Irony in music

Last updated 10:22 12/12/2012

The inmates are running the asylum this week - once again. You'll remember I asked you to Right This Blog! With that in mind please welcome Joe The Boxer

As ridiculous as this may sound, I would like you to think about David Hasselhoff in a serious way.

Here is a guy who has had huge success. He starred in two of the biggest TV shows of the 80s, and is reportedly the most watched TV star ever. He was also a big pop star in Germany with two No 1 singles, all while maintaining a respectable stage career. Then something happened. The culture changed around him and he began to be viewed differently. His life, his history, his successes and failures, began to catch up on and devour him. He became a joke, a signifier of a certain type of cheese; a representation of modern kitsch. Rather than fight, Hasselhoff decided to go along with it, and willingly became "The Hoff". He did this primarily because there was money in it, but also out of a desire to stay relevant, to be seen as self-aware, to be "in on the joke" (the joke presumably being his own life). The Hoff

The reason I bring Hasselhoff up is because I think he mirrors what has been going on in popular culture in general in the past 25 years. It is no longer enough to do whatever it is that an artist does; they have to be able to see themselves through the eyes of others, to anticipate public perception, to be "ahead of the curve". Because of this, an increasing amount of artists have raised their eyebrows knowingly, put their tongues in their cheeks and, like the Hoff, embraced irony.  

I think that this is a bad thing. 

American writer David Foster Wallace once pointed out that at some point in the mid-1980s, championed by American comics such as David Letterman and later taken to another level of influence and popularity by shows like The Simpsons, a new dominant kind of worldview emerged, characterised by cynicism, sarcasm, and the use of irony. These traits had been around for many years before, but had now emerged as the most relevant form of social commentary among hip young people. At the time, it was a fresh and vital part of culture. The Simpsons was the best example. The first six or seven seasons were easily the most influential cultural product of my generation. The humour served a vital purpose of exposing the bulls**t of everyday culture, particularly the falseness of institutions such as Hollywood and the advertising industry. Irony as a form of expression seemed to have something to say. These attitudes quickly came to influence popular music; through the cynicism of grunge (example: this Rolling Stone cover), or the irony of Britpop (example: this music video).

However, fast-forward 20 years, and irony is still going, stronger than ever and gathering speed. Like Hasselhoff, popular culture has become consumed by itself, being lapped up in waves of double meaning, in jokes, and hollow pretensions of intellectual superiority. It has been apparent for a while now that the use of irony doesn't mean a person has something important to say about the world, it is really just a way of appearing to have something to say, while being completely apathetic. It doesn't stand for anything at all, in fact it makes a point that having any kind of concrete opinion is a waste of time.

Irony is a wide-ranging concept, and it is still hard to define exactly what it is (Alanis Morissette was way off), but Wallace defined what it is about irony that is so destructive:

"Make no mistake; irony tyrannises us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is based on an implicit 'I don't really mean what I'm saying.' So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it's impossible to mean what you say? Most likely, I think, today's irony ends up saying 'How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean'."

BonIn this environment, an artist like Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, with a history and reputation of being genuine (e.g. the cabin in the woods story) can't play it straight. He has to feel the need to play against type by releasing an exercise video, to show that he realises it is all bulls**t ("it" presumably meaning "everything"). He is showing that, by voluntarily lampooning his own image before anyone else, he is somehow ahead of the curve. This may look to some like an innocent, light-hearted stunt, but it's not. As Bob Dylan has done many times, it's a way of creating distance between himself and his fans, of shining a light on them and asking "why did you ever believe me in the first place?"

Its not just soulful balladeers getting in on the act. Ke$ha's Die Young music video features all the usual current pop staples - 90s Euro-techno, Auto-Tune, gyrating women - but also pentagrams and upside-down crosses. On the surface it's a rather blatant attempt to make Ke$ha look controversial, but it's also a way that she (or her marketing team) can show her self-aware and clued-up side. Again it's a very cynical and overly intellectual exercise. The result is that it takes something with powerful inherent meaning (satanic imagery), and makes it as meaningless and bland as Auto-Tune pop music.

Maybe this kind of thing is clever, and maybe it isn't, but here is what I want to know: if irony is about showing you are in on the joke, what exactly is the joke? Is irony a way of indicating that you have ultra-sophisticated opinions, or is it a way of showing that you don't have any opinions at all? If irony is the image that you choose to project, then what is behind that image? Irony itself suggests intelligence; but is there anything there?

This irony thing shows no signs of slowing down - that's evident with every "weird for the sake of weird" tattoo, trucker beard or crap band T-shirt that I see walking around the streets.

On an everyday level, use of irony seems to have become a way that people hide their real personalities, to guard them against the harsh judgments of public life. For example, someone could write in the comments section below that this blog is a load of crap, to which I could respond "Aha but that's where you have got me all wrong! It was all an ironic prank! I'm actually brilliant!" At which point you have full permission to imagine yourself punching me in the face. And here's something to think about: ironic humour may one day date this generation to this particular time in history, the same way that a Benny Hill sketch dates the mid -0s.Vid

Another writer, Chuck Klosterman, said "nothing is ever in and of itself", meaning it is impossible for anything to just be what it is, that everything is a symbol, a representation, a reference to different parts of culture. And I guess that's true and unavoidable. However, the next time you see a picture of the Hoff, look into his eyes: beneath the layers of kitsch, double meaning, and cleverness, just under that slightly raised eyebrow, behind that knowing stare, is a real human being .

I'm not sure what replaces cynicism and irony, or if people being completely sincere and meaning what they say all the time wouldn't be equally tiresome in the long run. But a big part of me hopes that in the future, we will once again be able to see things just as they are.

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