the search for the ideal. The perfect T-shirt, like the perfect pencil or table, doesn’t need to be constantly updated because it has latched on to the essence of what it’s trying to do.”

De Botton does not get normcore. It is not the search for an ideal. It precisely goes against the search for an ideal, gives up on it entirely, and plops down onto the couch in a pair of sweat pants.

The overwhelming verdict is that normcore is over before it really began. But its real meaning is neither fashion nirvana nor pointless trend. Rather, it is the end result of a logic that has been worming its way through hipster culture for the last decade. Its arrival spells a fascinating cultural knot, a logical dead end, where no one knows what will come next. That’s worth paying attention to, and let me tell you why.

* * *

I have lived in Berlin, Germany, since 2008, where a low-grade species of normcore has been scurrying around in ankle-high Velcro Reeboks and slouchy suede boots for the past four years. Toward the end of a book I published in 2012, about the 500-year cultural and intellectual history of sincerity, I described a foreboding advertisement for a German daily newspaper, Berliner Morgenpost: “A recent billboard advertising campaign for a newspaper in über-cool Berlin reads, ‘Berlin is where no one really knows whether you are in or out.’ The accompanying photograph shows a hipster wearing a horridly colored pleather jacket walking past an overweight working-class man watering the porch flowers outside his street-level apartment wearing the exact same jacket. This cheeky juxtaposition bespeaks a strange confluence: the proletariat — a word forbidden in America — and the bourgeois hipster, given these bad economic times, are becoming increasingly indiscernible. The return of acid-wash jeans would close the gap completely.”

Regrettably, two years later, acid-wash jeans now are back. I saw a young bearded guy wearing them the other day on the platform of the Gorlitzer Bahnhof S-Bahn station, along with a sleeveless shirt, Ray Bans, Topsiders and a knit cap. I also saw: baggy stonewash jean shirts, armless football jerseys, extreme mom jeans, plaid pants, thin faux-alligator-skin belts, floral-patterned stretch pants, hip-length T-shirts tied in a little knot, scrunchies and animal-patterned pastel cotton sweaters. And, of course: The Glasses. For anyone currently between ages 30 and 45, this is eighth grade all over again. Where are you, Coca-Cola shirts? Full-on mullets? They’ll be here soon, I promise you, as will jellies, Lycra, mock turtlenecks, cropped bolero jackets and anything worn by the cast of "90210."

For all its double-take oddity, however, the fashion reemergence in normcore is not a conspiratorial decision by savvy millennial urban youth to make Gen Xers, many of us now creeping past 40, squirm with the embarrassment of recognition or the pain of ridicule. It has rather something to do with, in economic terms, the cheapness and availability of thrift stores and their reinvigorated trendiness owing to difficult financial times for recent college grads. Economic equality and upward mobility are notoriously stalled in America. For those of us who escaped its esteem-battering claws, that’s a hard thing to imagine. Normcore is entwined in this sad development.

Normcore is also a further outgrowth of the deliberate rejection of fashion as something requiring new clothing or products — itself part of an ongoing hipster and modernist reactionary critique of capitalist culture, which has also resulted in the eminently positive reemergence of DIY activities: gardening, farming, cooking, beer brewing and the growth of local and small businesses that have promoted a rediscovered value in craft. This is something hipster foodie culture has been made fun of for, for some reason, while in the meantime it has revived billions of dollars' worth of GDP by bolstering the restaurant business and inspired scores of people to get back into the kitchen and create interesting and delectable food from scratch.

More abstractly, normcore is the perfect illustration of what the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel called a “dialectical” development, a movement containing three components: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis is stated, gives rise to a reaction or antithesis, and then the two are resolved into a third, accommodating state: the synthesis. Hegel’s famed example was a pretty big one: all of history, wherein humanity moves from a state of slavery and subjugation through a stage of revolution and then to the end result: a free, democratic state. (Simple math for someone living through the late 18th century.) A slightly smaller deal than all of history, normcore nevertheless represents the synthesis of two antithetical trends deeply rooted in hipster culture: irony and sincerity.

* * *

Irony, or the ironic attitude, which has been around since the Roman Empire (Juvenal, Lucilius, Quintilian), takes nothing very seriously — especially superficial things — inverts or changes meanings and symbols, and prides itself on an aristocratic remove from the world. It believes in the power of distance. It is an absolutely integral and necessary part of modern culture and of a mature, educated democratic population. It is what allows for skepticism and mental remove from the everydayness of life, and what helps safeguard against the effects of propaganda and ideology. Irony had a cultural high point during the 1990s and then, despite some critics lamenting it in 1999 and calling for its head on a stick on 9/11, gave birth to the explosive international popularity of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and "South Park" in the early 2000s, to name just three of many dozen other outlets. Irony is the thesis.

Sincerity, or even the New Sincerity, aimed to be an antidote to all that had come to be seen as an impediment to true feeling, commitment, connection, art, seriousness and patriotism. Its rebirth came after 9/11 as a response to “postmodern irony,” which it saw as shallow and flip. Sincerity prides itself on saying what it really means and speaking from the heart. Among intimate friends and family it is a necessary trait to cultivate. In society, however, it is usually a ruse or performance, awkward or career destroying, or it is practiced most consistently by devoutly religious people, usually with unintended bad results, who think it is a virtue and that it makes them better people. Fanatics and fundamentalists are deeply sincere about their beliefs. Among strangers and politicians, sincerity is often a misplaced demand. It is, all told, best taken in small doses. Sincerity is the antithesis.

The foundations of hipster culture and style are debatable, but whatever originating hairs are split, it is clear that they are based on both irony and sincerity working in tandem, at different times, to differing degrees. There is ironic performance in these things: trucker hats (they are not truckers), nerd glasses (they are not nerds), grandpa sweaters (they are not grandpas), keffiyeh scarves (unless showing genuine political solidarity with Palestinians, ironic), bobo sneakers from 1986, wife beaters T-shirts, mustaches, tight jeans, cotton-knit sweaters, hoodies, church bake-sale T-shirts, braces, tube socks, sweatbands, all of that. This is the ongoing thrift shop aesthetic that lends its wearers a late 1970s, ’80s or ’90s feel as well as a sense of imagined economic-class devolution that makes them feel more real (object lesson: The working class and social outcasts are more authentic than the bourgeoisie and popular). The overall sense is that the wearer has crafted his or her look to be uncool and un-put-together when contrasted to, say, a figure out of a J. Crew catalog or from the evening news. This is the well-known and now widespread irony of uncool becoming the coolest thing possible. This has been helped along by pop-culture figures like Katy Perry, Terry Richardson, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Bieber and Jay Z.

Balanced with some of hipster culture’s productions — as opposed to just its clothing — is an amazing level of sincerity and earnestness (not exclusively), from involvement in activities devoid of the trickery, illusions and the cynicism of mass advertising, production and consumption (again: foraging, cooking, printmaking, brewing, pickling, cheese-making), to some truly beautiful music: Bon Iver, Black Mountain, M. Ward, Devendra Banhart, Iron and Wine, Fleet Foxes, Phosphorescent, Tiny Vipers and the whole spectrum from freak folk to New Weird America. There is also revived disco and New Wave sounds of Casio keyboards, drum machines, falsetto voices, synthesizers and jangly, early ’80s guitars that portray a kind of production innocence, an East-Village-then feel, heard in bands like CSS, Scissor Sisters, Daft Punk, Wild Nothing and Chairlift, among hundreds more. The band the Pains of Being Pure at Heart make sincerity explicit in both their name and what they say while dressed in slim-fit fashions. Asked about their name on an episode of ABC News’ online show "The Mix," lead singer Kip Berman says, “It wasn’t just, like, some obscure reference, or, like, the cool guys in the tight pants or something. It was, like, um, very emotionally sincere.” There’s also the legendary Beck, who has long traversed the irony-sincerity matrix; or the sensibility of someone like Jack Black, whose ironic comedies and performances aim toward eliciting sincerity of heart; or the films of Wes Anderson, the paintings of Sean Landers and Elizabeth Peyton, and so on.

Fair enough? Let’s grant that both of these characteristics — irony and sincerity — are the prominent poles of hipster culture, indeed of avant garde culture generally over the past two decades, from the clothes and fashions it wears to some of its most important and interesting cultural productions.

If this is the case, then normcore is the synthesis. It wears normal clothes that would earlier have been worn ironically but claims that the irony is gone — that the normal clothes are just being worn artlessly, sincerely, without irresistibly tending toward a smirk. That’s not true, of course, but in this playful denial normcore is doing something beyond “finding liberation in being nothing special,” as K-Hole, the trend-forecasting agency that claims to have branded the term, explains. K-Hole describes normcore as “post-aspirational,” meaning the acceptance of conforming or yielding to mainstream American mall fashion (Dockers, J.Crew, Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor) rather than boldly asserting, through fashion or anti-fashion, one’s uniqueness and individuality. Normcore wears clothes ironically (with self-conscious distance) but the clothes that are being worn are the most nondescript clothes possible. What normcore is doing by “not being different” (in relation to mall fashion, not to hipster fashion, of which it is a part) is pointing to and then traversing the dead-end status of zany, rebellious, individualist fashion itself. That’s interesting and worth paying attention to.

What began as a hippie culture of resistance to capitalist bourgeois culture has matured perfectly into an even more powerful capitalist bourgeois culture (Steve Jobs, Ben & Jerry, Richard Branson). They have bought into the idea — oftentimes the mere illusion of the idea — that rebellious individualism is always against the grain, even if they have become the grain they used to be against, which has had the unfortunate result of turning resistance into style. And so with rebellion as the new center, which happened some time ago, normcore has been inadvertently tasked with admitting that nonconformity has finally run its course.

It’s now boring to be a rebel — or, rather, rebels have become boring. When everyone from cashiers at Rite Aid to associate humanities professors to seemingly every single NBA star has a pierced nose or face, ironic clothing item, an elaborate tattoo and disproportionately strong opinions; when multinational corporations selling hamburgers, potato chips and sneakers are urging you to think different and stand out by buying their things, then the specialness of individual rebelliousness is over. The cultural power granted to symbols and accouterments of dissent — signs once referring to the bourgeois person’s cheeky, recalcitrant individuality, his or her deep infusion with modernism — only work when they remain in the margins, when they mean something over and against what everyone else is doing. Only then do they keep their charge and pointed critique at what is “mainstream.” And even that word, “mainstream,” as we have witnessed, has already been co-opted by those non-mainstream mavericks over on the Palin Express. You see, they like “stirrin’ things up and tellin’ it like it is.” They are all up in your grill. The deluxe, stainless steel Kitchen Aid gas-powered kind.

Cultural critic and Baffler founder Thomas Frank pointed exactly to this long-arcing tendency in his brilliant "Conquest of Cool" (1996), which traced the way business culture has dogged the counterculture at every turn by erecting a fake counterculture of goods, selling “counterculture” back to hippies, beginning in the mid-1960s, with records and blue jeans and soda pop and bicycles aimed at “sticking it to The Man” or refusing to let him “steal your music.” David Foster Wallace had famously tired of trendy dissent in his hallmark 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram,” which argued, against the prevailing winds, that the postmodern ironic attitude, since it became “institutionalized,” had created a kind of uncommitted, distanced, self-absorbed personality, particularly among fiction writers and artists. (Or, even among normcore’s inadvertent mascot, Jerry Seinfeld.) This cheeky, knee-jerk rebellion, its refusal to belong, its television-inspired coolness, Wallace argued, had become “an agent of great despair and stasis in U.S. culture.” Wallace openly longed for a group of youngsters who would reclaim sincerity and endure the spiteful eye-rolls of ironists.

When rebellion and irony and individualist fashion statements are the new norm (the "Simpsons" have long been taking the barometer: Q: “Are you being sarcastic, dude?” A: “I don’t even know anymore.” Homerpalooza, 1996.); and when the margin has become the center, which it has (edgy, twerkin’, tongue-out, pierced Miley Cyrus is recorded and published by RCA, the second-oldest record label in America, and by Hollywood Records, owned by Disney), then real rebellion — that is, actual countercultural living that has a moral, social, political or even aesthetic point to make — is reduced to acting in the realm of mimicry and mimesis, or to looking like everything around it and operating in some other way. (Recall T.S. Eliot’s sage advice: “Poetry it is not the expression of personality; it is an escape from personality.”)

In other words, when the semiotics of social dissent becomes fashionable, then actual, content-concerned philosophical dissent must operate by some other means. Here’s an example: In late 1989, in Leipzig, Bucharest, Prague and other cities with discontented populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain, anti-communists cheered exaggeratedly louder than their pro-Soviet counterparts — expressing the ironic cheer of dissent that only slowly dawns on listeners. This kind of critical camouflage is one reason for the phenomenal power and success of Stephen Colbert: His television persona is the non plus ultra of mimetic criticism — he is the guy who, through satire, is taking down the guys who look exactly like him. More slippery but relatedly is the art of Jeff Koons, who personally claims no critical view of the kitsch objects he transforms into million-dollar auction items, like gold-leaf-covered figures of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey Bubbles; he’s just “giving people what they want.” Or the impossible-to-find-but-you-know-it’s-there ironic criticism by the master of high-quotidian art: Andy Warhol.

Critical camouflage is also what normcore is doing, and doing well, even though it might not be aiming to do it so deliberately. Its adherents who are knowingly wearing boring, blend-in clothing have most likely experimented with clothes that were more expressive and different, that were somehow on the forward edge of hipster fashion. The people they are imitating who are wearing boring mass-market clothes have only always worn boring mass-market clothes and wanted, truly, just to fit in. Normcore’s “fitting in,” on the other hand, remains in competition with other like-minded urbanites who are trying, through the minutiae of fashion, to show a new step, a new idea, and, above all, creativity in coming up with the next “No way!” reaction. It’s a subtle, quiet race to see who can outdo whom in the cool competition of one-upping with uncoolness and nostalgia. (This showing status and identity via the minutiae of fashion accouterments is as old as fashion itself.) If you have the energy and resourcefulness, that’s not an entirely unfun way to spend some of your time. I have been dressing like an Oxford schoolboy for nearly two decades (collared shirt, V-neck sweater, jeans, wingtips/sneakers), so I’m out of the running for normcore’s fun. Twenty years ago, however, I would have played the game.

In fact, normcore might actually be imitating one of the greatest years of a Gen Xer’s youth — and of the latter 20th century: 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Cold War ended, democracy and capitalism had triumphed over authoritarianism and communism, the Internet was born, "Dead Poets Society" was released, "Seinfeld" premiered, and some of the best music ever made was pouring out of the West: the Smiths, the Cure, Siouxie and the Banchees, Depeche Mode, Hugo Largo, Throwing Muses, early R.E.M., De La Soul, Fugazi, the Pixies, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, Public Image Limited, N.W.A., My Bloody Valentine, on and on.

I was seventeen in 1989, had long hair instead of none, was a thrift-store junkie, wore mustard-colored cardigans, Morrissey-inspired jeans, and played bass in what was then called, in our MTV "120 Minutes" parlance, an alternative band. Skate and BMX culture was, on the East Coast, new, alive and intoxicating in its rawness, and a smattering of local ’zines made the punk-ish/hardcore subculture feel alive to the times. There was a sense of life and healthy rebellion — and that you were doing something different from what the majority of your high-school cohorts were doing: shopping at the dumb mall. There was also a sense, at the young age of 17, that you had something real to rebel against: teachers, preachers, parents and peers.

* * *

Normcore is not necessarily controlled by its adherents; or, at least, the progress of its unraveling is more stewarded by its adherents than strictly directed by them. Normcore, to sum up again with a nod to Hegel, is part of a grander synthesis of two strands of a long-lived cultural battle: the modernist struggle between the sentiments of irony and sincerity (Duchamp versus, say, Munch or De Kooning; self-negation versus self-expression), which is working its way out before our thick-framed bespectacled eyes. If we look at it this way, if we try to see it instead of judge it, then normcore is not meaningless or pointless or a huge joke. It is rather a fascinating fusion of the loose ends of irony and sincerity, an expression of them through an ambiguous, neither-this-nor-that style. It is giving culture a nostalgic riddle to figure out, providing a focal point that retains its blurriness, representing a thing that does not yet have a fixed and predictable identity. This is the kind of situation some philosophers would have identified with an aesthetic experience: the confrontation with a thing or spectacle for which you do not yet have a concept.

But that might be going too far. For now, it’s enough that normcore makes so many people so angry and frustrated and so eager to get rid of it — and so many of us anxious to write and think about it, even if through the grimacing recognition of one’s own dorky, eighth-grade self.

By R. Jay Magill Jr.

R. Jay Magill Jr. is the author of Sincerity (2012) and Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007). He lives in Berlin, Germany.

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