Sugar Shock #010: Irony, Honesty, and the Like-Like
t was a pretty well-worn stand-up comedy cliché even ten years ago to point out that Alanis Morissette’s “black fly in your Chardonnay” wasn’t really ironic—my favorite take is from Sabrina Matthews on Comedy Central Presents: “No, Alanis, those things are all unfortunate. Irony is naming an airport after the guy who fired all the air traffic controllers.” But I’ll drag it back out anyway, since Alanis has once again (arguably) failed to fully grasp irony in her recent “My Humps” cover (unless, like Black Eyed Peas, Alanis is really just doing self-conscious comedy and the joke’s on her, which might be the case).
What do we mean when we claim that our or someone else’s enjoyment of something is “ironic”? I’m not asking as a rhetorical framing device—I really don’t have a clue most of the time. What the heck was I talking about in April of 2005 after I first started listening to Skye Sweetnam, when I wrote this:
At some point in my initially jaded saturation with what would seem on cursory listens to be some fairly vapid stuff, I grew to, like, like it. Like, “like” like.This is bullshit. Skye is being ironic in “Billy S”; it’s a self-professed rebellion-song parody, and also very funny on its own terms, though not as funny as her best and maybe most ironic song, “Hypocrite.” But to know all of that, I would need to understand who Skye Sweetnam is and what her music is doing, and clearly, I didn’t yet. My point at the time, I think, was that I shouldn’t be presuming that my enjoyment of the music was ironic. More accurately, though, I was saying that I shouldn’t have been enjoying it and was doing so in spite of myself or against reason.
In part it’s because a song like “Billy S,” and by extension Skye’s persona, isn’t really meant to be “ironic.” My original assumption that it should be enjoyed in such a fashion certainly made me feel smiley smug, but it wasn’t valid analytically. Of course, I could point to aspects of Skye’s marketing strategy that perhaps suggest a certain cynicism—urging “rebellion” against mainstream “conformity” via ‘tween-geared feature-length sitcoms, for instance.
What was really happening in my mind basically amounts to a variation on a point I made in a previous column: I was instinctively making a social distinction (between myself and Skye, and between myself and the types of people who might listen to Skye or have feature-length sitcoms geared toward them), conflating it with my natural, intuitive enjoyment, and then building upon this amalgam. I was trying to construct a “reasoned” argument for “unironic appreciation” without examining my thought processes first. Why should a song’s vapidity preclude or obstruct my enjoyment of it? What about “Billy S” indicated a “marketing strategy”? What relationship did my enjoyment have to the ideas I believed Skye was conveying in “Billy S,” and what did cynicism—or irony—have to do with it?
I wasn’t thinking through the “like”-like part; I was haphazardly justifying my enjoyment after the fact. Well, of course justification comes after the fact: 1 – Do I like this? 2 – Why? Unlike “like”-like or its opposite, which can occur unconsciously (“I don’t know why exactly, but this song makes me want to ram a fork into my cornea kill kill kill”), justification needs to be based on an argument. It’s not something you can “pull out of the air”—the place where Marc Hogan claims dishonest opinions come from in a recent conversation we had about Truth in Music Criticism. Invoking irony helps to suggest, but tactically skirt, the question of “honest” enjoyment: it’s a word that has come to be synonymous in pop culture commentary, depending on how it’s employed, with sarcasm, dishonesty, or removal from a direct relationship to music or its audience. Like labeling something a “guilty pleasure,” professing ironic enjoyment keeps us from getting (comfortably) inside a given piece of music, or—as was the case with my initial reaction to Skye—from getting closer to the artist or her audience.
To be blunt, the claim that any musical enjoyment might be “ironic” or “dishonest” has no relevance in any productive discussion about music. You could replace “ironic enjoyment” with “conflicted enjoyment,” which, when examined, subsequently reveals certain ironies about your relationship to the music: often I return to music that irritates me because it irritates me; the initial reaction of wanting to jam a fork in my eye can signal the potential to fall in love with a song. In my experience, something that provokes such an intense but unjustifiable negative reaction suggests there’s something worth figuring out in it.
I’ve noticed this exact reaction among people who initially hated but later grew to love “My Humps,” and it’s a reaction I had myself to “London Bridge” when it first came out. This changed as I began to understand Fergie on her own terms, just as many listeners came to enjoy “My Humps” on its own terms the more they listened to it, or listened in a new context (in the Girl Talk mash-up with “Heartbeat,” maybe, or while watching the video, which is how my girlfriend and I both fell in love with it). And there’s always the possibility of someone else analyzing their own enjoyment of music you hate, thus potentially reversing your relationship to it. Still, in these examples—all based in the seeming contradiction of not being able to really like something until you’ve first disliked it intensely, and possibly irrationally—the state of enjoyment itself is never ironic or unironic, honest or dishonest; it just is.
Internal irony, on the other hand, is a major reason I enjoy so much teenpop music in the first place, and it’s often the ironies themselves that help me to distinguish the music as teenpop. Along these lines, Jody Rosen recently wrote that “the defining feature of post-Lavigne teenpop is its adult pretensions.” His phrasing is condescending and his alleged irony is that these performers are really just kids spouting “psychobabble,” whereas I think these artists are accurately conveying the inherent ironies of adolescence, their newfound sense of independence and expected adoption of adult responsibilities paired with identity crises and increasing distrust from adults, usually leading to more vigilant regulation.
I love how all of these conflicts play out on a small scale, song by song. Ashlee Simpson has “stains on her T-shirt” and she’s “the biggest flirt,” but she also has to change out of her boyfriend’s old shirt when she spills coffee on it and wants to spend the rest of her life with her one perfect soul mate. Ashley Tisdale has a hard-swing club track, “Not Like That,” whose premise is that she’s not the kind of girl who goes out to clubs. In “I Am One of Them,” Aly and AJ want to righteously “empower” potential child victims of random kidnapping (all children, including Aly and AJ) by presenting the outside world they see on the news and “outside their door” as a threatening environment, ultimately advocating kids to stay “on alert” at all times.
Teenpop is full of these sorts of ironic contradictions, and for the most part, the performers are “in” on the irony, too—they usually had a hand in writing the songs. Often the impact of the music’s internal contradictions is lost on listeners because they’re finding irony externally in deigning to listen to it at all. They end up analyzing backwards: something must be strange or wrong with enjoying “this sort of” music “honestly,” so now let’s figure out what it is. What many non-enthusiast casual or reluctant listeners of teenpop (or, say, mainstream country) are looking for is a sense of controlled, distanced enjoyment—justifiable appreciation—to match their control and distance from the artists and from the people for whom the music is intended. But for me, the deepest laughs and the deepest listening—that which offers the richest personal experiences and sparks the most exciting conversations—came when I finally tried to meet Skye and Ashlee and Aly and AJ on their own terms, when I realized that they were still a step ahead of me. I was so “clever” I missed how funny they were, so “deep” already I didn’t bother to dig.
By: David Moore
Published on: 2007-05-23