Essay: Isn’t it ironic?

Postmodern music culture is defined by the thorny issue of irony. In his second column, Adam Harper discusses the uses and misuses of the idea, and wonders what we talk about when we talk about music we love.

Irony is one of the sentiments that’s supposed to characterise our postmodern age. Especially, it’s supposed to characterise the stance of the ‘hipster’ (whoever that really is). Last week the American satirical TV pundit Stephen Colbert introduced the indie band Grizzly Bear on his show by warning that listening to their music ‘might cause spontaneous ironic moustache’. What is an ironic moustache?

If we define irony in the most famous way, like Merriam Webster does with its second definition, as ‘the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning’, then the ironic moustache of this hypothetical Grizzly Bear fan would be expressing something other than or opposite to what appears literally. What does a moustache literally mean? It doesn’t denote anything in particular, but it has connotations – dictators, 1970s and 80s cop shows, late nineteenth-century bourgeois gentlemen, rural Americans, ‘retro’. So according to the definition above, the ironic moustache would say ‘I might look like these stereotypes, but actually I’m the opposite’. And why would you want to be the opposite of these connoted stereotypes? Perhaps they are culturally undesirable – unfashionable maybe, anachronistic perhaps.

But it certainly gets more complicated than that. It doesn’t seem like bands like Grizzly Bear and their ilk, and their fans who reportedly sport these ironic moustaches and the lumberjack plaid shirts that often accompany them, are simply making fun of rural Americans. Admittedly it can be argued, quite reasonably, that some of these ‘hipster’ fashion trends – trucker hats, ‘child predator glasses’, anachronistic or kitschy T-shirts – are making fun of rural and working class Americans by transplanting the less-than-glamorous apparel that comparatively impoverished circumstances have dressed them in into a deeply fashion-conscious context in which they become incongruous in the extreme (‘opposite’). This is certainly a very important concern to note, but can we really tar most of indie pop with this ugly and cynical brush? For over a decade, much of the music and imagery coming out of US indie pop has been focused on rural America, on a Romantic, folk America, on an America of the past that used different technologies and wore different clothes and had different ideas. An America that was more likely to wear a moustache. All that passion, longing, and digging through history – was it all a huge joke at the expense of another socio-cultural class?

There are some other definitions of irony that have more in common with Romanticism than the more postmodern one given above. Merriam Webster’s other definitions are ‘incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result,’ and ‘incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play’. This latter is described as ‘tragic irony’. It’s related to the definition Merriam Webster calls ‘Socratic irony’: ‘a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning’. What is the ironic moustache incongruous with under these definitions? Perhaps it’s the present-day norm, and its continuing presence on the upper lips of Grizzly Bear fans is a poignant reminder of a bygone age and a forgotten people, an alternative to what rules the present. With these definitions the ironic moustache becomes naïve and tragic. This, we might say, runs no less risk of exploiting and gentrifying the mustachioed ‘Other’ for all its sincerity, but it does approach a constructive cultural manifesto.

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I don’t think that there’s been as much irony-as-opposite contrariness in much recent indie and underground music as many people suspect. I think a better way of putting it might be ‘distance’. Distance suggests more of a continuum of difference between two things than ‘irony’ does, the latter often suggesting a stark superposition of opposites. Rather than being infinitely ‘sincere’ or infinitely ‘insincere’, we float and shift somewhere between the two, negotiating, understanding, accommodating and travelling these distances as a sort of cultural journey, an experimental shift of the self into new territories. Of course, it’s vitally important that these territories should be truly our own, and not colonisations of a ‘distanced’ but all-too-real group of human beings whose freedom of expression we could be confining and simplifying through this process. But this, I think, is the more subtle way of understanding retro-pop, lo-fi, hauntology, hypnagogic pop, and the various apparently kitschy musical expressions that have been knocking about lately.

In the past few weeks I’ve been listening rather a lot (rather more than I should be proud to admit in this current socio-cultural context) to a sweet and quite technically accomplished album of chirpy 80s-90s library music by Eyeliner called, indicatively, ‘High Fashion Mood Music’. Lots of people will find the music grossly shallow and repellent. So was I listening ironically? Well, apart from the fact I’ve never been able to grow any kind of moustache, I actually don’t know. Of course, at first I was like ‘haha, what a well executed pastiche of an egregious reference point,’ and I was reminded of Peter Serafinowitz’s comedy character Brian Butterfield, a tragic-comically unsuccessful, confused and aging entrepreneur. But after a few listens, I’d gone in too deep – and Eyeliner had clearly gone to too much care and effort – for this musical experience for it to be a simple, cynical, irony-as-opposite affair. I began to see the appeal of the simple emotions and harmonies, and notice the cleverness of the musical constructions in (what you might call) their own right. The same goes with the Miracles Club music video – quite how ironic, how opposite to what you’re doing, can you be if you’re dancing and smiling like these guys are? Is there no ounce of genuine enjoyment there, or is all of it really an elaborate pop at something they’re setting themselves in opposition to?

I used to think in this much starker superposition-of-opposites way about these musics, but listening to them carefully – artists like John Maus, the 100% Silk artists, James Ferraro lo-fi and hi-fi, and lately INTERNET CLUB, 情報デスクVIRTUAL and the rest, many more, and now Eyeliner – it becomes clear that nothing quite so anxious or dissonant is happening. It is simply a continual testing and enlargement of the self, its faith and its aesthetic ideologies, across a distance that shifts with listening. Well, actually, it is simply music, and that’s what music does.

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LAST WEEKEND I was in the huge audience that attended the London Contemporary Orchestra’s performance of William Basinski’s ‘The Disintegration Loops’ at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, where I experienced a double irony. Basinski’s ‘Disintegration Loops’ is a series of tape compositions made when Basinski was transferring some old analogue tape loops of orchestral music to digital. So old and frail were the loops, however, that as they were played, the material began to fall off them bit by bit, with each loop recording less and less music to digital in turn until there was nothing left. There is a beautiful and tragic irony to these pieces, because they portray in visceral detail the collapse of a system that was supposed to render the music permanent and infinitely repeatable, and the destruction of the music along with it.

Yet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, two of the ‘Disintegration Loops’ had been transferred from the digital recording of the disintegrating tape to an orchestra. Now the London Contemporary Orchestra was playing these short phrases over and over again, and reducing them bit by bit until there was no-one playing any more. Yet there was a bizarre irony at work here too. You might suppose that the orchestral context was simply a means of performing the music in a live context, and that furthermore this highbrow context brought it to an apotheosis under the auspices of traditional, great Art (tsk). But what this orchestration did was disintegrate the composition still further, even as its scoring for orchestra would appear to render it a permanent fixture in the museum of Great Art Music.

Because it was scored for human performers, and not the practically infinitesimal continuum of magnetic tape, its rhythms were drastically simplified (‘quantised’) to an underlying quaver or semiquaver pulse, making the whole thing feel very rhythmically regular, as if it was calmly marching towards its own demise and not spilling entropically, appallingly, over the human measurement of time and into the chaos of the void. Similarly, the orchestra had much less control over the erosion of sounds and timbres than the tape machine had, resulting in the strange approximation of tape crackle through drums and percussion (again, largely on-beat). The work had been changed, translated, bottlenecked through the orchestral score system, becoming a different animal. And yet the audience truly roared with appreciation at the end, most of them standing up and slamming their hands together as hard and as quickly as they could. Was it the essence of the piece they were applauding, the ideal of it, the ghost of the piece that shone through, winking in the audience’s memory, even after this orchestral disintegration and mangling? Or were they applauding this latest tragic exemplification of its material frailty?

Adam Harper is an author and academic. His latest book, Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making is available through Zero. Joshua Armitage is a London-based illustrator, whose work can be found on his website.

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