The world is becoming more and more complex, and so is our relationship with pop music. Where irony has always clearly brought a prominent layer of ambiguity to our collective musical consciousness, early in the 21st century we have arrived at another stop: the ambiguous station of post-irony.
Written by: Hugo Heinen & Durk de Vries
Image: Jasper Boogaard
It is hard to understand that Don Cherry, trumpeter in the legendary quartet of free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, agreed to Lou Reed's request to join his band in 1977. In the late 1970s, Reed surrounded himself with black musicians and his work was influenced by jazz, blues and R&B. Three years earlier, the "fucked up middle class college student" had already expressed his appreciation for black music traditions in "I Wanna Be Black," a controversial and apparently racist tribute to a life the white New York singer-songwriter knew he would never lead. "I Wanna Be Black" is a parody of the way white America viewed the black community. A never-released live album named after the song would even have had a cover photo of a black-faced Lou Reed eating a watermelon. Lyrics like “I wanna be like Martin Luther King and get myself shot in the spring” are of course highly debatable, and “I Wanna Be Black” is often written off as a form of somewhat tasteless irony. It seems impossible that Reed meant what he sang, but the soul arrangements (with backing singers) on the live album Take No Prisoners (1978) suggest otherwise. Lou Reed shows a confusing step beyond irony, in which his personal desires and musical expressions are so crudely expressed that it seems as if they cannot be real. In this article, we trace this trend in popular music and try to get a grip on post-irony.
As the showpiece of the counterculture, popular music has been closely associated with irony for decades. Lou Reed's New York and issues of sexuality and ethnicity are inseparable from irony; the rise of punk and new wave there in the 1970s is a textbook example of this. Valuing "bad" taste and "low," controversial culture as an aesthetic style is often described as "camp," a term popularized by Susan Sontag in her short essay Notes on Camp. It's easy to cite "queen of camp" Cher as the ultimate example, but camp is more nuanced than glittery dresses and autotune. Consider, for example, Debbie Harry, a former Playboy bunny, who embraced the derogatory term "blonde" thrown at her by drivers and found her band's name: Blondie. As cherry on top, the band also presented themselves as the punk reincarnation of the girl groups from the 60s.
Combining derogatory, pastiche and plastic elements from popular culture and thereby adopting an artistic identity, that is camp. In the Netherlands we knew Tedje & De Flikkers, a punk pathetique ('pret-punk', or 'fun-punk') band that presented themselves in such a cliché and rude way that their exhibitionistic and shocking performances could be seen by the inattentive listener as an insult to the gay community instead of activism. However, because three members of the band themselves were homosexual, it was clear that they appropriated the term 'faggot' in an ironic, critical way. The other extreme is of course also possible: The Village People named themselves after the Greenwich Village, the epicenter of gay culture in New York, and presented themselves as ultra gay to make their point. Lead singer Victor Willis and "Leatherman" Glenn Hughes were as straight as one can be.
For a definition of irony, the book Irony's Edge (1994) by Linda Hutcheon offers a solution. This Canadian author described irony as a process of constantly switching between two perspectives. As with the well-known duck-or-rabbit illusion, both perspectives can never be seen at the same time. According to Hutcheon, this ambiguity is an inherent part of an utterance that is seen as ironic. Irony is not a passive rhetorical stylistic device with which a fixed message can be conveyed: the confusing effect that irony entails is an inherent part of an ironic utterance. Even with this definition, however, the problem of interpretation continues to play a role. How do you determine what an artist really means by a song? To solve this problem, Hutcheon introduces the discursive community: the whole of the artist, audience and cultural context that is jointly responsible for interpreting an artistic expression. Communication between these three parties determines whether irony is involved, and if so, what is actually meant by a certain piece of music. Irony is therefore not so much in music itself, but is produced by the community and is therefore pre-eminently dependent on context.
Irony in pop music throughout history has focused primarily on the phenomenon that Kalefa Sanneh canonized in The New York Times in 2004 as "rockism": the belief in rock music and its masculine, white ideology and identity as the universal standard by which all popular music should be measured against. It is an idea that has not yet completely disappeared. The exaggerated emphasis on authenticity in rock music (the idea that everything has to be live and that a performance validates the artist's ability on record) is countered in ironic music with an attitude that is deliberately not blatantly sincere. Pop music with an ironic streak is above all a statement or attitude against the dominant music culture, which of course does not mean that it cannot provide a 'real' aesthetic experience.
Usually, in response to rockism, the idea is put forward that pop 'is allowed again': poptimism. Carly Rae Jepsen on Best Kept Secret? At the first edition in 2013, it was unthinkable, in 2019 it happened. However, the phenomenon of poptimism cannot be explained solely by the simple claim that people are done with rock music, or that pop music has come out of nowhere with a newfound appreciation. The rise of poptimism goes hand in hand with a shift in the approach to irony in music.
Post-irony is not the same as non-irony, i.e. sincerity. Some of the aspects that define irony and postmodernism, its breeding ground, survive in the post-irony style. The 'cut-and-paste' of aesthetic styles and values by way of pastiche, in which there seems to be no attention to chronological or place-related coherence, is the most striking example. Romanticizing and longing for the past, which Simon Reynolds (2010) described as 'retromania', also characterizes both irony and post-irony. Irony and post-irony are difficult to distinguish based on 'sound' alone. Despite the fact that Karel, our Dutch John Maus, is completely absorbed in his performance, it is difficult to determine to what extent he takes himself and the cheap synthesizer tracks straight from his iPhone seriously. As with irony, in this context it is important to look at the intentions and use of music, both for the artist and the audience. Ironic music is often very exaggerated and playful, leading to the self-conscious appropriation and exaggeration of a certain aesthetic. There is no naive appreciation but a certain interaction between the listener, what the listener hears, and the artistic intention. Importantly, despite many controversies and misinterpretations, it is generally clear that one is dealing with irony. Although Rammstein dresses up as neo-Nazis and Holocaust victims in the recent video for "Deutschland," the band does not identify with Hitler's ideas. "Deutschland" and the shocking images in the video are clearly a critique and parody of nationalism. Controversial and taboo? Yes, sure - but clearly not the band's sincere body of thought.
With post-irony, however, this is quite different. The contrast between authenticity and irony fades, so that it is unclear to the public, but sometimes also to the artist himself, what values a work conveys. This also means that post-irony is by no means easier to understand or more accessible than irony: “the meaning is vague and words like 'post' and 'irony' tend to indicate annoying people”, Vice once wrote about the phenomenon. New sincerity, the return to 'sincerity', is often seen as the logical step that comes from irony. The German philologist Raoul Eshelman (2008) describes it as a 'performance' of sincerity: because of the many reflexive layers irony has added to our thinking, sincerity has always been invented and never really 'sincere'. Of course, this is not to say that the effect of post-irony cannot be the same as that of 'sincerity'. New sincerity is only half the story, but it is an important step in understanding post-irony. Post-irony combines the 'sincerity' of new sincerity with the playfulness of irony, concealing the boundary between the two. While it may seem contradictory, post-irony can be both "sincere" and ironic, but it will never be clear which of the two prevails.
This uncertainty and ambiguity of post-irony can sometimes cause problems. As mentioned before, irony in pop music has often been linked to counterculture. In particular, artists who today would be known as part of the LGBTQ+ community have used irony and camp to shape their own identities, in response to the more dominant, "serious" and masculine rockism. This has changed with post-irony: artists you wouldn't necessarily consider among the LGBTQ+ community have also started to use irony en masse as a stylistic tool. It's not hard to imagine that it can lead to frustration or even problematic situations when heterosexual, white, male performers appropriate the expressive resources of other, marginalized and oppressed groups, and are also unclear about what they want to achieve with this.
A good example of this is the occasionally flared discussion surrounding the Australian Kirin J Callinan. Take, for example, the clip of "S.A.D.", a single from his third album Bravado (2017). In the video we see an extremely androgynous Callinan, on top of a tractor, who has his hair braided by Cuban locals and shows the viewer his private parts several times. Combined with the song itself, you may wonder how seriously we should take Callinan. There is something distinctive about the way the song is presented, but the instrumentation would fit in the Top 40 at least as well in terms of aesthetic references (eurodance, classic rock) as it does in Pitchfork's Best New Music category. Due to the high comedy content and the abundance of references, a song like 'S.A.D.' actually falls into a musical no man's land and in that sense embraces the pastiche of acts such as Tedje & De Flikkers and The Village People. But for what purpose?
The absence of a political motivation behind Callinan's sometimes controversial artistic choices seems to have upset some groups. Because what exactly is the joke when you, as a white, straight man, show your genitals - not only in your video clips, but also on the red carpet of the Australian ARIA Music Awards? Or that you joke about gender roles, when you are not the person who is bothered by how those gender roles work? Who do you help with that? Are you not actually confirming what you claim to criticize (namely, "toxic masculinity")? Arguments like these contributed to Kirin J Callinan being removed from the Australian Laneway Festival lineup in 2018 after another booking, Miss Blanks, complained about his presence at the festival. Callinan himself claimed to have no bad intentions in response to the Laneway discussion, but does that really matter?
At many times Callinan's statements don't help at all in understanding his music. In an interview with The Feed - in which both Callinan and the entire film crew are completely naked - he describes his own work as 'repulsive', 'grotesque', 'humiliating' and even 'pointless'. When describing Bravado, he says the presence of humor doesn't have to mean the album is a joke. No, Callinan emphasizes that he is dead serious about his artistic work. It's this post-ironic ambiguity that causes Callinan problems. With the absence of a clear interpretation context, irony can go in all directions. Some people will find Callinan hilarious. Others will argue that he uses "humor" as a mask to ridicule vulnerable groups, no matter how offensive his material may be: "It was just a joke right?!" This is where the danger of post-irony lies: in the absence of a clear context.
As the example of Kirin J Callinan shows, post-irony focuses on confusion. It stems from a hyper-awareness of the ways irony works, changing both the interpretation and production of music. It is an interplay between serious and ironic; so it can be interpreted as both, not one or the other. Has an artist like Carly Rae Jepsen become cool through her music, or as a joke, because she's the singer of the no-nonsense 'Call Me Maybe'? Probably both. The question of why anyone would appreciate something that music snobs and diehard rockists would see as superficial pop returns post-irony to the questioner: why not?
In the 1970s, Lou Reed presented us with a musical textbook example of post-irony with 'I Wanna Be Black', but due to its ambiguous and dual meanings, post-irony seems pre-eminently a phenomenon of our time. It fits perfectly between new phenomena such as fake news and memes, all firmly rooted in an anonymous internet culture in which the lines between real and fake have become blurred. The (unknowingly) adoption of a post-ironic attitude is also not without risks: misinterpretation is always lurking, and the consequences of this are by no means always foreseeable. Still, it pays to keep one's ears open for signs of irony and sincerity (and especially the confusing interplay between the two) if one wants to understand contemporary culture through music. You will probably not find an unambiguous meaning. Ambiguity makes post-irony what it is. Or, in the words of Kirin J Callinan himself: “Confusion's exciting. It's when you don't understand that your eyes light up, electricity starts racing. If you knew what was going on all the time it would be a pretty damn boring existence.”