“Postmodernity proposes cynicism and irony as adult attitudes, signs of maturation beyond nursery innocence.”
The above line came from a tiny article featured on First Things, a website serving as a companion to the print product of the same name that typically addresses, of all things, religion. “Christmas: Cure for Cynicism and Irony” was the name of of the piece (George Weigel, 19 December 2012).
There is a bit of irony in that statement if you look close enough: a website devoted to spreading the word of God makes one of the most accurate observations on the precise idiom that most of today’s generation loves to practice. The irony comes when you consider how fashionable it is for those very Gen-y’ers who feast on cynicism to be questioning one’s faith, the afterlife or anything of the sort in today’s version of popular culture. One has to presume that the frequency with which such God-fearing questions are debated both privately and publicly has been on a steady increase in the last, say, 50 years or so.
But that’s where we are these days: We have become a world founded on promise and run by skepticism. Nobody trusts anybody. The smartest person you know is yourself. Being surprised is viewed as a weakness. One-upping isn’t just an annoying thing beer commercials can glamorize—it’s a real, honest aspect of everyday life. And the art of sarcasm has become so embedded in our fabric that it’s become refreshing to hear someone actually speak honestly about something they actually like.
In essence, it all boils down to this: The abundance of irony these days has devalued our ability to objectively consider our own preferences.
An example of such comes with the barrage of year-end lists that all of us have both consumed and concocted over the last month. Not only do we all feel the need to let others know how clever we can be when composing commentary on our own favorite moments within a specific period of time, but we are also keenly aware of how readers’ perceptions of us may change after reading about what we consider “the best” of a particular year.
Case in point: In my own personal list compiled for a newspaper, I listed Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” as the No. 2 song of 2012. This, of course, initially scared the shit out of me, and subsequently continues to scare the shit out of me as I constantly continue to ponder my decision to put it near the top of the list. Why is that? Well, for example, I know that other PopMatters scribes follow me on Twitter and, much like the rest of us people trying to make a living by writing words, I always post links on my Twitter feed to pretty much everything I write. I also know that these followers are very, very smart, and very, very funny, and more importantly, I have also noticed that when they reference music in their tweets, they usually reference someone or something that isn’t particularly well-known—artists who are admittedly far more cool to like or applaud than, say, Carly Rae Jepsen. Thus, my trepidation comes when thinking about how my pick for the No. 2 song of the year would deem my own taste in music somewhat low-brow by people I both respect and admire.
How this pertains to irony specifically falls further into the journey of how I got to that fear than the actual fear itself.
“Call Me Maybe”, for the most part, was lauded for how much crossover appeal it seemed to have between the teeny-bopping, teenage girl crowd who love One Direction, and the all-knowing, pop music-loving set who still think Iron & Wine is interesting. It wouldn’t be unfair to speculate that the initial infatuation those in the latter group had with the song was based heavily on ... you guessed it ... irony. Initially, it also wouldn’t have been surprising to see writers dismiss the track as just another form of predictable-minded pop, even though its brilliance was centered most obviously within its simplicity. Or, in other words, “Call Me Maybe” probably isn’t the kind of music that the treasurer of the Bon Iver fan club can honestly enjoy without first calling it a guilty pleasure, for example, let alone make a concise argument for why it deserves to be among the year’s best in music.
The most indicative example of this argument comes in the form of Taylor Swift, who has proven to be the poster child for an ironic generation. Her appeal is her formula: Teen angst driven by heartbreak in the form of a young-adult novel. It’s a combination that everyone—everyone—can relate to on both a cursory and deeply personal level. Tight jeans or mom jeans, we’ve all had our hearts broken before. All it took was a few adorably genuine thank-you’s at awards shows, a run-in with the biggest lightning rod of a rapper the world has seen in decades, a penchant for Ryan Adams records, and boom: She’s become the one artist who has figured out how to please both lost souls and lonely teenagers in a generation.
But that didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of “I kind of like that new Taylor Swift song” utterances with nervous laughs before she truly crossed over from being ironically celebrated to merely just being celebrated. That grace period where acceptance is unsure and legitimacy is questioned is a bitch, though. Just take a look at how long it took her to ditch the acoustic guitar for those stilettos she now can’t be seen without. That type of transformation can’t not be calculated.
Still, the question remains: Why has the current generation become so obsessed with irony and its usage? You could make the argument that social media and the sprawling technological advances of the last 20 years are to blame, but that’s too easy. Teenagers have always loved going through the point in life during which adding “sarcasm” to their arsenal of angst-y tools feels like a rite of passage, so you can’t blame Facebook or Twitter for what has become the accepted evolution of the human kind. Sure, those thoughts are now far more accessible than ever and the personalities behind them are more likely to think they are much more sophisticated for it, but it doesn’t seem fair to blame the cause of this trend on the current swath of outlets for impersonal communication—attitude and lifestyle issues always run far deeper than a mere advancement in culture.
So, where do we go? How do we change course and head back to a time when honesty was accepted and expected, and judgments and perceptions weren’t so damn ... weighty? Of course, I’m as much to blame as anyone for this irony epidemic—I have a Twitter feed that sometimes sees me (unsuccessfully) try to be comedically dry, I’ve been writing music reviews for about ten years now, and, maybe most importantly, anyone who knows me well knows that I am about as optimistic as a Chicago weather report in January. But even so, I can’t help but be bothered by the deluge in popularity of a cynical attitude and a critical eye.
Maybe the most ironic aspect of all this is that I’m not a particularly religious person, yet it took an accidental click of a mouse to stumble across the very quote this piece is centered around. Some might call it divine intervention, or the hand of God trying to reach out to someone with questions and quibbles about how the way things are.
Me? I’d probably just settle on “an accident.”
Wait ... there I go trying to be ironic again. Shit.
So many I’s. So little answers.