Why Are We So Uncomfortable with Sincerity in Music?

Sinéad Dunphy investigates our society’s discomfort with honest, no frills displays of emotion in music.

There seems to be an inherent dislike and distrust of artists who try to be sincere in their songs and music videos. Artists like Taylor Swift and Hobo Johnson, as well as entire genres like pop punk and country are often written off by music fans as "cringy", immature or even fake. Whereas, artists who are less straightforward in their lyrics and display a more detached image are praised for being cool and creative. This is symptomatic of a culture that is uncomfortable with shameless displays of emotion. Why are we more comfortable with artists who use metaphors to veil their emotions than those who lay it all out on the table? You could argue that it’s simply because “sincere” lyrics are cliché driven and lacking creativity. However, there are countless artists from Joni Mitchell to Neil Young who used simplistic language and imagery to convey their emotions, who are given a free pass from criticism due to their icon status and legacy in the music game. Yet, artists today aren’t given that same respect.

Taylor Swift has long been a divisive figure in music as both her records and her personal life have been subject to much scrutiny since the beginning of her career. It’s undeniable that there is some sort of disconnect between Swift’s personality and the public at large. While her fan base is immense, there are still many who instinctively dislike Swift and her brand of quirky, girl-next-door awkwardness, complete with goofy dance moves and heartfelt lyrics. In reality, apart from her job, Swift is no different than any other white American twenty-something, yet she is a constant punching bag for misogynistic jokes about her dating life and the songs she writes about it. Writing about love and heartbreak is an accepted and pervasive part of music, yet when Swift does it she is accused of a lack of creativity. Furthermore, her fans are often dismissed as teenage girls despite the fact that they span multiple generations and genders. Swift herself has been somewhat immortalised as a perpetual teenage girl, not given permission by the media to grow up and be respected as the seasoned, adult songwriter she is.

Similarly, Hobo Johnson’s music is often mocked as cringey or as some false display of earnestness. It’s interesting that we so often refuse to take someone at face value, insistent that they must have some ulterior motive or that their emotions are solely performative. Johnson’s lyrics read like a diary and his vocals borrow from the standard pop punk style with their whiny quality and tendency towards shouting. Vocals like this are subject to quick dismissal by most adult listeners who deem pop punk to be strictly suitable for teenagers. Bands like Blink 182, New Found Glory, Modern Baseball and The Story So Far give teenagers an outlet for their fears and frustrations with their catchy hooks, relatable lyrics and loud, simple instrumentation. When these teens grow up, they usually leave this music behind, moving on to more socially acceptable interests such as indie rock, only breaking out pop punk every now and then in the name of nostalgia. There is a habit in our culture of dismissing anything we liked as teenagers, often feeling shame over it. There is no need to dislike our teen selves so much. They are a part of us and the music that meant so much to us at the time deserves our respect now. Many of these bands have matured their lyrical content as they’ve aged but they continue to be invalidated simply because of the genre they are in.

The stripped back aesthetic of country music and its championing of accessible, vulnerable lyricism has led to it receiving much the same criticism as pop punk. Displays of earnest emotion that are so characteristic of the genre are seen as cheesy, passé and once again, untrustworthy. If we were just more willing to accept what is delivered to us rather than trying to decipher and outsmart it, we would be much better off.

Not everybody needs to reinvent the wheel or write Nobel Prize worthy lyrics. Music is a natural part of human life, and it serves a simple purpose: it’s a form of entertainment and a release of emotion. While it can be fun to over analyse and discuss, it’s not always necessary to do so. Sometimes we need to just let go and let ourselves enjoy things without worrying about what’s cool or not. Yes, we’ve all heard tales of drinking, fighting, falling in love and finding God a million times before. It’s understandable that we might get tired of it, but it’s not going to change to any real degree because at the end of the day, music is all about the universal human experience.