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.

Top songs of 1980

Stream a list like this or just…look at it. Take in the hit songs from the year when you were the age that your children are now to understand something deep and wordless about their inner lives. About music and the inner life in general. This is eleven years old for me:

Top Songs of 1980, from Bob Borst’s Home of Pop Culture and Web Development

Deborah Harry, Lipps, Inc.’s “Funkytown”. When these songs were on the radio—and they were all the time—I’m sure I acted like “This is silly”. This is gooey. Kim Carnes? “Bette Davis Eyes” 1?? They were silly. They sound even sillier now, in fact, our aural standards being what they are, the state of recording and producing being now what it is. They can sound a little tinny. Innocent, but not in a good way.

But they didn’t then! Just seeing these song titles and remembering what music was doing to me then, how exciting and lush and limitless and powerful it was. It’s so funny, because this particular magic circuit was completed by some shit little clock radio in my room. But I would weep about these songs! I would fling myself on the bed. I would karate kick my full-length mirror to the opening riff of J Geils band’s 1982 hit “Centerfold”, to the B-section of Billy Joel’s 1980’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

As you get older you can get sort of walled off from your own experience and the experiences of others, maybe especially your kids. Like you know better, or feel more. For me, Olivia Newton John and Captain Tennille are great teachers, their songs instruments of empathy.

1 Blondie Call Me
2 Pink Floyd Another Brick In The Wall
3 Olivia Newton-John Magic
4 Michael Jackson Rock With You
5 Captain and Tennille Do That To Me One More Time
6 Queen Crazy Little Thing Called Love
7 Paul McCartney Coming Up
8 Lipps, Inc. Funkytown
9 Billy Joel It’s Still Rock And Roll To Me
10 Bette Midler The Rose
11 Rupert Holmes Escape (The Pina Colada Song)
12 Gary Numan Cars



  1. I’m ranging around a bit in the years now, to 1982, when I was thirteen, which is maybe a different thing, and maybe a very different thing, using the little arrow buttons in the pop chart site above



Is there any better sign of our own alienation than the modern residential featherflag, formerly “elegant”, now ubiquitous, cheese-ball, festooning the front lawns of our would-be neighbors, marking our houses and our neighborhoods not as homes but as markets, as fungible goods?

It seems loony to object to them. Residential for-sale signs are harmless, right? Realtors gotta work. Couples need way-finders for their aspirational weekend home tours.

I think if we really saw them for what they were doing, we wouldn’t allow them. They change the neighborhoods they appear in. Flatten them. They diminish the very things they are advertising!: the single, soulful, peaceable, not-for-sale family home, the quiet lane, the natural setting, the refuge from run-away consumerism. Isn’t that what homes are?

Maybe smart phones will replace these blighting outdoor ads with more useful screen-based location-aware real estate apps. Then you can just see the houses, drive by, feel less like a comparison shopper and maybe see residents looking and feeling less like accessories.