Death is Not the End: David Foster Wallace, James Murphy, and the New Sincerity

James Murphy

On April 2, dance-pop juggernaut LCD Soundsystem will play its final show at Madison Square Garden before its frontman James Murphy voluntarily dissolves the band. And this month, Little, Brown will publish The Pale King, the novel that David Foster Wallace was working on when he committed suicide in 2008. In my mind, at least, these concurrent events—a book and a concert, created by two men who never met, one of them dead—are an appropriate coincidence, and here’s why.

LCD Soundsystem’s music and Wallace’s books have always resided near each other in a rarefied corner of my artistic universe I reserve for nearly flawless art. It’s a special place we all have for our absolute favorite music, books, and films that we are not just enthusiastic about, but whose secular beauty offers something approaching salvation, inspiration, refuge from mediocrity and grief and shitty days at the office. This is the art that helps us feel a little less alone, as both Murphy and Wallace are on record hoping their works would help people feel. I am sorry to lose Wallace and LCD Soundsystem, not just for the sheer quality of their work, but for their approach to that work, which involved some very conscious steps away from our culture’s pervasive irony and toward a new, refreshing sincerity.

Wallace and Murphy’s respective admirers form a Venn diagram whose overlap, I suspect, forms a near-circle. Sure, both appeal to superficially similar demographics: middle or upper-middle class, highly educated urbanites. But I have a hunch the kindred qualities run deeper: Wallace/ Murphy fans might also be those among us with a propensity toward depression; who maybe didn’t achieve everything they hoped they would by the age of 25/30/45/50; who remain culturally progressive but increasingly pessimistic about the direction in which society’s headed; who don’t always go in for difficult metafiction or archly sincere dance music but were drawn almost magnetically to Infinite Jest and Sound of Silver because they grew up wearing irony like a protective cloak until it started to chafe and so traded it for realer talismans like the aforementioned book and album.

Both men are similar not only as artists, both as people. Both were/ are adorably unfashionable—consider Wallace’s chewing tobacco, long hair, and iconic bandana, or Murphy’s pudginess, martial-arts shoes, and self-administered haircuts. Murphy’s cool uncoolness is even more admirable and unlikely for his status in a genre whose youthful dancers and DJs, designer drugs, and velvet-rope exclusivity contrast sharply with the dorky, scruffy, whiskey-in-a-plastic bottle everyman making some of the best music of the past decade. Meanwhile, Wallace took the self-conscious hermit-author schtick to an extreme just short of Salinger, horribly nervous at the rare literary events he attended, and communicating almost exclusively by letters and postcards rather than email.

They were both neurotic, too, falling prey to the sort of paranoid comparisons we all make in our less confident moments, sizing up the competition and enumerating their accomplishments versus ours. From the blog post about Wallace that Murphy wrote after the author’s death: “Wallace was only 8 years older than me, and I figured, even if I got a running start RIGHT FUCKING NOW I wouldn’t get award-winning-1000+page-novel published in that time.” Which only confirms that no matter how successful you are by other generally objective standards, you will always be glancing over at the guy your age or younger—or in the words of LCD Soundsystem’s earliest song, “Losing My Edge”:  “The kids are coming up from behind.”

“Losing My Edge” is a satirical manifesto about an aging, worried hipster, but it doubles as an airing of Murphy’s neuroses about, well, being an aging hipster. He knows he shouldn’t worry about remaining cool in the eyes of the younger generation’s tastemakers, but he can’t help it. So he rattles off the names of several “cool” artists that serve as cultural and artistic reference points. “This is what you do when you know things,” he told Terri Gross in his Fresh Air interview last year. “Knowing things, knowledge, or like your attachment to them or your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever is usually like this, often this weird amulet that protects you. … Look at my library. Listen to this. Like, I’m going to list all the books I’ve read, and now you know I’m a serious person. And so it was just supposed to be like this amulet swinging around me to protect me from being seen as anything that I didn’t want to be seen as.”

That’s what we catch ourselves doing with music, especially, but also literature and film and pretty much every other kind of art: in public we wield the cool, highly regarded art’s amulet, name-dropping it at parties. Meanwhile, we hide the uncool, mainstream, guilty-pleasure art in our bedrooms to enjoy in private. Maybe we do this more when we’re younger, and then most of us grow out of it. Maybe.

Murphy spent his career trying to grow out of it. He described this process in an interview with Time Out Chicago:

“I like stuff from my childhood, either early OMD or Bronski Beat or the Smiths, which was the kind of music you loved in your room, but the minute someone else walked in who didn’t like that kind of music, you suddenly realized how fey and absurd it was. You’re like, This is so great! Oh, my brother’s here—this is the faggiest music I’ve ever heard.”

Murphy spent the first part of his music career with his brother perpetually in the room, moving within indie-rock circles where coolness was king. But he told Gross that he made the switch to dance music for its transparency: A DJ or dance-music artist knows whether he or she is succeeding purely based on whether people are dancing. And it is difficult to dance ironically. So with LCD Soundsystem, Murphy stopped caring whether his brother and the rest of the cool kids were in the room. Especially on the second and third albums, he embraced naked sincerity, crooning, synth balladry, and lyrical directness. “Someone Great” was about missing a dead person. “All My Friends” is about missing all your friends. “Sound of Silver” is about the unguarded emotional experience of our teen years that becomes embarrassing only in retrospect, but is so crucial to our adolescent development.

On the final LCD record, This is Happening, Murphy’s best songs are again his most sincere. “I Can Change” is the album’s emotional nucleus, a love ballad built from nothing but an analog drum machine, synths, and Murphy’s New Romantic baritone mixed way to the front, promising to do whatever it takes to keep his lover from leaving—a project whose futility makes the song’s titular plea so poignant. “I really like synthy, heartfelt, pop love songs,” Murphy said of “I Can Change,” in an interview with NME. “There’s something kind of naive and earnest about them. I haven’t really let myself do that in this band much. I was like, What’s the worst that’s gonna happen? People will think I’m a simp, or an idiot? Fine.”

Part of LCD’s appeal derived from what it wasn’t. So much of popular music still relies on artifice and irony and tight young bodies grinding and smirking, that when a schlubby dude staring down middle age began flailing around and singing about growing older by referencing Pink Floyd, a lot of people were relieved. I know I was.

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  • http://twitter.com/anewholiday Max Shipley

    Dude I just wrote a paper on this same subject and was so surprised to see this, way to go!

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Awesome! I'd love to read that paper if you're willing.

  • http://twitter.com/karinabthatsme Karina Briski

    Yes, as a DFW-devotee and a total stranger to LCD Soundsystem, this piece works in so many ways… It's so *ironic* to me that so many of DFW's followers continue to be or are still becoming keepers of the tract for ironic inoculation in whatever work they're creating. Normally, I'm prone to just call them out on the simple ground of hipster snobbery, but you provide, as did Wallace, an especially provocative assessment of why history and art cannot live in, out of, or even alongside such irony especially as it is being enacted within the realms specified here.
    It will be a scary thing if/when nobody is creating anything they actually believe in. Imagine the shit we'd be in if that becomes the reality.

  • http://jackshoegazer.livejournal.com/ Jack Shoegazer

    This is a really fantastic article. As a creative writing student, it's nice to hear someone touting sincerity. It's hard to hear through the din of postmodern thumb-nosing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=707272007 Alex Thayer

    yrself*

    also, this was an excellent read.

    • Jakemohan

      Thanks for catching that! And thanks for reading.

  • Mary Pappalardo

    I don't know if I have a more sincere response than just saying, yes. Yes to all of this.

  • Guest666

    hipsters(of the sincerity frontier) deriding hipsters(of the formerly postmodern irony clan) is the new rappers rapping about anonymous haters and foes.

    but this was good…almost like cliff notes on dfw theory.

  • http://profiles.google.com/zotterdas Zane Taylor

    Great article! I desperately hope that these ideas can take root in the current generation of artists. There's been far too much “ground-clearing” going on for far too long.

  • shoehorn

    this article is fucking solid, digital hug for you, sincerely
    also hold steady rule precisely for the reasons described herein
    (but i think you have one extra “irrelevant” in there)

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Thanks for catching the typo! And I'm glad you appreciate the Hold Steady example. I've always found Craig Finn's out-of-fashion squareness and over-the-top emoting very endearing.

  • BROTOM

    Good stuff.

  • http://everyoneisquiteperfect.blogspot.com Ted

    'bewilderment is the new sincerity' — heather christle

  • erzulieloo

    really, really appreciate this article. thank you. great work.

  • champ

    more articles like this please!

  • Ben C C Warren



    An example of contemporary sincerity (ignore the video).

    http://www.icometoshanghai.com

    (the bands website)

  • maha

    http://lesswrong.com/lw/2pv/in

    Is all of this really giving up irony for good, or is it just countersignalling? When irony becomes the norm, sincerity's cool again.

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      I don't think we'll ever give up irony for good, and I hope we never do. Irony can be a very powerful tool, and both Wallace and Murphy could employ it very well. But I think their endgame was always profoundly emotional, rather than critical or satirical.

      Of course there's always been irony and there's always been sincerity in response; I've just noticed some trends toward greater sincerity in art. But of course I'm generalizating; there are always going to be exceptions.

  • Tim

    Fuck this hits hard. I'm 200 pages in to Infinite Jest and I'm seeing LCD this saturday. These two artists are the centre of my life right now, so this piece feels far from coincidental.

    It's very sad to see LCD go. When I first was exposed to them I was only able to pick up on the ironic, 'too cool' side. I really didn't like Sound of Silver and found the music incredibly pretentious and hollow (bar NY, I Love You). Once I heard This Is Happening though my whole perspective changed. I went back to Sound of Silver and was able to appreciate just how amazing the music was, and how it had much more heart than I had first assumed. I still believe This Is Happening will be his masterpiece just because of the range and depth of the emotions on it. All I Want, I Can Change, and Pow Pow are about three very different things, but all are equally upfront and naked.

    As for DFW, I can understand the calls of pretentiousness, but I think that's selling him short. He did hide behind his words at time, and his 'metafictional pyrotechnics', but that just endears me more to him. He was insecure as much as any of us, and he braved his fears and overcame them at times, but other times he just couldn't. I very recently read an article about him that I will paraphrase as saying: yes he had a big brain, but his heart was even bigger. If you read his address to Kenyon College, you really can't question that. The man was smart, too smart for his own good as he himself hinted at, but he also cared just as much.

    It's not the first time I've thought about these two as not so distant cousins. Apparent from the physical similarities, the irony and self-deprecation that they struggled with and overcame to produce art that communicated real genuine feelings and beliefs is something to respect. Sure you can dismiss them as posers, but you're selling yourself short as much as them.

    • shoehorn

      this article deserved more comments
      i'm glad you left this long-ass good comment to make up for that tim

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Fiveoseveniam-Lazaroff/7706828 Steven Fiveoseveniam Lazaroff

    thanks, man. a real defibrillator. thanks.

    i can't read all the comments right now, but it's always seemed to me that these dudes, and others, are nietzsche's heirs. his 'new philosophers.' his gay scientists.

  • http://www.peterwknox.com peterwknox

    This was fantastic. I went to the LCD show on Tuesday night, got my copy of Pale King delivered during the day on Wednesday (Yay Amazon Prime!) and then went to the Wednesday night show and it's seeming like all I've done recently has been yelling LCD or DFW and I'm glad someone put the two together. They share the same space in my head and there is no more noble cause than trying to live better like these two preached and struggled with doing themselves.

    Great essay; thanks.

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      Thanks Peter. I know from Tumblr that you're big fan of both DFW and LCD Soundsystem, so I'm flattered that you read and enjoyed the piece.

  • xtos

    I don't know what to make of this article. I understand the comparison seems salient since Murphy mentioned Wallace on a blog post, but roughly (yes roughly i know this wasn't THE punchline of the article) equating LCD soundsystem to DFW doesn't seem right to me.

    Though you've found touching sincerity in the lyrical content of their music the delivery falls IMPOSSIBLY short for me. Some tracks shine but by and large their lyrics get swallowed up in the self-conscious indie mumble falsetto that was pioneered and proliferated sometime in the last decade. I feel that this falls in an unfortunate middle ground in making an honest attempt towards sincerity. Who doesn't know a person who is a jokester or quick to make ironic comments, only to have his voice falter self-consciously or make fun of himself when he actually has something to say?

    This piece speaks to me because I find a lot of parallels between it and an essay I wrote several months ago. I think we are making roughly the same point but I hadn't been exposed to DFW's work at the time and for various other reasons my points weren't very adequately fleshed out. I took a look at The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused and tried to put it in some cultural context and describe it in terms of the music that preceded and succeeded it. The long and short of it is that the album (as evidenced by its title) is an indictment of punk music. I remarked on how easy it was for music reviewers to call the band's lyrics naive or call their political or musical views unrealistic. I won't get into details here but I think the best thing I can say is that the album's exclamation point track, after all the points made in the album, says

    “So where do we go from here? Just about anywhere.”

    Also a quote I found very moving from the conclusion of their documentary discussing the breakup of the band:

    “IF YOU ARE GOING TO GO ON LIVING, DON'T SETTLE FOR LIVING HALF DEAD. FIGHT FOR WHAT YOU WANT AND BE COURAGEOUS AND BE BEAUTIFUL. THAT'S WHAT THIS IS ABOUT AND IT'S FOR YOU IF THAT'S WHAT YOU WANT. BE CREATIVE, BE ALIVE, SHARE EVERY GIFT AND EVERY PASSION YOU HAVE TO OFFER, WE ALL NEED ALL WE CAN GET.”

    • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

      I can see your points, and a lot of the parallels I draw between JM and DFW are mere speculation. But the more I thought about their work the more similarities I began to see, and I like the challenge of trying to make analogies between two unlike pieces of art—apples and oranges, as it were.

      I think James Murphy's music is more cerebral and deliberate than most people give him credit for. We're probably too busy dancing to notice this until several listens, which is probably how he'd want it. But his whole ouevre is driven by the notion that we're not getting any younger and we only get a few chances to make our mark and express ourselves—if we get those chances at all.

      Murphy made every musical move very carefully and put his whole heart into it. I saw that same spirit in DFW's writing. The bottom line: Both men cared, deeply—as artists and just as human beings.

      • http://thedependentclause.com The Dependent Clause

        Er, two unlike pieces of art …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    I saw LCD Soundsysyem open up for Interpol & The Pixies a long time ago. He was god-awful. Still is.

  • PERFECTCIRCLES

    I'm only passingly “into” these artists, but what you're saying obviously extends beyond them. They're the place holders and this article could probably be written in twenty years with Rebecca Black replacing Murphy and the newer version of Stephenie Meyer replacing Wallace.

    In celebration I am going to kill myself outside the final MSG concert.

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