Juan Wauters And The Nouveau Ironique

Words by Kristina Pedersen • Images from Juan Wauters' Instagram

Juan Wauters came to town Saturday March 5 to play a show at The Hideout and every self-proclaimed cool/sort of famous person in Chicago was there. It was the kind of scene where you turn to your friend and ask her, “Is that guy in Twin Peaks?” except about every person you see, even Juan Wauters, and even the very friend you are talking to. Like The Twilight Zone but with less science. Chicago’s DIY crowd really shows up and, for that reason, they are a community of greasers and flannelers and cigarette-smoker-uppers that are really moving mountains and never fail to support each other.

The show was great and fun, no doubt influenced directly by Juan Wauters’ music, which happens to be undeniably and fundamentally happy. It’s simple and easy and silly, and so was the show. It would have been nice to see more people dancing/general merriment because the show wasn’t as much a spectacle, as it was a feeling and sure you were supposed to move to it. He was just up there being jolly and playing his simple songs and having fun. His voice and music is honest and amateur (on purpose) which seems to be all the rage right now. 

A la Jerry Saltz, deskilling is the word in contemporary art right now, and in the case of the music industry, technical skill can be found (or fabricated) (and funded) near money, and we know that money and emerging movements/innovation are pretty mutually exclusive in the music industry. Deskilling in contemporary art is about art moving away from valuing technical skill and putting value in rethinking skill, and rethinking medium, and rethinking art. Music is widely accepted as the most earnest form of expression. (A musician can make a melodramatic heartbreak song and it’s a smash while a capital A artist making work about heartbreak is trite or is still in college). There is deskilling happening in contemporary music as well but it has more to do with performance, specifically performance of the self, and how the artist as an admittedly flawed person is expressing their feelings in a more wholly performative way. No longer is it that just their lyrics and the stories they tell are saturated with humanity, but the whole damn brand is. Therefore we should talk about more than just why we like Juan Wauters’ music; we need to get at why we like the whole bit. 

Of all the musicians doing this bit right now, Juan Wauters is the most successful because it is not a bit. He truly and earnestly is goofy and simple and just having fun and, technically, “bad.” It’s different than Mac Demarco and Jimmy Whispers because the “badness,” the goofiness and oddness and simpleness, feels more real, more natural, less performative. It is an earnest thing that he is as opposed to is doing. Juan Wauters is terribly ironic kitsch normcore, but actually it is so much so - so committed - that it is not ironic at all. Even contemporary artists that are exploring sincerity vs. insincerity - exploring the things we like that we sort of don’t like (for example Tre Reising’s #Belieb, 2014) - are still somewhere easily placed on either side of insincerity vs. sincerity because they are making work about things we like for confusing reasons as opposed to being them. 

Let’s talk about this phenomenon for a bit. If we like things that people make to be ironic, we are a dick, kind of. (Or really just regular people.) If we like things ironically that are simple/earnest/not ironic, we are also sort of a dick (or just regular again.) But today, there is something new. Now, there are things in our daily regular lives that we LOVE that are simple and earnest, things that at one point may have been considered an ironic consumption are now quite sincere. Yet we know that the thing is “bad.” We, in fact, love it for that, amongst other reasons. We can relate to it. We are out with this love, we are not making fun of it (sort of) and this is a new, endearing ironic consumption. I call these consumers the nouveau ironique.

Nouveau Ironique is of course a play on the nouveau riche, those who came into money through industry and were not part of the aristocracy, thus creating a new elite class of consumption with new tastes. (I prefer using fFrench terms when coining phrases because the French were oh so revolutionary, non?) The nouveau ironique are not the hipsters everyone at the New York Times felt obliged to write about in 2012, these are not the people that still make jokes on Twitter about Twitter, these are not the people that wear unflattering jumpsuits on purpose. These are people you know and love that have recently felt empowered enough to admit their love of mainstream shit while assuring us they still have taste. They just also actually really love Kim Kardashian. Or One Direction. Or Chief Keef. The Cubs (when they were bad...one year ago). La Croix. Lizzie McGuire, and 90s shit (this one is a little more complicated though because the audience we juxtapose ourselves against is ourselves but younger). New Balance shoes. Gas station pizza. Horoscopes (this one is on the up-and-up, think “If I actually thought this was real, I am truly a libra through and through and I love that"). When bad things we like become fancy, this is called “artisan.”

Nouveau ironique consumption is defined by three things: by “badness” being part of what is sincerely enjoyed in the consumption, by the terms upon which you participate (when the terms you define for yourself as an audience member are different than the terms you define for those who “actually” are “supposed” to be the audience), and by the fact that taking an incalcitrant stand for something you “like” is now more interesting than admitting you like something as a joke. Essentially, a nouveau ironique consumption is in every way - on paper - a very sincere consumption. Probably, it is a vehicle for those with self-proclaimed “good taste” to openly enjoy things in the mainstream again. 

There are a few reasons we may have ended up here. The first is, like I mentioned, that the mainstream is the mainstream for a reason and we simply want to be able to participate in it again without the arduous vehicle of irony. Another reason for the shift to sincerity is more technical and has to do with neuroplasticity, or the rewiring of your brain. Some have claimed that irony actually rewires your brain and neuropsychologist Dr. John B Arden writes in his book on the subject that humor is one of the keys to “rewiring your brain” to achieve happiness (duh, I guess) and that humor allows you to “lighten the load [of your mortality] by acknowledging your own humanity”(Rewiring Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life, p. 184). Is it possible that we have reconditioned ourselves to sincerely like the things we once participated in as a joke?

If in 2012 - when everybody had something to say about hipsters - you were one of those guys that wore dirty white t-shirts and bought an above ground pool because you thought it was funny or cool, guess what: five years later it turns out you are a guy that actually wears dirty white t-shirts and owns an above ground pool. If you didn’t rewire your brain, you certainly rewired your life at least on paper. And hell, it may even be that Facebook’s algorithm conditions us to be more earnest; people who post really sincere personal PR (“excited to announce I just graduated, accepted a job, etc.”) get, like, a million likes. 

Like New Balance shoes and One Direction, Juan Wauters - both his music and whole vibe in general - is about digestibility and easy likability through simplicity. He is simple and small and likable. Mike Powell at Pitchfork writes that he crusades “smallness as a cause.” Wauters is an anomaly as a product consumed by the nouv. iron., though, because he is not actually part of the mainstream. Rather, he is embodying characteristics of the mainstream. It is refreshing to like something simple because it lightens up the fuck-off complexity of shit we are supposed to like if we consider ourselves to be anti-hegemony and/or cool (these two words have a complicated and somewhat-superficial relationship that is way outside the scope of this article). It is incredible how such simple music and a simple message can have such a nebulous relationship to the mainstream. Juan Wauters is obviously doing what gazillionaire “musicians” and producers do: making shit that people will like with that exact end in mind. His whole brand also is so underproduced that it is obviously anti said mainstream. It’s a confusing message, but in that great way that makes you think about what you like and why, and more specifically, what hegemony conditions you to like and why.  

Juan Wauters is also different and fascinating, though, because the audience and the subject are seemingly participating on equal terms. He is self aware. We like him for the same non-artificial and single-dimensional “badness” we like about dumb shit (again, we do like it sincerely now) but Juan Wauters is certainly capitalizing on (and performing to) these nouveau ironique consumers. He knows what we “like” and is giving it to us unadulterated, and on purpose

Note that there can still be something subtly menacing about this endearing irony. When we find something charming and special because it is bad, we might be making a judgement about those who think that it is good. But if we look closely at the reason “I” like One Direction and someone who “actually” is “supposed” to like One Direction, we are not that different: we both like One Direction! We are attempting to remove ourselves from this audience based on some fundamental difference in taste or education, but if we sincerely like it the way we claim we do, then we are in the same boat at the end of the day. 

With Juan Wauters, the author is subjecting himself to this endearment of badness and we are all participating on equal terms, both Wauters and the audience. We have a mutual agreement about what we are all doing here and why we are enjoying it. He has specifically pinned down the nouveau ironique as his target market. It is not a menacing consumption. But it sure is hell is weird. In fact, I think he might be making fun of us.