0309: “Beautiful” by Carole King

Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? ‘Sure.’ […] The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, ‘then’ what do we do? […] Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.

— David Foster Wallace

Everything in moderation. Irony is an enormously useful tool for shattering illusions and expanding a national social discourse. As Wallace notes above, the ’50s and ’60s were so ludicrously steeped in a religious and conservative brand of morality and virtue that irony was really the only antidote.[1] But when irony is taken to an extreme it stunts and shrugs its shoulders at discourse. This is not to be confused with saying that snark and cynicism are automatic bad endpoints, just that it needs a proper place and context if you’re going to take it further down the scale. You know when irony has gone too far when it treats genuine emotions as sentimentality that should be discarded. From liberating to enslaving, as noted above. And then the antidote for that brand of irony becomes a shared emotional feeling rooted in something that only great art can point to. It might be cliché but when I’m starting to feel cynical I reach for things like Renoir paintings or Michael Paterniti’s “Thuman Munson In Sun and Shade” or Keats.

And Tapestry by Carole King.

The album starts with “I Feel the Earth Move” and ends with “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”—the former a staggering catchy masterpiece, the latter finds her wearing the dress that she made—and everything in between is gorgeous songwriting set to beautiful music. “It’s Too Late” is one of the most honest songs ever penned. The slow buildup of “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the window sill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey, you know I will/I never thought I could get satisfaction from just one man/But if anyone can keep me happy, you’re the one who can” on “Where You Lead” is poetic love set to pitch-perfect melody. In the wrong hands, Tapestry would be red meat for the cynics—a sappy object with no overreaching themes or metaphor of the time of war and distrust and corruption from which is was born. And certainly a song like “Beautiful” in the wrong hands could seem downright laughable, this song about inner beauty and how maybe love can end the madness (and if not, maybe we can try). The reality is that the clichés, especially the sentimental ones, are rooted in truths. When Carole King sings about waking up with a smile on your face and people are going to treat you better if you show all the world the love in your heart, yeah, on your more overcast days, this proposition seems like annoying bullshit but it is, in fact, ultimately true. Confidence, feeling loved, being in love, reciprocal kindness: these are things we actually strive for, even when they seem like corny artifacts in our jaded hours. “Beautiful” is slotted near the midpoint of the album, its down-to-earth reaffirmations a totem of how well the album’s ability to connect to listeners on a personal level (ten million albums sold in the U.S. alone is no fluke).

Irony can truly be a great and teachable thing, along with its cousin, snark. But nothing beats great art rooted in emotions one can feel; it is an antidote against the ugliness of the world. “Beautiful” is one such antidote.

[1] This brand of moralism and virtue still exists today, especially in sportswriting and reporting, where the conflation of morality and victory—and dime store sins and defeat—is still being peddled by Grantland Rice’s worst purple prose disciples. Thank the stars for Deadspin.

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