Like yoyo’s, Pogs and spinning tops it emerged, and has been sustained by various agents, as a sort of fashionable craze throughout the last decade. Unless we acknowledge its presence it will destroy creativity, stifle sincerity and propagate a crippling self-awareness among artists and musicians. I am talking about irony.
It seems that the flavour of the moment is cynicism with a hefty pinch of piss-take. It can be overt in cultural phenomena such as the geek-chic fashion movement, “Do you need those NHS glasses or are you wearing them ironically?”. It can be covert and used to excuse misogyny, crudeness and violence, “He doesn’t mean it, it’s ironic, don’t you understand irony?” is oft scoffed in defence of Robin Thicke. It needs to be reigned in, not abolished, just controlled.
Post modernism catapulted irony into the forefront of public consciousness when art seemed stuck and stale, constricted by classical rules. At the time it was needed as a response to this perceived insipidness, but that was 50 years ago and now it seems tragically ubiquitous and saturated.
Nick Knight and Kanye West’s recent collaboration in the music video ‘Bound 2’ exemplifies this brilliantly. Re-appropriation, in the form of sampling, green screen backgrounds and the shameless objectification of a female body set the visual signifiers. Then come the lines “I wanna fuck you on the sink, then I’ll make you a drink, step back, can’t get spunk on the mink” all serving to litter the track with a sense of irony-as-excuse. Add to that rutting on a moving motorbike and sweeping aerial shots of wild horses until you can’t move for great torrents of mockery.
Knight and West are engaging in ironical ball-swinging as if to intimidate artists afraid to be seen actually caring about something. I don’t blame or even rebuke the perpetrators, if you’re so easily intimidated then toughen up. By no means do I want to abolish the phenomenon, I do however feel the need to draw attention to it and open the doors a little wider for its criticism. It has become passé.
At the opposite end of the see-saw sit Mumford and Sons. From their rural, folksy, granddad outfitting to their catchy, grand ensemble choruses, there is nothing overtly offensive about them. They seem to truly believe that they embody their oeuvre without even the faintest whiff of sarcasm. And I envy that. I’ve never been able to fully explain my dislike of their music but I am becoming aware that it might be because I, a victim of the irony era, am intimidated by their overpowering lack of cynicism. It’s a quandary I believe wouldn’t exist without these creeping fingers of irony invading our every judgement, it’s confusing. Maybe it has little to do with the above and I am merely cursed by the unfortunate British trait where we cannot abide rapid and exponential success. Whatever the reason, I just think they’re shit.
I used to play drums in a band, we were part of the lo-fi, London guitar music circuit and it was there that I saw perhaps the most tragic outcome to all this, a fear to appear sincere. No one dances to live music in London anymore. Head bobbing, yes. Chin stroking, maybe. Toe tapping, probably. No matter how kicking the beat, how screaming the guitar or how catchy the melody, it is seen as a weakness for the audience to lose control. We are constantly guarded and worried that what we are doing might seem too genuine or emotionally charged, both facets lacking in the rules of irony.
Pablo Picasso said “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up”. He is referring to the lack of self-awareness inherent in a child. A quality missing from many musicians and artists today.