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THE GLOBE & MAIL | MAY 31, 2001
The New Wave Now? Cringe Rock

Thursday May 31, 2001

Here's a proposition for you: Pop culture today comes down to a contest between boasting and cringing.

The first post-Cold War decade's signature mood was paranoia -- amply demonstrated by the militia movement, Unabomber, gangsta rap, grunge, environmental-sensitivity syndrome, Waco, Kenneth Starr, the Reform party and The X-Files. Free-floating fear had lost its nuclear-winter focus and locked on to whatever substitute it could find.

Then, with new prosperity came a new calm and new jostling for privilege and position. Paranoia began to seem quaint and measly. The dangers, it turns out, aren't hard to identify, just hard to face. Superbugs? Eep. Bio-terrorists? Urp. Global warming? Aiyiyi. So you boast your way through, loading up on stock and yapping loudly into your cellphone in your SUV.

And what do braggarts dread most? The cringe: The precipitous humiliation that would expose them as frauds, merely human, and threaten their place in their ecosystems of micro-celebrity. Today, the public eye is inexorably drawn to cringe-making braggart-bumblers like George W. Bush and "Monsieur Malaprop" Chrétien on one side, and those who work the Too Much Information reflex for laughs on the other, like Tom Green or South Park. (Stockwell Day lies in between.)

Maybe we're so pampered that we have nothing greater to fear than embarrassment itself, or maybe in an "information" economy, reputation is once again -- as in Edith Wharton or Henry James -- the highest currency.

If so, no wonder only stereotypical popular kids appear on the pop charts these days (with Eminem a rule-proving exception). From Britney to Puffy, the Top 40 is Boastville, while Cringeburg enjoys an underground boom.

To cringe is "to shrink from something dangerous or painful." The musicians in in the current "sad-core," lo-fi, folk-rock genre seem to shrink their egos to microscopic size, the reverse of larger-than-life stardom. This narrative perspective puts the cause (usually love) in the foreground of the cringe anthem, narrowing down the sightlines to squeeze a responsive cringe from the listener.

The best-known makers of cringe-rock, heirs to early Leonard Cohen and confessional poets from Sylvia Plath to your local high school, include Elliott Smith: "Do you miss me, Miss Misery, like you say you do?" he moaned on the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, expecting a crushing public reply. Or elsewhere: "I'm looking for the man who attacked me/ While everybody was laughing at me."

One of the most accomplished cringe-rockers is Bill Callahan, a.k.a. Smog, who plays Lee's Palace in Toronto on Saturday (529 Bloor St. West, $13). He began with bedroom-recording-geek classics like 1993's 37 Push Ups: "I feel like Travis Bickle, listening to Highway to Hell/ It's a shitty little tape I taped off the radio."

As Smog's sound became more robust, he added shock-comic confrontations: A perfect cringe moment came in 1997's To Be of Use ("Most of my fantasies are of making someone else cum"), and Tom Green might approve of the charming title of the latest Smog disc, Under the Puke Tree.

Locally, our kinder, gentler cringe specialists include St. Catharines, Ont., band Raising the Fawn (Saturday at Barcode, 549 College St., $5, as part of the Anti-Antenna label launch). Their first CD is a cycle of fragile love songs explicitly addressed by lead singer John Crossingham to drummer Lesa Hannah. Sweet, yes, but a little too close for comfort, too. You end up preoccupied by questions like, "What if they break up on stage? If they do break up, will he have to write a whole new repertoire? Doesn't this make her blush?"

As a rock movement, cringe is literally radical: If rock is rooted in adolescence, preoccupation with humiliation works as the flip side of cool.

A recent broadcast of the U.S. public-radio program This American Life devoted itself to the cringe theme, and there Toronto writer Adam Sternbergh argued that reality TV is a form devoted entirely to manufacturing cringe moments, where watching people make asses of themselves is the equivalent of the zinger on a sitcom. Cringe, he says, is both the new comedy and the new horror.

The cringe is an "acute form of sympathy, even empathy: 'Oh my god, I could be that person, I have been that person.' " It is "a mix of repugnance and sympathy," Sternbergh says, which leads him to the best explanation I've heard for its popularity: "However induced, when we cringe, we connect."

With the new century marked by anomie in all its forms, from lonely urban sprawl to prowling terrorist cells, the cringe epidemic might be the unlikely cure, one that comes coated in dis-ease.

(So I'll end with a cringe of my own: Readers pointed out that last week I misnamed the John Zorn project with Mick Harris of Napalm Death. It was Painkiller, not Naked City. Oh, I could just die.)