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.

I Hate NJ

Update 2018 – I don’t hate New Jersey anymore. Actually I haven’t hated it in a long time, and the accent has grown on me too. I was grumpy the day I wrote this post, fighting with my boyfriend or something (but I still think most Springsteen songs sound like a truck commercial)

I’m in a very negative and honest mood today. The truth is – I hate NJ. I have been living here for the last 10 years. When I came here, I thought it was New England. I had lived in Boston for 3 years and liked it there. but I quickly learned that this is not Boston.

Why do I detest NJ?

Weather. It’s either freezing, like this winter which has been endless, or in the summer it’s a sticky swamp. There are a few pretty seasons in between, and the leaves do get pretty in the fall, but it never lasts long enough.

Another lovely day in Edison, NJ
Another lovely day in Edison, NJ

People – Sorry. I hate you guys! People here have the worst accents. It’s nasal and harsh. I hope never to get one. Men and women around my age segregate themselves, according to ancient Turkish law or something. The women sit around and talk about cooking. Men talk about sports. Young men talk about trucks or games. Bruce Springsteen is a safe musical conversation choice for everyone. NJ people are just rednecks who do not live in the country.

The problem with the people of NJ is that they think these are great topics.

What do I want to talk about? How about video art? How about the books of Milan Kundera, or the music of Joy Division, or Radiohead, or Amanda Palmer? How about old buildings? How about the movies of David Lynch?

At least in other places that were dirty and industrial, such as the Soviet Union, or North of England, or Detroit, people hated it there and that led to interesting movements in art or something. Here in NJ people mostly just live with it and go to the mall, or Florida, so nothing interesting comes of it and nothing changes.

Potholes – The NJ Department of Transportation estimated 300,000 potholes that need to be repaired after the endless winter of 2014-2015. They are still there, and they are ruining my car.

Surroundings – There is nothing worse than NJ in the winter. Did I mention winter? First of all, NJ has bad planning. Anyone can just build anything anywhere. So they put businesses in houses and houses in businesses. Then there are power lines snaking in and out of everything. Then most of Central NJ is paved over and full of traffic, oil and litter that people throw from their cars. The combination of disentegrating houses, torn up sidewalks, dirty snow and litter all over the place makes winter into a fossil fuel mess, so I usually just stay indoors.

I wish I could give this a happy ending or at least make it a learning experience. The only thing i would say is – what if I liked everything all the time, and everything was happy, all the time. Yeah, that would be hell, too.

I Want My E-Mail!

Remember email?  I love email. I think that the email format is a great way to get to know someone in our busy world. You can express complete thoughts. If you email at work, it does not look conspicuous like facebook or texting. You can do it on your break! If you hate your keyboard, a better one is cheap and you don’t have replace the entire device! Texting is nice for working out plans or sending an occasional “hi”, but it’s not a good way to have conversations. Have you ever gotten a text from someone like this?

“Hey! How are you doing?”

That is just annoying.

Now you have to reply “Fine!” or else type in a bunch of stuff on that tiny keyboard. And texting gives people excuses to butcher the English language. Email does not. There is no excuse. You are basically using the same device that Sylvia Plath used when he wrote “The Bell Jar”, yes, right before she committed suicide. You are still here, aren’t you? Stop whining then and take a minute for punctuation and proofreading! And with all that time you have left over, go read The Bell Jar. It is an awesome book.

Oh, and what about the wonderful world of attachments? It’s all there for you in email. You can impress your correspondent with a link to an obscure and edgy music video, a photo of yourself, or just a long and badly formatted joke that has been annoying everyone on the Internet for months (well this defeats the whole incognito-at-work advantage).

I love voice. Don’t get me wrong. Talking on the phone can be great. But not at 10:00 p.m. when my kids are in bed and I am finally sitting down to unwind. Phone calls are nice on weekends when there is time to relax but for mid-week communication, I choose email. Do I sound like I’m trying to talk you into something? LOL ;-DDDDD.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G3tyZ00JOjY&feature=BFa&list=PLD7B328FBC7BAC7B3&lf=mh_lolz

Shop ’till You Drop

Yesterday was NOT black friday. It was just a fairly cold Saturday. Actually it was pretty warm, too warm for late November. I took my kids to the Cornelius Low house, a mansion on River Road where there was supposed to be an exhibition on New Jersey’s Gilded Age with turn-of-the-century objects and information on Thomas Edison and history. The Low Mansion was closed and locked, as it has been most times I have visited. In fact, I’ve never been successful at visiting an old historical mansion here in New Jersey. Sometimes I think it’s because the state is heavily in debt and doesn’t have the money to fix roads and bridges, much less staff cultural sites.

On the other hand, nobody seems to mind this. In fact, most people I know have no interest in cultural sites or any of that nonsense. They know what they want to do on a weekend. They want to shop!!!! On the days up to Thanksgiving eve, most of the conversation I heard was about bargains. Specials on jeans at Wal-Mart and laptops at Best Buy and diamond earrings at Macys. Everyone was gearing up to go to the mall the day after Thanksgiving.

Then Black Friday, the long awaited day rolled around. The traffic was really light throughout much of New Jersey, except for the malls and big box stores, where there were reported to be long lines of cars. People were lining up in tents outside of Best Buy on the day before Thanksgiving, so they’d be the first ones in when the doors opened at 4:00 a.m. on Friday morning.

And the most extreme case of shopping frenzy came from the WAL-MART in Long Island, where frenzied shoppers broke down the doors of the store, stampeded inside, and trampled and killed a stock clerk on their way in. Reportedly, they kept shopping even after they knew he had been trampled and was receiving CPR. Way to go America!!! Shop till you drop!!!!!

Why do people want to shop as a pastime when they have a house crowded full of junk already, which the never use? Why do they shop when their credit card bills are way over the limit and they are drowning in debt? I’m guilty of this too. I love to shop. However, lately I’m in the process of buying a house. Therefore I’ve been determined to keep my credit card under a certain amount. So I’ve been taking a breather from shopping and spending money. But the questions I ask about shopping are also questions I ask of myself.

I think shopping is an addiction. We shop because we feel out of control in our lives. Our house may be messy and crappy, with lots of unfinished projects and work that needs to be done, not to mention all the junk we buy lying around. We sit around arguing and complaining. The stress levels are high in bad economic times. The mall is a beautiful place where everything is fixed up just right and life is good. A good deal gives immediate satisfaction and a feeling of control. And the shopping/debt addiction is tolerated by our society who just laughs it off as a silly weakness. Imagine us treating other addictions like this! “Drink ’till you drop!” or “take drugs till….” yeah you get it…

Anyway, I like to get out of the house too on a Saturday.  It would be great if there were options besides shopping here in New Jersey – a local museum, a children’s museum, or even an indoor playground like the former “Sports and Stuff” in East Brunswick. But these places seem to be dwindling or even non-existent as we opt for privatized activities such as shopping and “the mawl”

The Sadness of Techno

When I’m at work I like to listen to techno on Pandora. It’s not that I like techno. I don’t collect it or talk about it or get excited about it really. Techno does not turn me on or make me feel the artist’s emotional moods, like rock often does. Nor does it even relax me and put me in a good mood, like jazz does. But techno does have one property that I like – it’s good background music for computer programming. My flickering screen merges with the drum and bass and sort of downloads my brain effortlessly through web sites, google search boxes, terminal windows, multiple desktops, lines of code and even odd unix commands. I feel nothing. I am reminded of nothing. I just move and work faster in a flurry of beats and flashing and circulating windows and HTML layouts.
I feel nothing. Or do I? As I sat absentmindedly listening to Pandora today, it occurred to me that techno is very sad. Oh, it’s not intentionally sad like Lou Reed’s 1973 “The Kids” –

They’re taking her children away
because they said she was not a good mother
They’re taking her children away
because of the things she did in the streets
In the alleys and bars, no she couldn’t be beat
that miserable rotten slut couldn’t turn, anyone away

Now that’s sad, complete with children crying at the end. But it’s very literal.

And it’s not even sad like the early synthesizer songs, which sound sad to me because they are from a distant time when everything seemed hopeful and new and synth music seemed the key to a strange and perfect world.

Techno’s nostalgia is vaguer and more uncanny. It’s not the feeling of losing touch with one era, but with the entire history of human culture. All those tiny little beats and half-tunes and soulful but disembodied female voices work together to remind me of the entire history of pop music, fading slowly and collectively into the horizon. All those songs that remind you of getting laid or dancing in a club, or driving in your car, or getting stoned (or something else), or discovering some great new sound like punk or funk or rap that you think will set you apart from everyone at school and make you truly bad-ass. All those songs are leveled and reduced to one note each, millions of little bits-and-bytes in a futuristic digital map that pulls you in and then slips effortlessly and digitally just out of your reach. You can’t get a grip on it anymore, and that produces a strange longing for me at least.

The connection with recognizable songs is getting further and further out of reach too. In the 80’s when house and techno first came about, samples were longer and recognizable. The female vocalist sang whole songs, like “Gypsy Woman” with choruses and so forth. Or at least they sang whole sentences:

“I don’ want/a place to stay/get your booty on the floor tonight/make my day”.

Over time the samples became smaller. Now all you might hear is “make my make my make my” or even less…”ma-ma-ma” – but you’d still recognize the original song, or maybe you’d just recognize that it was once a song! The vocals are the saddest part of techno for me. The little barely audible bits still contain all the joy and pleasure – and therefore all the sad nostalgia – of the original disco divas who sang them but whose voices now seem to be on the verge of disappearing into the electronic sea surrounding them.

Techno is like being in a space craft and moving slowly away from earth. Like the continents, the samples become smaller and smaller and more unrecognizable. Finally you are left inside an almost entirely computerized environment looking back sadly at a distant impression of the human world that once surrounded you.

Of course the feeling of moving away from human music, or moving away from earth, does not need to be sad. It could be bright and hopeful, a fearless new post-human future on the horizon. Perhaps with time it will feel more brave and fearless. Then I will be standing bravely at the precipice of this spacecraft, moving toward my space destiny. But for now, I just feel too attached to the memories of all those sampled songs that are being left abandoned like empty buildings on the side of the freeway.

where the crowds aren’t

Today I got into the car, expecting to head up the Turnpike about 14 miles to the Jersey City Promenade and the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Boat Tour. Then, at the last minute, I reconsidered, got Camilla out of the car, put her in the stroller and instead took a walk across the Raritan River to New Brunswick. Instead of being out amongst the cars, distracted, glancing at billboards, and ending up in yet another crowded tourist setting, I walked around an old American city with lots of streets, sidewalks, trees and storefronts, and few parking lots.

New Brunswick is a town of 25,000, which boasts the old Rutgers Campus, Johnson and Johnson headquarters, a train station with trains to NYC, a downtown restaurant/shopping district, theatres, and lots of neat old dilapidated and unremodeled houses. The population doubles during the week, with students and JJ workers. On weekend days when the workers are away, New Brunswick is only the train station on the way to New York. There are no views of the Manhattan skyline and the museums aren’t very big. On weekends you see the locals – many of which are Oaxacan Mexicans.

But today I ended up in there. I noticed a particularly dark old brick house with a high pitched roof and white trim. I also noticed that the Moscow Symphony Orchestra will soon be playing at the NJ State Theatre, and I found a Oaxacan Taqueria that I mean to try some time. Other times I have visited the Mason-Gross Art Center (Rutgers art department) for exhibitions. In New Brunswick one can only wander, think one’s thoughts, and look for interesting buildings and side streets, but there are plenty of those.

There are other forgotten cities around here. Last week my husband’s green card interview brought us to Newark. There, parking the car in some back all-day lot, I was struck by very beautiful view of the backs of the buildings, complete with old fire escapes and vines growing up between the windows. It was breathtaking. Broad St. in Newark has some really glorious architecture, many turn of the century stone buildings, currently covered and obscured by cheap awnings and signs. They also have a new light rail, which is a nice way to see the architecture. The Philadelphia central train station is beautiful too, and feels just like one is in Copenhagen. Another abandoned New Brunswick site I love is Jersey Avenue, with its warehouses. I dream of starting an art exhibition space there someday.

Old train stations, student art shows, high-rises, hidden courtyards, warehouses and fire escapes. There is a completely seperate, and much more interesting world that exists away from the world of commodities. It’s the world one see while walking, from the window of the train, or in the older cities where there isn’t enough parking for Target or Wal-Mart to move in, and is therefore only home to small cafes and little odd shops where nothing you need can be found. I want to see more of this world, but for that I have to discipline myself, be patient and remember to visit these places and not just get sucked up in the New Jersey whirlwind of easy strip-mall shopping and weekend trips to Manhattan.

Tenement Reality and Tenement Chic

I have seen two tenements in the past two weeks, which is more than I usually see. There was a huge difference between the two, which, as usual, I will try to interpret from my typical bourgeois Marxist perspective. First, last week, we took a trip to the Tenement Museum in New York. This is the site of a formerly low-income apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where, for $15, you could take a 45 minute tour. Once inside, if you are lucky enough to have come without children (the Tenement Museum is extremely delicate and stroller-unfriendly. The walls may not be touched, for example), you find yourself in a decrepit, rotting building with layers of peeling paint and wallpaper, and the former inhabitants’ belongings, which resemble bad shabby-chic antiques. You stand in 3 rooms and hear about the poor worker-immigrant families who lived there.

It is sad to hear the squalid stories, but mostly it is interesting, and dare I say, cozy. Cozy? Yes. The Tenement Museum is a place where you can have a cozy intellectual and historical experience of poverty. You are in standing in the site of human misery, but are 100 years removed from it. There is no danger of being thrown into a vat of hot oil, or riding a dangerous elevator, or freezing or anything. In fact, apartments in the identical “tenement” next door are going for $4 million dollars, and there are “gourmet yarn” and handmade craft shops down the street, for upscale garment workers, presumably. It is so cozy, in fact, that they are planning a pub for the basement of the Tenement Museum, where rich New Yorkers can go and drink microbrew and soak up the tenement atmosphere at their leisure.

I saw the other “tenement” tonight when I went to look at a used futon couch that I am considering buying. This tenement was a modern-day version, the “Blueberry Court” apartments in Edison, NJ. Blueberry Court apartments are one of the most lackluster residences I have ever seen. It is joined to other complexes of crowded, ugly apartments with perversely inappropriate names like “Edison Manor”, etc. Here the streets were badly lit. There were no green spaces, just large parking lots. Many apartments were crammed together and materials looked cheap – wood panels and composite siding. I saw mainly Indian families walking in groups, some with strollers and little children, dodging the heavy traffic despite the dark sidewalks.

Large old cities like New York, London share a similar design concept which was looked down upon at one time, but which is now extremely valuable and desirable – urban density. Someone designed these cities with some thought. Though I’ve seen Jakob Riis photos of flimsey wooden shacks, most builders managed to scrape enough together to build many apartment buildings of brick or stone. But even putting aside the cost of building materials (which were probably skimped on back then too), the older tenement neighborhoods featured something that seems to have been lost – planning and public transportation. Someone thought out the need for walking streets and planned for parks and green spaces. The greatest luxury of older urban areas was of course public transportation, the subways and buses which linked neighborhoods and cities and seems to have become permanently unaffordable for today’s American cities. Shame.

On the other hand, places like “Blueberry Court” or “Edison Manor” can be described as “sprawl”. Streets are windy and impossible to find one’s way around. Buildings are flimsy and look as if they were the result of contractor graft. Huge parking lots stretch endlessly. The car is the only way to get around, because nobody wants to walk through an endless parking lot. Sprawl is the symbol of the energy-greedy, myopic world we live in – no planning, no green space, no foot traffic, no human contact.

We hate sprawl. But they hated tenements and cites 100 years ago, and now we think it’s great. So, in 100 years, our sprawl ought to look pretty good. The scary thing to ask is, compared to what?

the lesser best of

Through no (or little) fault of my own, two new CD’s have recently entered my collection:

  • The Very Best of the Eagles (this got into my house due to circumstances beyond my control. Alas I cannot get rid of it
  • The Very Best of Talk Talk (this I asked for so it was my fault)

Anyway, the funny thing about both of these CD’s is that they are called “The Very Best of…(such and such).” This seems like a goofy naming scheme. I mean, “The Best of” is clear. It lets you know that this is the artist’s best material. But, “The Very Best of”???. Is that, like, opposed to “The Not-So-Best Of” or just “The Best Of”. Should the two former titles be cheaper?

My guess is that record labels think “The Best of” just sounds stodgy, like a Paul Anka or Peggy Lee album, and therefore not befitting of hipsters like Talk Talk or (shudder) Don Henley.

To me, “The Very Best of” sounds like a bread commercial: “We use the freshest butter, eggs, flour, and lard, the very best of the farm to make the very best bread…” yada yada yada. It sounds like food marketing. It sounds corny.

As Peggy Lee said on her 4-disc “Best of” collection, Is That All There Is? No, probably not. Because now that people can pick and choose the ….er….best songs from ITunes or their friends, why in the world should anyone buy a regular back-catalog album again? Why should anyone have anything but a collection? In short, kids today have no time but “The Best” from rock stars of the past.

This in itself is a shame, as it takes a lot of music out of context. The music fan depends on the record company to put together a collection of “hits” for him, instead of hearing the music in the order the artist intended, the order of the original album. Also, as with much entertainment consumption today, it’s too targeted. The rest of the text (or record) disappears and all that is experienced is “the best” song or the desired information. Well, the other lesser songs may have been good too. The listener will never know.

But still, we must accept “The best” just as we must accept searching for information instead of reading a whole book to find it. It’s all we have time for! But at least record collections could have better names. How about –

  • Ten Songs By
  • or just

  • Enough Songs to Not Look Like a Total Ignoramus

look at mother nature on the run

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying
In the yellow haze of the sun
There were children crying and colors flying
All around the chosen ones
All in a dream, all in a dream
The loading had begun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun
Flyin’ mother nature’s silver seed
To a new home in the sun

After the Gold Rush, Neil Young.

If mother nature was on the run in the 1970’s, she is long gone by now. That’s quite clear given the pollution all around us, the heat that seems to increase every year, and the frequency of disasters. OK. I haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth yet. I’ve only seen the trailer. Yet, that was enough to horrify me and make me feel sick to be in this world where we’re spending so much money every day on The Ever Present War, which will never end, never improve things, and can never truly even be explained. Why are we fighting this war? Because one man, George Bush, felt a mysterious need to. And to fight this war, he needs lots and lots of money, which I must pay. God, it’s really really depressing. I am paying lots of money to fund a war I don’t agree with, never wanted, and the man who started it cares nothing about the issues I care about.

Why, as Gore states, have recent summers been so hot? Why are hurricanes reaching all-time intensities? Bush doesn’t want to address those questions. In fact, he never even mentions Hurricane Katrina anymore. It’s as if “9/11” is the only disaster that ever occured, the only thing Americans ought to remember and feel. Why can’t we just leave Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, and all of those nations to thier own devices and consider what is happening to us at home, and start setting a better example for the world?

Americans are not taking care of our country. We are making stupid decisions which we can afford not to make, in order to live outdated lifestyles which aren’t even all that comfortable. We should not be sitting in long lines of cars driving out to suburban mini-mansions. We should live in small, easy to clean condos in densely developed areas with good train and bus systems. Has anyone ever tried living in a place that had good transit? It’s a luxury. The biggest SUV with the best AC could never compare being whisked around on a train while reading or enjoying the scenery. And we should not be drinking from disposible water bottles. We should either drink the tap water, or use sink filter and refill bottles. Shame on you Poland Spring drinkers! Those stupid bottles litter the sides of the road. They are an eyesore. Water is a natural resource. Why do we need to add plastic? There are many other things we need to change. Perhaps I will start compiling a weekly list. Bike trails would be a quick addition.

Anyway, I’m feeling politically depressed today, especially thinking about the war and all the SUV’s. I wish I could climb onto a silver spaceship and travel to a “new home in the sun” with all the sensible people, or travel into the computer and live permanently in cyberspace, but I guess I’m stuck here for the ride.

Heather

On Tony Smith

I posted that mainly because I myself enjoy the experience of driving on the Turnpike, past the futuristic concrete refineries and smokestacks. It is dramatic, a monument to the fossil-fuel era. Perhaps someday the Turnpike will be a ruin. It is also reality, which is always beautiful. I’d rather be there than some brand-new home development which tries to give the impression it is out in the country.