Perhaps the most unfair criticism of David Foster Wallace is that he was a postmodern smartass more concerned with metafictional pyrotechnics than storytelling. But anyone who makes that complaint almost certainly hasn’t read any of Wallace’s work, at least not his seminal 1993 essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” [PDF]. For here is where Wallace voices his strongest criticism of postmodern American fiction and its main weapon, patricidal irony. By killing off their literary forebears and sneering constantly at the hokey sincerity of the mid-20th-century Establishment, Wallace argues, ironists in all art forms were in serious danger of leaving us without any communicative tools to replace the outmoded forms they’d destroyed:
Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything it debunks. …The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I’m saying.” … Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. (“E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”)
And so those of us unfashionable enough to point out that the emperor has no clothes—or simply to look for a way to mean what we say and say what we mean, and to ask the same of others—are cowed into not taking any stance at all, for fear we’ll be exposed as the ones with no clothes, or simply irrelevant—the last thing anybody wants to be. But the more we worry about how others perceive us, the less we do anything worth perceiving at all.
Artists like Wallace and Murphy are crucial because they can save us from this spiral of second-guessing and self-doubt. These artists, who are more concerned with being up-front and unguarded than being cool, represent the current antidote to all this ironic hollowness. Musically, I think maybe Sufjan Stevens is one of these artists, despite the high-concept nature of his work. Or the Hold Steady, who got indie kids to soil themselves over classic-rock anthems about blue-collar Catholic-school kids. Or Animal Collective, who made a high-art album about being dads. Even if you don’t like these artists’ music, you can maybe see how wearing their feelings on their sleeves is a priority for them. At least, they haven’t become critical darlings and popular with fans by rolling up those sleeves.
So if Wallace was the leader of postmodern fiction’s new sincerity movement, I submit that Murphy is Wallace’s musical heir, benefiting from the same audience Wallace cultivated, and directly inspired by his non-ironic approach. Both Wallace and Murphy worked within the formal constraints of the very genres they were trying to transcend: Murphy used the sleek superficiality of dance music to explore some profound emotional experiences, while Wallace used the grammar and trickery of metafiction to expose the pitfalls of the avant-garde and ironic. Murphy’s arch delivery on tracks like “Losing My Edge” and “North American Scum” was balanced by an unabashed forthrightness on “Someone Great” and “I Can Change.” Just as Wallace used the tropes of postmodern metafiction to reveal some timeless and unpostmodern realities about the human condition in Infinite Jest, Murphy used the musical lingua franca of the world’s sexiest, most fashionable party people to confess to some horribly square but true and inevitable realities about growing older and maneuvering through life once the party stops.
Maybe you’re sick of hearing about Murphy and Wallace, and maybe their work isn’t your cup of tea. But I urge you to find some artist who is, and who’s made a commitment to dropping the act and saying what he or she means. Of creating art that we love for its unhiply positive presence, rather than for sneeringly subjugating some uncool thing while refusing to fill the void it leaves. Because we live in times where that kind of commitment seems even rarer than it was nearly twenty years ago when Wallace first diagnosed it—a time when a mean quip on the internet or an animated GIF just might have more immediate currency than a carefully written short story or a ballad’s narrative, but less staying power. Not that the former don’t have their place—but the latter must be there to satisfy our hunger for meaning when the quip or GIF’s charm wears off and you slam your laptop shut, exhausted. The band is breaking up and the author is dead, but I hardly need to point out that the artifacts of sincerity they left behind are immortal. So here I am, blasting “Dance Yrself Clean” at high volume with the spring chill coming through the windows and the dreaded The Pale King in front of me, daring me to give a shit.