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??
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.