And yet, as anyone who has listened to popular-ish music with a discerning ear has found, the harsh truth is that pretty much every musician ever is situationally lame when you hold him or her to the light, except for maybe Tom Waits, who pretty much stands up to all scrutiny. Can I defend those butterfly wings that Sufjan wore on tour? No. No, I cannot.
For a thousand reasons, I think irony is the most treacherous territory for artists of all stripes. Consider the following analogy, a cautionary tale of two masters:
Misfits : Danzig :: The Smiths : Morrissey
Of course, Danzig has never even been within reach of the sophistication or sophistry of Morrissey. But can’t we agree that both are individuals who became too enamored of their own invented personas? Who eventually found it impossible (instead of difficult) to discern self-loathing from self-love?
I imagine that Those Who Rock make certain choices at the get-go. Let’s call it the Sincerity Problem. Within this context, irony couldn’t be more misunderstood; like a good man, it’s awfully hard to find. Consider Pavement, who were at one time, I believe, the posterboys for irony. Across an uneven catalog, they remain one of my favorite bands ever, but apart from a few lazy jabs on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, were they ever really ironic at all? To me, irony is so much more than rolling your eyes while singing gibberish in a sincere sort of way.
Is irony actually…emo?
I suppose I believe that true irony is at least a little emo, a confessional mode tempered with a healthy dose of self-loathing—not a generalized self-loathing, mind you, but self-loathing vis-à-vis the confessional mode itself. You have to be both vested and disgusted for it to work. This is what marks the difference between every high-school cutter and Sylvia Plath:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
Irony, like all constructs, is something artificial built around something all too real, which is, I believe, why Morrissey chose to sing about pretty much every bad feeling ever while sporting a pompadour hairstyle:
And talk about precious things
But the rain that flattens my hair
Oh, these are the things that kill me
Life is very long when you’re lonely.
All to say: there’s a fine line between keeping it real and saving face. In my own ironic aspirations, Smiths-era Morrissey is my star and guide. Sometimes, I’m a dorky sort of Cemetry Gates-Morrissey; other times, I’m a snot-dripping trainwreck Speedway-Morrissey. More often, I’m a snarky Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others-Moz. Someday, I hope to sing something complex yet totally unabashed—There Is A Light-Moz. That song is maybe the perfect thing.
And yet. Here is where I write the 100th post about why Los Campesinos! is top: they build a bridge between all these traditional iterations of irony—quasi-irony (gibberish), self-loathing tendencies, and snarky egotistical rants. Whether they’re mocking the inherent ridiculousness/awesomeness of dancing (You! Me! Dancing!), personal catharsis (“My Year In Lists”), or suicide notes on livejournal (“This Is How We Spell HAHAHA”), they always have something interestingly aloof yet sincere to say. And while I relish the sociopathy of lines like:
I hate the stench of coffee on your breath
And I hate to feel its warmth against my neck
I am also delighted by the We-Are-the-World vibe of the following:
And we roll our eyes
And we do these things in unison
That is pretty much my vision of world peace—bonding through mutual disgust.