Washington Post writer Linton Weeks recently wrote a fascinating big-picture essay about the long, sad decline of sincerity and sentiment in America, symbolized by the public loathing of the 1975 Morris Albert pop song "Feelings." It wasn't merely the whoa-whoa-whoa chorus that drove the criticism, he suggested, but the mere act of the singer putting the heart on the proverbial sleeve that became phony, cheesy and hopelessly square.
It's been said before that we live in an age of irony, and irreverence is king. But Weeks added the irresistible term "Snark Ages" to characterize it: "The revolt against sincerity -- the Snark Ages, still upon us -- began as a rebellion against corny, over-the-top displays of emotion in movies, songs, TV shows. But the rebellion spiraled out of control, and any public expression of emotion, no matter how sincere, was a target for mockery. Old war movies and romantic dramas, taken seriously the first time around, were consumed by a younger generation as farce -- as 'camp.'"
That's all true. But 1975 is a little late to mark the beginning of a revolt against sincerity. The revolt began with the arrival of a "counterculture" that bloomed in the "Question Authority" 1960s. "Question Sincerity" could have been one of their buttons, but the revolt didn't speak to that directly. The leaders of the counterculture mocked everything their parents had been and all they had done. These enlightened people proclaimed themselves as the sincere ones, the opponents of plastic patriotism and flannel-suit conformity.
The Beatles sang "All You Need Is Love," but the counterculture thought love was overrated, especially if it meant long-term attachments, like marital fidelity. Love was a "groovy" feeling, but it had to be "free," which often meant it was best carried out in a long series of "random acts of kindness" with a string of strangers. The counter-culturalists professed to be apostles of love, but counseled self-absorption in narcotic highs. Timothy Leary advised, "Tune out, turn on, drop out." He told his devotees to seek detachment from troublesome "involuntary" commitments and find happiness in "mobility, choice, and change." Sincerity in love doesn't happen without commitment, and it doesn't merge well with an ardent desire to seek mobility and change.
Even today, the counter-culturalists -- now aging academics holed up in university English departments -- see sentiment as an enemy. Weeks cited Temple's Joan Mellen, who demeaned sentiment as "friend to the status quo, and to passivity. A formidable enemy, of moral no less than of artistic integrity, in art as in life, in these beleaguered times it is best quickly identified, and then scrupulously avoided."