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Tuesday, December 07, 2004
Sincerity is useful insofar as it addresses something you yourself are sincere about. In other words, the only time insincerity has a right to grate on you is when it's addressing something you yourself like more when it's sincere. This might not be a useful thing, given the universalist impulses of criticism and whatnot, but I do think it's fair, and probably the way to go when you want to accuse something of insincerity.
I am thinking about this while listening to Jonathan Richman's "Springtime In New York." It is, fundamentally, a song about the East Village (Tomkins Square Park, First Avenue, and, uh, Canal street all get name-checked), but most songs about the East Village tend to annoy me, either because they are insincere or because they take a too hipstery attitude towards it, which amounts to much the same thing. Richman's song captures exactly my level of sincerity towards it, as well as the feeling of wandering around in that area, which I've been known to do. As I say, this is a rarity. But on the other hand, if I'm the 99% of the country that doesn't spend a minimum of three days a week in the east village, an insincere or hipstery treatment of the region would maybe be more alluring than Richamn's, which if you take out the place names could probably describe a lot of towns. (This is part of Richman's genius--the ability to see New York for its neighborhoods--but I'll get into that later.) Some of the Strokes' songs--which I'm able to enjoy in part because of the remove--or, say, D Generation, or some other folks, these might not reflect the way I experience walking down Avenue A, and this sense that the places are being more listed than evoked grates on me, but if you're a teenager in Salt Lake City (say) it could sound very nice, and I can't really begrudge that. We all recreate our places as message, as something to draw you in or propel you away, and we can do this in a more or less mythologizing way. Richman's is reductionary, others' are expansionary. So it goes.
All that said, man, "Springtime In New York" is a perfect song. Aside from, as I say, the degree to which it rings true, even years after it was written, I particularly like the way it reflects the mix of comedy and tragedy in a fundamentally sunny way. Especially killer is the final verse, which actually features a pedal phrase! I'll reproduce it here:
well springtime in New York city, in thirty more days will come them sticky
Those first two lines are sort of nostalgic and ho-ho-ho. Then there's a switch to the minor for the third line, and that first phrase, "on first avenue," could have the same sense as before, as a hey-things-in-the-city line, and for a moment it does have that dual meaning, of being simultaneously sunny and nostalgic and anticipatorally sad because of the minor chord and (if we've heard the song before) the knowledge of what's coming. Because then, second half of the phrase (and second chord), we find out what's happening on first avenue: a breakup. Then the next line, eviction. Then after that, back tot he major with the chorus, which reveals itself, in this context, as bittersweet, but, again, fundamentally sunny: there are sad things going on--there are always sad things going on--but it is springtime, after all, and they will be OK one way or the other. It can't kill the mood.