The Definition Of Irony Is Ironic
Living with music in a post-ironic world.
In the Homerpalooza episode of The Simpsons, wherein Homer becomes a travelling, cannonball-withstanding carnie – one of my favourites, as well as apparently one of Matt Groening’s – a conversation between two dull-eyed youths at Lollapalooza occurs:
Teen 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Teen 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Teen 1: I don’t even know anymore.
It’s one great quote from an episode of great quotes. The episode is jam-packed with cameos – Smashing Punpkins, Sonic Youth, Peter Frampton – and it absolutely drips zeitgeist. At one point, Bart remarks that “depressing teenagers is like shooting fish in a barrel”, and after visiting a record store and discovering everything the kids are into, Homer remarks: “Why do you need new bands? Everyone knows rock attained perfection in 1974. It's a scientific fact.”
In my opinion, something that’s as important as the humour of The Simpsons – which was at its peak when the episode aired in 1996 – is the ability for the show to capture the idiosyncrasies of society, something that has been emulated by every primetime animated series since. Groening knew what he was doing when he put two, shrugging and angry young men on the screen. Lollapalooza was a defining musical festival for the mid-‘90s, for both good and bad reasons. Created by Jane’s Addiction frontman/notorious sexual deviant Perry Farrell in 1991, it was supposed to encapsulate the anger of the generation that gave birth to Mudhoney, Nirvana, The Pixies and so many other great bands. And all of those bands had something in common: they were all sick of the self-aggrandizing music industry and the over-the-top theatrics of music throughout the last two decades. It’s a well-established idea, albeit not necessarily subjective, that musicians donned torn jeans, plaid shirts and a “fuck you attitude” as a response to the often-painful showboating of rock stars with huge perms gyrating on stage.
Lollapalooza provided a platform for those artists to perform around the US. Farrell had a very clear idea of what he wanted from the festival: it was to be completely separate from the major label-guided music industry – which, by then, had become demonized everywhere – and was to further the aims of free love, free speech and free music that had beomce the defining cultural aspect of the ‘60s. It’s biggest drawing card: where festivals like Gathering Of The Tribes were one-offs, Lollapalooza would tour around the US and Canada. It didn’t exactly work out. While it started off pretty well, Perry Farrell’s peac-loving, all-participating festival was dead by 1997. Spin announced that Lollapalooza was “as comatose as alternative music is right now.” It had become a joke; hence, the Simpsons episode.
One of the biggest problems, arguably, was just how seriously musicians of the ‘90s took themselves. Zac De La Rocha, Eddie Vedder, Billy Corgan, the Gallaghers: all examples of the fact that, if you stick to your ideals godmatically, you’re eventually going to become ball-breakingly annoying. It was some kind of ironic, black-hole paradox. Forgive me for dumbing it down so much, but here’s the whole process of ‘90s alternative music in breakdown: the “rock star” aesthetic became a joke, musicians/culture rebelled against it, created “alternative culture”; alternative musicians tried to change the world, constantly proclaimed their idealistic views, ended up pissing everyone off, became a joke in and of themselves. The poetry of that is painful.
If the above Simpsons quote sounds pretty relevant today, it may just be because we’re finding ourselves in the same situation. No-one knew who was being ironic or not back then, and it’s kind of the same case now. And yes, this is one of those articles where the words “hipster” and “ironic” are bandied around like so many Bic lighters, but bare with me. While pop music pretty much reigned supreme from the turn of the millennium, the old “rebelling against pop decadence” trope hasn’t really happened like it did in 1991. Instead, we see a virtual melding of ideals and concepts in music. Musicians and the general listener alike were happy to take all the self-indulgences of pop music and twist them up into new, quirky beasts that have lead to the absolutely staggering amount of musical deviation we get now. There’s a few examples of this. First up, there was the first wave of the late-2000’s experimental musicians: Animal Collective, Neon Indian, Ariel Pink and, once again, so many great acts were born and made big from around 2007. Then there was the growth of alternative record labels, the eternally-cherished DFA Records being a big player. The important point is that they were all clear about their basis in pop or rock music, but their aim to put their own spin on things. We managed to survive the first decade of the millennium without too much irony.
But, yes, hipsterism became a thing. And I don’t mean the act of being a “hipster”: I mean the idea that being such has any delineable affect on the quality of music. It’s such a goddamned mire now: we’ve gone straight past the “this band is cool because you haven’t heard them” idea to the “this band is cool because they’re a worthless pile of shit” idea. It would be unfair of me to generalise this to everyone, but it has become a defining characteristic of this generation, as if we folded time between now and 1996. Steve Albini, the eternally outspoken almost-dickhead, blamed Lollapalooza for “making the alternative mainstream” and pretty much eroding all of those virtuous ideals; today, thanks to the internet, phones and every other piece of technology, those boundaries have not existed for a while.
Which is why we get acts like Danny Brown, Miley Cyrus and Flume. Sure, they might be worlds apart in terms of what they do, but in terms of the people who listen to them, how they listen to them and how often it happens, there’s not a whole lot of difference. I’m not going to talk about Miley Cyrus, because I’ve done that way too much in the past two weeks (I think I need counselling), but consider Danny Brown; if he had been making the music he is now 10 years ago, we would’ve have been laughed off stage. Same goes for ‘Lil B. Same goes for the umpteen “post-dubstep” acts you see around. This is not to doubt there quality or talent in any way; things are just different now. Where ten years ago it might’ve been seen as self-serving bullshit, we see it now as some quasi-ironic rebellion against the mainstream. Seem familiar? And, before you start arguing “but Miley Cyrus IS mainstream”, I refer you to Noisey’s great punk editor Dan Ozzi, and his article Miley Cyrus Is Punk As Fuck.
In the office I work in, we constantly have arguments about the merits of cherishing acts who tread a very fine line between being revolutionary and bullshit. True, the arguments usually end in everyone blaming everyone else for not understanding what irony is, but the point still stands. It doesn’t really matter anymore; ironic, earnest, mainstream, alternative are all the same thing, just with different avenues of exposure. Remember that, when Steel Panther become the greatest band in the world in 2015.