How to Live With Both Irony and Sincerity

Replacing One Extreme With Another

Last week, a bunch of my Facebook friends linked to a New York Times editorial by Christy Wampole called “How to Live Without Irony.” In every case, they had nothing but praise for the article. Not surprising, I guess — bashing hipsters is practically a national pastime at this point. But I found a lot of what Wampole had to say disturbing.

For starters, let me say that I agree that people sometimes use irony as a shield to avoid taking responsibility for their statements and opinions. I’ve said many times that it bothers me when people say they like a movie or album “ironically,” because it so often means “I just plain old like it, but it’s not cool for me to admit that I do.” But Wampole isn’t calling for a better balance between irony and sincerity; she’s asking people to move from one extreme all the way to the other. Her article is called “How to Live Without Irony,” not “How to Live Without Excessive Irony.” She speaks in a positive tone about attempts to “banish” irony, not to counterbalance it. She praises four-year-olds for having “not the slightest bit of irony” in their lives, rather than praising adults who can see the value in both sincerity and irony, and who understand that they can coexist in one person, one artwork or one feeling. She even refers to irony as “ashes” that must be “dusted off.”

This article isn’t just condemning a culture that’s forgotten the value of sincerity. It’s advocating a new one that would be 100% sincerity and 0% irony. But culture is not that simple, and it shouldn’t be.


You Can’t Escape Referentiality

The basic problem is that Wampole fundamentally misunderstands what irony is. You can see this in the way she talks about clothing. She criticizes hipsters for having clothes that “refer to much more than themselves,” and advises people to ask themselves if parts of their wardrobe can be “described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype.” But here’s the thing: unless you have so little money that you effectively have no choice about what clothes you wear — and it’s clear that Wampole is not addressing her article toward people who fit that description — then all clothing choices refer to more than themselves. No matter what you wear, you’re taking part in a cultural signification process that assigns meaning to everything. By not acknowledging that, Wampole is essentially saying that if you wear something that was popular and fashionable in another decade, you’re guilty of excessive referentiality, but whatever is popular and fashionable now is just “regular” clothes, so if you wear those, you’re off the hook. In other words, conform to the dominant style of 2012 or be accused of hipsterish insincerity!

All this reminds me of something I’ve noticed in the New Music world. If a composer uses harmonies, timbres or melodic figures that evoke something from another era or from some kind of popular music, people call it “borrowed material” and very often suggest that it’s not the composer’s “true voice.” But if a composer uses harmonies, timbres or melodic figures that sound like Lachenmann or Ferneyhough or Saariaho, that’s not called “borrowed material” — it’s called “working in a tradition.” There’s really no difference between the two scenarios: they both involve a composer adopting aspects of the language of someone else’s music. But, as with Wampole’s argument about clothing, people who go along with the default expectations of the culture are able to do so without scrutiny, while people whose tastes are out of sync with the dominant aesthetic, who seek inspiration in some other cultural domain, are assumed to be doing something inauthentic.


Double Awareness

Wampole reveals an overly simplistic understanding of irony again when she asks: “Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?” Why does she assume that you can’t really like something and also find it absurd? Often things are lovable precisely because of their absurdity — think of the wildly over-the-top dance sequences in Busby Berkeley musicals, or the glorious overabundance and self-contradiction (sex appeal meets women murdering their boyfriends, avant-garde fashion meets blatant product placement) of the video for Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” People who love things like this aren’t just laughing at them, the way people laugh at The Room — they love them sincerely and also recognize that they’re ridiculous.

And that’s what irony is in general: a double awareness. It doesn’t prevent meaningful communication, as Walpole claims; on the contrary, it adds new layers of meaning. This is true no matter what kind of irony you’re talking about: when you hear a sarcastic comment, you’re aware both of its literal meaning and of its true meaning, and when you see a tragedy, you’re aware both of the protagonist’s fate and of their blindness to it. The same thing applies to irony in the arts. Frank Zappa doing doo-wop is not just a parody, but also a tribute, and sometimes a biting social critique too. JacobTV clearly gets a huge kick out of, and sometimes finds real pathos in, the American media culture that he cuts up and rearranges. When I was at Stony Brook a couple of weeks ago, Jason Gerraughty asked me if Liebeslied was a critique or a tribute, and I said, “Both!” I love 1950s crooner ballads, and I also think they’re creepy. In fact, I love them partially because I think they’re creepy. And that means that my experience listening to them is richer and more complex, and the piece I wrote in response to them more aesthetically nuanced, than if I just-plain-old-without-a-trace-of-irony thought they were beautiful.


In Defense of Nostalgia

Wampole also objects to hipsters indulging in nostalgia — both nostalgia for times they never lived in, and nostalgia for the present moment. Distrust of nostalgia runs high in New Music circles as well — I remember that when I interviewed at Northwestern, Hans Thomalla remarked about Imogene that there was a lot of nostalgia for the 80s in our generation (he’s less than ten years older than me), and that he thought it was dangerous. But nostalgia, like irony, adds new layers of meaning to the world. Yes, it can be used in damaging ways, from damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn dismissal of contemporary popular culture to the Republican Party’s idealization of 1950s social values. But there’s also something beautiful and powerful about looking at the past aesthetically. I personally have a very strong aestheticized sense of my own childhood, and it’s been a catalyst for a lot of the music and text that I’ve written. I know better than to conclude that the late 80s and early 90s were some kind of golden age, culturally or otherwise — but imagining them that way has turned out to be very artistically productive.

And clearly I’m not the only person who feels that way, because historically, a lot of great art has been motivated by nostalgia, from the opening of Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons to Poulenc’s wistful tribute to Mozart in the second movement of his Double Piano Concerto. Likewise, a lot of great art succeeds precisely because it captures the world with an aestheticizing lens that’s very much like being nostalgic for the present. Has anyone captured the cultural mood of the early 2010s, with its confused and contradictory relationship to technology, as well as Gotye in “State of the Art“? (Of course, the song is also something of a comment on 1950s technophilia, but there you go — additional layers of meaning. I get chills every time I hear the line “these amazing simulations end up sounding even better than the real thing,” partially because of the alarming overabundance of meaning contained in that seemingly straightforward sentence.) In fact, one of my goals in End, the opera I’m very slowly working on, is to approach the present in the same abstracted, aestheticized way that I approached the 80s in Imogene, the 50s in Liebeslied, the 60s in Party at the Last Resort, and the 1820s in Late Beethoven.