Rick Astley and Nirvana

What is irony? Maybe the most pragmatic thing to say about irony is that it allows us to experience and enjoy things without risking ourselves. We seem to need irony right now: How would we post-moderns enjoy the bubbly incandescent pop of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”, or the old world zen of mustaches and cucumber pickling, without irony as a guide—or a shield?

Isn’t it also irony that has shown us this new, real truth: the bubbly incandescence of Nirvana! (See Astley/Nirvana mashup below.) We thought Nirvana was the opposite of pop, man! They destroyed pop with their anarchy-sweater-wearing cheerleaders and chromatic bass lines, didn’t they? Wasn’t that how it went down??


Nirvana vs Rick Astley – Never Gonna Give Your Teen Spirit Up

Some say that irony is a feature of decadence, of 1920s Berlin before the rise or the Third Reich, or the end of the Roman Empire, or our own current era. Expended, we turn back on ourselves and use the instrument of deprecating irony to hide in an environment of public display and weary, thoughtless indulgence. In decadent, exhibitionist periods—or maybe any period—irony protects the fearful and the sensitive and the ashamed. And aren’t all of us all of these things?

Irony allows us to enjoy more of the world. It’s like a heat shield that permits us go into the burning houses of cheezeball pop or our own nostalgic burning hallways and pull out the things that speak to us, which we’re otherwise afraid to represent.

Thank God for irony! How could I admit to you how much I like the music of Level 42 unless I leave open the possibility that you may interpret me to be speaking ironically. We lack the forthrightness to explore things outside of our experience, or things lodged deeply in our experience, to remember them publicly, and so we use the subterfuge of irony to get to these places in some socially acceptable way.

Photo of Justin Bieber in a headlock


I am not the first to note the beauty and composition of this photo of Justin Bieber apparently being strangled by fellow club-goer. Not nearly. It was a bit of an internet meme, yielding mash-up photos like this, in which Bieber and his people are placed within a Renaissance milieu in what are shown to be striking similarities of form. Maxim wrote a piece called This Photo of Justin Bieber Getting Choked in a Nightclub is a Work of Art. I have not read these, only seen enough in the Renaissance compositional analysis vectors to know that I want to think my own thing about this before I read those, most of which are just waggish, hucksterish pieces anyway, I think. Everything’s a zinger joke.


And that’s how memes go. Memes are so quick they’re like Higgs bosons 1

The photo itself is mesmerizing. Because it’s Bieber and seems to be real, captured, and just inherently beautiful. It doesn’t look like it came from any paparazzo. It’s active, candid. Colorful. How could a photo this good have been made without…more…intent? Forget the mash-ups. Just look at the photo as it is! The indifferent ring of clubbers, going about their own social lives, the centrality of Bieber’s face, Christ-like, even the hoodies and trendy Flex-fit baseball caps on the onlookers seem…ancient. Byzantine. The people around him are a perfect throng. (And are there twelve figures in the frame?) The mix of races and sexes, the various angles and attitudes of composure, leisure. It’s a perfect photo. Not a thousand words but ten thousand.

This deep burgundy backdrop, with just a few swatches of contemporary club color, like the purple blotch in the upper left quadrant. The iconic swirly painting or acoustic tile or whatever it is behind Bieber. And especially the man in the gray hood, Judas-like, looking on with what seems like an approving, almost conspiratorial will as Post Malone goes for the glottis. This figure is even more central. The figure of our complicity or our malice or our complacency.

Who is the photographer of this masterwork? Is it real?


  1. The half-life of the Higgs particle is so quick it’s measured in something called a yoctosecond; I think this is why it’s significant.