Daniel Johnston and the search for sincerity

Before me, an aging legend loses all grip on reality. His hands shake, his sheet music flies off the stand, his entire body aches to fly out of his skin. Yet, amidst the complete breakdown of his sanity, thousands of people cheer in glee.

Due to the over-saturation of talent made possible by the Internet, sincerity in music has become a rare commodity. Music fans yearn to find the performer who bares their soul without shame or irony. Treating artists as brands and commodities has made audiences hyper-critical of the genuine intentions of performers.

In this perpetual quest for the earnest musician, mental illness can become the new ideal: the standard of sincerity. I never realized the repugnance of this ideal more than when I saw legendary singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston perform live.

Johnston embodies the ultimate ethos of the sincere performer: He grew up never dreaming of the stage, crooning to no one but an out-of-tune acoustic guitar and a tape recorder.

His tapes were slowly passed around Austin, Texas, becoming an unspoken test of indie-cred in the pre-internet age. He became known as the unofficial figurehead of the “New Sincerity” movement, a term used to describe mid-80s artists who scorned the ironic ideology of punk rock.

Kurt Cobain was even seen wearing a shirt adorned with one of Johnston’s lovingly twisted doodles, propelling his fame to new heights overnight. Despite the fact that Johnson was committed in a mental hospital at the time, labels immediately started a bidding war, hoping to turn him into a Grunge cash cow.

Johnston almost signed a deal with Elektra records, but refused because he believed labelmates Metallica were possessed by the devil. Atlantic signed him, only to drop him a year later after his album “Fun” became a commercial failure. Yet his lo-fi notoriety only increased over the years as artists from The Flaming Lips to Beck covered his songs.

However, his success was bolstered in part due to his severe schizophrenia and manic depression. The consequences of his disorders ranged from unwieldy performances to throwing a pilot’s key out of the window because he believed him to be Casper the Ghost.

Now, as Johnston took the stage to a crowd of thousands, sincerity turned ugly. He struggled to give the audience what they wanted. His performance quickly became a bastardization of his greatest hits.

Had any other artist performed so terribly, half the audience would leave and the other half would stay to let out drunken bouts of half-hearted applause. Yet it quickly becomes apparent that this is not a performance, but a crude sideshow act.

The audience’s cheer seemed to only grow with Johnston’s increasing anxiety. His nervous breakdown reached a climax as he ended his signature song “True Love Will Find You In The End,” halfway through, immediately dashing off the stage after only playing for half-an-hour.

As the audience roared with his sudden departure, I can’t help but feel dirty. If this is what sincerity looks like, I want no part of it.