June 2, 2023 - 4:31pm

When asked to comment on several controversial jokes he made earlier this year on The Adam Friedland Show podcast, The 1975 frontman Matty Healy (and Taylor Swift’s latest boyfriend) told the New Yorker that it didn’t bother him. “It doesn’t actually matter,” he said. “Nobody is sitting there at night slumped at their computer, and their boyfriend comes over and goes, ‘What’s wrong, darling?’ and they go, ‘It’s just this thing with Matty Healy.’ That doesn’t happen.” Addressing those who claimed they were hurt by his views, he insisted, “You’re either lying that you are hurt, or you’re a bit mental for being hurt.”

Reactions have ranged from Twitter users expressing their “depthless horror” and  “demanding” that Taylor Swift dump “that thing”, to rapper Azealia Banks warning Swift about catching various diseases from him.

The debacle over Healy’s provocations is emblematic of the continuous tension between what in the ever-ironical internet jargon is known as the “based vs. cringe” paradigm, which at its core involves conflicting modes of sincerity.

Someone who is overly earnest or sentimental is “cringe”, as is someone who is trying too hard or is ostentatious about their politically correct moral convictions. Someone who is “based”, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to “call a spade a spade”, and coolly defies moral and artistic conventions. This is not to be confused with neoconservatives and reactionaries like Fox News and Daily Wire commentators, Andrew Tate, and Elon Musk, whose overly earnest attempt to “own the libs” renders them painfully cringe. Rather, someone is only “based” when they make politically incorrect statements from a position of apathy, giving off the air that nothing actually matters.

The popular touchstones for this attitude range from high culture to the grungier artforms: philosopher Camille Paglia’s take on middle-class white girls, singer Morrissey, Michel Houellebecq novels, “alt-literature”, The Adam Friedland Show and other podcasts associated with the “dirtbag Left” like Red Scare. This eclectic group is not fazed by opposition or insults (a la Red Scare co-host Dasha Nekrasova’s viral “Sailor Socialism” video, in which she made a mockery of her Right-wing interviewer), or of blowback when they utter ironically intended slurs like “fake and gay”.

Some have critiqued the imperative to be based for being decadent and self-indulgent. Critics such as Sylvie McNamara and Andrew Marantz have dismissed the hosts of dirtbag Leftist podcasts in particular for sowing the seeds of nihilism. Others like Joshua Citarella maintain that based culture’s ironic, contrarian posturing is simply a means of coping with the dread that comes with living in a pessimistic, atomised age. In a recent Rolling Stone op-ed, Taylor Lorenz declares that she takes pride in the sincerity of being cringe as an antidote to said apathy. Yet, to my mind, she appears to misdiagnose the nature of both the illness and the cure. 

The ironic detachment associated with basedness requires humility and a form of self-abnegation — I must reach a point when I realise that I’m not the source of meaning in the universe and that my sincerity will not, in fact, solve the world’s problems. Without doubt this can develop into a form of nihilism (which at least doesn’t mask itself as something other than what it really is, like being cringe does). But it can also lead, as Healy’s comments demonstrate, to rediscovering what actually matters most in life: “dealing with how my mum’s feeling” and “trying to be in service to people”, rather than losing yourself in internet squabbles.

The truth is that Healy’s nonchalance, and the culture it springs from, have become a way of hinting obliquely at the most important parts of our existence.

Stephen G. Adubato writes from New Jersey, and is the host of the Cracks in Postmodernity podcast and blog on Substack.