Broadly speaking, irony is the rhetorical strategy of saying one thing yet meaning another, usually the opposite. It also might be the most abused trope of our time. It has exceeded substance surpassing style and elevated into the absurd over the authentic. It’s been a “get out of judgment free” card for as long as I can remember. It’s an escape route, an exit strategy, a way off the hook in any situation, and it’s become the dominant mode of pop culture.
In his book, The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue (Wayne State University Press, 1997) Will Kaufman defines irony fatigue, the promise of play colliding with the pursuit of truth. He discusses Bill Hicks, for example, having to edit lines from his twelfth, unaired appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, maintaining his Warrior for Truth persona, yet claiming all the while that they were “just jokes.” He didn’t mean to offend because he was just kidding. Having it both ways is perhaps impossible for a figure under public and media scrutiny, but what of the coffee shop denizen? Does she really think her David Bowie mullet looks good on her? Is that guy really into Cher enough to wear a tour shirt from before he was born? Are they for real, or are they joking? Why is everyone so veiled in irony? In a recent New York Times article on living without such artifice, Princeton Professor Christy Wampole writes,
Ironic living is a first-world problem. For the relatively well educated and financially secure, irony functions as a kind of credit card you never have to pay back. In other words, the hipster can frivolously invest in sham social capital without ever paying back one sincere dime. He doesn’t own anything he possesses.
Wampole goes on to cite generational differences, the proliferation of psychotropic drugs, and technological connectivity as reasons for such ironic expressions, but three major cultural epochs came and went in the meantime: cool became uncool, the nerds had their revenge, and stark sincerity was pushed to its breaking point. One was already faltering when we got here. Personas that used to be cool, classic cool, like James Dean, Elvis Presley, or John Wayne, now evoke laughter. Resorting to irony is the only response that quells the cognitive dissonance of such images. No one can actually be like those people. Between the death of the cool and the ironic now, the geeks rose up to rule all and emo culture came to the fore allowing young men to reveal their emotions in a sort of reverse feminism. We all know the story of the geeks. Theirs was a rise to riches, an underdog having its day. But the emo kids never enjoyed such empowerment.
In America’s post-9/11 cultural climate of mourning, confusion, anger, and uncertainty, the emo subculture slipped into the mainstream as a way for young men to express and deal with their confusion, where they attended shows “to feel better at the end of the night instead of bruised” (Greenwald, 2003, p. ix). The music and the open wounds let young people mourn in public. As Andy Greenwald (2003) put it while attending a live show by emo band Dashboard Confessional at New York City’s CBGB club in November of 2001,
The city is unseasonably warm and wary—what happened two months before still hangs heavy, but not heavy enough to weigh down the enormous anticipation that’s building inside CB’s scarred innards. Before the show, I run into a friend who attends NYU. She laughs, “I never figured you for an emo kid,” she says. “Me either,” I answer (p. ix-x).
He describes his friend as, “twenty-one and three years above the room’s median age” (p. x), framing emo culture as a teen phenomenon. It’s a culture of kids who haven’t “thought the deep thoughts yet—they’re too caught up in their own private drama and they’ve found a music that privileges that very same drama—that forces no difficult questions, just bemoans the lack of answers” (p.55). Post-9/11 America might have been about forcing the difficult questions, but it was just as much about bemoaning the lack of answers. And emo made either one okay. Coming of age already leaves teenagers feeling uprooted, un-tethered, with no home, and no sense of belonging. The feeling was only exacerbated by the events of September 11th. Now, not only were their bodies and relationships changing in unprecedented ways, but the world was doing the same thing. This lack of roots provides the backdrop for the mainstream emergence of emo culture. Emo allowed dudes to be as sappy and sincere as they wanted to be. “If we stay with the sense of loss,” Judith Butler (2004) writes, “are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear?” (p. 30). The feeling of being only passive and powerless is at the core of emo culture. Butler (2004) continues,
Or are we returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? Could the experience of a dislocation of First World safety not condition the insight into the radically inequitable ways that corporeal vulnerability is distributed globally? To foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way (p. 30).
Where emo culture folds in under the weight of affect and uncertainty, Butler urges us to follow it outward. All of these tribulations may seem trivial, but, as Jaron Lanier (2008) writes, “…pop culture is important. It drags us all along with it; it is our shared fate. We can’t simply remain aloof” (p. 385). If pop culture is just recycling plastic pieces of the past, where it is dragging us? Simon Reynolds (2011) draws a parallel between nostalgic record collecting and finance, “a hipster stock market based around trading in pasts, not futures” (p. 419), in which a crash is inevitable: “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivatives and indebtedness” (p. 410-420). After all what is emo if not punk-rock chocolate dunked in goth peanut butter?
Popular culture is the testbed of our futurity.
— Kumayama in William Gibson‘s Idoru
For better or more likely for worse, what emerged from emo culture was the cult of irony. In the ennui of the everyday, we no longer strive to be sincere or cool, but coldly ironic. Nostalgia for simpler times but times not taken to heart is our default stance. Filters on digital photos that make them look old represent not only longing but the undermining of that longing. It’s irony fatigue filtered in Sutro and framed like a Poloroid.
To live in the image of irony is to avoid risk. It means not ever having to mean. Wampole writes, “Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks.” You don’t even have to be cool, geeky or emo, but you can if you want to.
Butler, Judith. (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.
Gibson, William. (1996). Idoru. New York: Putnam, p. 238.
Greenwald, Andy. (2003). Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Kaufman, Will. (1997). The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Lanier, Jaron. (2008). Where Did the Music Go? In Paul D. Miller (Ed.), Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 385-390.
Reynolds, Simon. (2011). Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: faber & faber.
Wampole, Christy. (2012, November 18). How to Live Without Irony. The New York Times, p. SR1.