The Meaning of Irony

As a Generation-X’er, I have a special claim to irony. After all, it was our generation that started it in the early 90s with films such as Reality Bites or Henry Fool, and books such as, well, Generation X by Douglas Copeland. With cultural institutions such as religion and the grand march of Western Civilization on the decline, we just had a wonderful bonfire making fun of it all, until it finally burned out.

I never really thought about what irony was, just that it was really fun to do. It had something to do with staying on the surface, not putting yourself at risk, giving things a punchline. I think Umberto Eco  defines it well, as the instinct to say “I love you madly! As Barbara Cartland would say”. Everything sincere was actually not. We put on western clothes, or worker’s clothes salvaged in thrift stores, with our weird hairstyles to show the world we didn’t mean it. My first concert in 1985 was the Cure in Hollywood. To this I wore a 1950s prom dress and 50s stiletto pumps with my spiked and bleached hairstyle. I was listening to harsh nihilistic music wearing an outfit that a 50s debutante would have considered a “dream come true”, but a 1960s hippie would have laughed at. To me it was meaningless, as well as all the emotion it had undoubtedly left in its trail, being accepted, getting the date, rebelling against the establishment. To me it was just thrift store clothes, weird because no one else had them.

90s sub-pop t-shirt “flower sniffin kitty pettin baby kissin corporate rock whores”

We gen-x’ers had a good couple decades of irony, mostly with clothing, but also with emotion. We were like little children watching a love scene, but making fun of it to not feel icky. I remember a sub-pop t-shirt that said “flower sniffen kitty pettin”…well you get the idea. It basically juxtaposed the long haired Seattle stoner against all of all these sensitive images so the meaning was obvious.

But today I heard 2 songs that really represented irony to me. Well actually one song, and that song is “Jolene”. We all know Dolly Parton’s famous version:

She instills it with beauty and poignancy. It’s tragic and so true.  She hates this woman but is in awe of her. She knows when she’s been beat. Women compete with each other over beauty and many are not afraid to steal another woman’s man and wreck her life, “just because she can”. No matter what the #metoo movement says, the ability to touch a man and through her emotions and summon his is a woman’s true power and always will be.

Parton’s performance is anything but ironic. In fact, I doubt that Dolly is or was capable of producing anything ironic.

Then I heard another version, by Strawberry Switchblade, an early English elecro pop band that I like a lot, mainly, and ironically due to their synthesizer sound and over-the-top 80s hairspray and makeup look.

Yet Strawberry Switchblade doing Jolene? 80s postmodern punks HATED country. It was the essence of middle America that we wanted to do away with. Yeah, but maybe in England it was a different attitude, or maybe Strawberry Switchblade just had guts. Maybe they heard the simple, folky, and sad chords of Jolene and heard it as a folk song. They are from Scotland and the folk traditions of bluegrass originate in the UK. Good for them for being brave and not so jaded.

When I first listened to Strawberry Switchblade’s version, audio only, I was laughing. And laughing at this song was pure irony. But also empowering, like laughing at Jolene herself or any woman who could be a threat. Switchblade took such a chilling image of human jealousy, betrayal and triangulation and made it into a very synthesized piece of plastic, with flat vocals devoid of emotion. But then I watched the video a few hours later and realized they did intend for it to have emotion.  They took Jolene absolutely seriously when they made it. And it is emotional when you see the video. And anyone who reads my blog knows that I believe 80s music and video is inseparable.

So Parton’s Jolene with the ability to move your emotions, or Switchblade’s Jolene withe ability to make you feel distantly and mechanically powerful? In this world of endlessly multiplying references, I find myself seeking out irony less and less and trying to get back to the emotion that irony tries to ridicule. Now being able to express that emotion will be my challenge.

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