Published Mar 01, 2004Summer: I was being sarcastic.
Marissa: So was I.
Summer: Which we never were before Cohen showed up and introduced us to irony. Jackass!
Inside The S.A.T., a sweaty art space-cum-party venue in downtown Montreal, electro-funk duo Chromeo take the stage for the very first time at an end-of-summer I Love Neon party, hosted by internationally renowned DJ ironist Tiga. Best known for his covers of "Sunglasses At Night" and "Hot In Herre" (the latter will make its debut spin in a few hours), Tiga attracts a retro-hipster crowd all dolled up in purposefully bad 80s hair, makeup and clothes even the boys.
While a marionette dances on a big screen, Chromeo front-man (and Vice Magazine's Jewish hip-hop editor) Dave 1 rocks guitar solos and a Miami Vice-era cell phone while singing loverman lyrics about needy girls and gangstas. His Arabic partner Pee Thug, in a Tupac T-shirt, plays prehistoric synths and spits fire through an old-school talkbox, the likes of which haven't been heard since Roger Troutman's heyday.
The crowd laughs, but they dance too.
Fast forward 18 months.
"Here's the bottom line," Dave 1 explains from New York City, where he's studying French Lit at Columbia. "The listening public is really, really jaded. So you can't get away with stuff you could get away with back in the day. If Prince came out right now dressing like a black Mozart and singing When Doves Cry' you'd be like hahaha, what a fag.' We wouldn't take him seriously. But when we were kids, he was like Jesus. It was serious stuff."
The difference with Chromeo whose bio for their recently released full-length She's In Control proudly proclaims "that's right, no fucking irony" is that Dave and Pee are aware of both the silliness of their appearance (Dave often rocks an ascot and pencil moustache while P favours pseudo-gangsta gear) and their resurrected genre. They just don't agree that Howlin' Wolf should necessarily be taken more seriously than Billy Ocean.
"I feel like the public's predisposition to enjoy something both super-sincere and super-extravagant at the same time we're kinda numb to that. Alright, another joker," Dave gripes. "My boy Pee with the talkbox, you could find it amusing that he plays that, but the dude is on it ten hours a day, so it can't be just a joke."
With all the "quality" retro genres already taken by the first wave of "The" bands, the new kids on the block have been reaching into the past and coming up with kitsch, taking genres now reduced to smarmy punch lines and reminding us why they were popular in the first place.
In other words, despite its supposed death-by-Osama a couple years back, irony's freak flag is currently flying over-the-top of today's must buzzed about bands.
Post-millennial culture is hardly as flip as it once was, but our enjoyment has simply become nuanced just count off the mesh caps or 80s-era rock Ts at a White Stripes or Broken Social Scene show. But those bands are strictly serious while other musicians, most blatantly the catsuit-bedecked British pomp-rawkers the Darkness, are creating a multi-layered aesthetic that could best be called sincere irony though that word has become so dirty they'll deny it to their deaths.
In the Gen-X "classic" Reality Bites, after Winona Ryder's character blows a job interview because she can't define irony, Ethan Hawke's slacker explains, "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning."
Sure, fine, book-boy, but what most of us mean, in a cultural context anyway, is postmodern irony. It's usually derived from an unlikely juxtaposition such as alt-duo Ween recording a spot-on country album, Justin Hawkin's spandex or Chromeo's primitive technology that the audience interprets as funny.
There is sometimes, but not always, a sarcastic tone and though nostalgic, it's not of the slavish Jack White variety. There is instead a tendency to appropriate the lame, like trucker caps or Freddy Mercury, precisely because it's lame. There's an awareness of the camp factor and often now this is why nobody wants to be dubbed "ironic" a glib, cooler-than-though detachment (sort of an internal Nelson Muntz "ha-ha!").
But not all meta-music is made the same. While undeniably glorifying the gimmicky, this generation's sincere ironists want it known they're not novelty acts out for a cheap chuckle à la Limp Bizkit's "Faith" they mock these genres because they love them. Or maybe it's the other way around. Whatever.
Though underground music fans have long appreciated the kitsch factor be it downing martinis during the mid-90s lounge revival, freely namedropping Neil Diamond or getting down to Scissor Sisters' electro-cover of "Comfortably Numb" authenticity has always been fetishised.
Whenever music has gotten too full of itself like, say prog rock or hair metal then back-to-basics movements like punk or grunge have come along to deflate them. And when the upstarts become self-serious themselves, another scene arrives to take the piss out of em.
For awhile now pop culture has maintained a balancing act between authenticity and irony, but the Darkness's American invasion has prompted people to choose sides because they gasp! dare to claim both.
In a piece headlined "Irony Maidens," author and Spin columnist Chuck Klosterman argues that while the Brits' subtle comedic sensibilities "get" what the Darkness are doing, the same is, unfortunately, unlikely on this side of the pond.
"Americans love to laugh, Americans also love to rock. There is one thing, however, Americans don't love: They don't love to laugh and rock at the same time." Unless, like Tenacious D, the band proclaims its allegiance to comedy first.
Music anthropologist Simon Reynolds proves Klosterman's point in a hard rant against meta-music on his blog. "In writing on the Darkness, one thing that seems to crop up regularly are analyses on the lines of they have a healthy sense of their own ridiculousness,' or of metal's ridiculousness' or variations thereof," he pouts, er, posts. "Well, I would venture that for artists, a sense of your own/your genre's ridiculousness is an unhealthy thing, a little tumour of not-really-meaning-it, of withholding-yourself-from-full-engagement. I would venture further that all great metal, and possibly all great anything, is completely oblivious to its own ridiculousness yes even AC/DC."
Try telling that to the beyond-capacity crowd at Toronto's Phoenix Concert Hall when the million-selling Darkness unleashed their self-aware arena show inside the midsize venue. T.O. crowds are notoriously tight with their effusiveness and the explosive excitement seemed pretty unprecedented. Not even Broken Social's epic soirees here have achieved the sheer amount of raucous sing-alongs and pumping fists seriously, when's the last time you heard a crowd falsetto? Maybe the strong showing of suburban skids, who enjoy the Darkness because they legitimately love the source material, allowed the too-cool-for-school downtowners to get down tonight (whoo!). Whatever the case, the Darkness sure as hell seemed to mean it and weren't withholding anything.
"I think irony is a word that journalists use," the Darkness's handlebar-moustache adorned bassist Frankie Poullain explains. "That's because they're uptight people who take themselves far too seriously. They wear black polo necks and on their coffee table they have all the albums they're supposed to have Aphex Twin, Radiohead and all the style magazines. But that's a shield, they're trying to impress upon each other how intelligent they are. But that's their problem, it has nothing to do with us," he says.
"Rock and roll has always had a sense of the ridiculous and we have that sense in what we are doing, but I can assure you there is nothing ironic in what we do. OK, there's a sense of knowingness, in that we know what we're doing."
Take Har Mar Superstar the R&B alter-ego of Kill Rock Stars' indie non-superstar Sean Tillman (Sean Na Na). He certainly realises the hilarity of a pudgy Caucasian in tighty-whities breakdancing while singing about "tap-worthy healthy round asses." But his gimmick is so ingrained he had the rock press fooled for months he was his own "half-brother" Harold Martin he stays in character during interviews.
"I'm not mocking it at all," Mr. Superstar barks. "I don't understand why people fucking think that. Because I'm white? Everyone has this perception that I'm mocking it because I perform and I do it with a straight face, but that's because I fucking love it. If you're going to laugh at it, fine, but buy my fucking record. The whole mockery issue really pisses me off; I think it's really retarded. If you put Usher's face on the cover nobody would know the difference and I can sing better than that motherfucker." Well, we can all agree Usher sucks, but does that make Tillman's shtick any less ironic?
The irony backlash has become so great that even if you gently broached the topic at a Polyphonic Spree show, their blissed-out fans would likely boot-stomp you in second.
But though their sunshiny faces don't wink, we're talking about a 24-member Texan pop choir, decked out in flowing robes, with leader Tim DeLaughter proselytising like the love child of David Koresh and Jim Morrison. Even assuming their intent is true, their defining characteristic remains their utter ridiculousness and there's no reason the music can't be appreciated both ironically and sincerely at the same time.
To ignore one or the other does the band a critical disservice since being good at what you do doesn't necessarily absolve one of irony, just as being ironic doesn't mean your efforts are necessarily dishonest, detached or tossed-off. Even David Bowie has been quoted saying that the group's appropriation of religiosity "appeals to my sense of irony."
But the stigma is so strong that artists like Dean and Gene Ween positively bristle at accusations of irony. Sure, they wrote "Spinal Meningitis Got Me Down" and "Push Th' Little Daisies" and their latest LP Quebec (so named because they thought it was funny) kicks off with a Lemmy impersonation but, well, "Lemmy's the fucking man!"
"We're not making fun of anything, never have. I really appreciate music and if we sound like something, chances are I have the entire collection of what it might sound like. We don't go out and buy the new Staind record and say hey, let's make a Staind song and make fun of them.' It's so not about that," says Gene.
"We're not mocking genres, we're making songs that we like to make. We're not sitting around thinking about what we can poke fun of. We just love music. The problem with Frank Zappa is he got so bitter with the whole music scene and society and politics something Mickey and I have in common is that we're not like that. I got no gripe against Creed. I'm not trying to make some statement about anything. We're not jaded cynical artists trying to make fun of people. People like that I don't get near with a ten-foot pole. People like that piss me off."
Presumably he means people like Travis ("Baby One More Time"), Ben Kweller ("Ice Ice Baby") and John Mayer ("Dirty Pop"), whose novelty covers definitely diss the source material.
But even Beck suffered a backlash when he released Midnite Vultures. Previously, testy critics had been swayed with his goofball indulgences in hip-hop, folk and blues but when he delved into R&B ("I wanna get with you / Only you girl / And your sister / I think her name is Debra") it proved to be too much. Suddenly his entire "oeuvre" was dismissed as inauthentic at least until Sea Change, when critics tripped over themselves to declare it his first "honest" album.
"Cynicism or reliance on an ironic humour aesthetic is a coping mechanism that is very necessary to help some people combat a feeling of powerlessness. Maybe because of the way music is right now we need to indulge in that a little," Cake's John McCrea told Rolling Stone.
But even he is worried about Cake being mistaken for a "joke band." Or worse, being considered phonies an accusation levelled at electroclash groups like W.I.T., who mined irony without the talent to back it up.
"Some of that electroclash stuff was really cheap," disses Dave 1, who was mistakenly roped into the "movement" because Chromeo signed to Tiga's Turbo Recordings. "It had a whole lo-fi careless approach that made it even more ironic. Like this is silly, but I'm gonna do it like I don't even give a shit. I made that beat in five minutes.' I didn't. I took three weeks to program those drums."
It's that dedication to detail that the sincere ironists bring to the table because they're honestly attempting to reinvigorate a maligned genre they once loved. But they maintain credibility by acknowledging what made it maligned in the first place.
Savvy artists and audiences realise that sucking and rocking are not mutually exclusive and that a spoonful of humour can help the electro-funk go down. So groups like Chromeo are hoping that even if you think their music is a little cheeseball, which it is, you'll still smile and come to appreciate its good qualities thanks to the strength of their songcraft. There might be some novelty in their get-ups and equipment, but the music is no joke.
"I could die tomorrow and we're not funny anymore, but are the tunes still memorable? At this point I don't care what the discourses and commentaries are, as long as there is that root of pleasure underneath it. If they say I love your album, you ironic joker.' I'm like, alright cool.' And if they say Yo, I love your album, you very serious failed-relationship-guy.' That's cool, too. Whatever. As long as people are enjoying the music, it's all good."
"It's all good" a one-time edgy hip-hop expression that became so annoyingly mainstreamed that its use has now, too, become ironic. Thing is, he totally means it.
Loud, Proud, Lewd and Rude
Exposing Canada's Most Debauched New Bands
Cover your kiddies' ears and hide your liquor and snuff, folks, 'cause these foul-mouthed boozers, drug-abusers and sexaholics are on the move. If you think they're just clowns, if they amuse you, then go ahead, laugh it up, but these are some of Canada's most serious rappers and rock'n'rollers, working hard and fast to go down on irony, set fire to sarcasm, seduce the skeptics, hog-tie the cynics and keep it real. Really.
"Only through anarchy of state, chaos of mind and random action can we achieve true personal freedom." That's one of ten "Commanding Principles of Chaos," a manifesto from the scorched soul of CPC Gangbangs. Formed by Montreal's top punk and rock alumni including the Sexareenos' Roy Vucino and the Daylight Lovers' Paul Spence (aka Fubar's Deaner) their name is inspired by a friend who had a bad PCP trip and repeatedly screamed "CPC! CPC!" while murdering someone. Less extreme violence has erupted at their shows, sometimes advertised as free for people who can prove they're on acid. And in the name of speedy, soulful, rowdy rock'n'roll ("the best music to dance to, fuck to, get fucked up to and fall in love to," they say), the CPC gang play every gig like it's their last, offering a cathartic overdose to sweaty, frenetic hordes. Vucino and Spence explain: "Everybody's going to lose their minds with something eventually, be it drugs, booze or anxiety, so they may as well do it at a CPC Gangbangs show."
Mike Gee and the Family Tree
"Fat Chicks," "Smoke Crack," "Your Momma Smokes My Penis" a sampling of titles from Mike Gee's debut disc, Live From the Gee Spot. "This album is the greatest piece of music out there, period, ever," says Gee, speaking by cell from the back of his gold-plated Rolls. Yup, he's got his riches and fanatic fan bases, but this punk rapper gets no respect in his Montreal 'hood. His filthy verbiage has got him heckled, threatened, ousted and banned from live venues, but Gee and the Family Tree Mike's bro Dave, his iron-fisted manager, the Colonel, and ace producer, the Synaptic Loop bounced back hard with a rock-solid synth-pop hip-hop record, available exclusively at www.mikegeemusic.com. Apparently having no label or distribution is part of the Colonel's dark master plan. "I don't know who you've been talking to, but I basically rule the music universe, okay? You said this article was gonna have to do with some other jackasses yeah, I've never heard of these people. Could you explain that to me?"
Forever warped by drugs, booze and bad banger bars, British Columbia MCs Betti Forde and Jenni Craige rock their rhymes about fried food, crotch rot, biker shorts, tube-tying and cheap sex. The "trailer clash" duo signed to Teenage USA after their second show, paving the way for their odoriffic debut album, Scratch n' Sniff. Backed by the surgical '80s synth-funk of Dr. Do This, produced by Mr. Bigstuff (ex-Organized Rhyme), the camel-toed cougars took Canada by Stink-storm last year, dishing their bawdy moves, infectious grooves and undeniable mic supremacy Craige, aka Lady Precise, is the cream of Vancouver's freestyle crop. The g-funk females' stature and skill (and Stink?) has fuelled some disrespect in the local hip-hop scene, but Forde understands. "It must be really traumatic to have such small penises. But," she adds, "we get tons of love." Too much love, sometimes, especially after a typically steamy set. "One time, this maniac grabbed me by the shoulders and said, I wanna eat your pussy so bad!' Guys, girls we get hit on like a motherfucker."
White Cowbell Oklahoma
If you're like Christopher Walken, the only cure for your fever is more cowbell, and this Southern fried, chemically twisted collective aims to ease your pain. Rumour has it that they're Toronto folk, but they're never too geographically specific for fear of attracting the lawmen and bounty hunters on their trail (check their extensive rap sheets at www.whitecowbell.com). The band's debut album, Cencerro Blanco, captures what their guitarist Clem calls, "the rock'n'roll boogie woogie rhythm and blues experience," a sound that's fortified live by a flurry of sultry strippers, costumed drunkards and depraved dancers "assaulting your mind, your senses and your groin." Most shocked and awed members of the press are mighty kind to the Cowbell, but Clem's got words for the sceptics and "chin-stroking coolies" among us: "We are not an ironic band, we are not intellectualists making smarty fancy-pants music, we are 100 percent sex-mex entertainment, and if we gotta stand on a mountain with a Texas-sized bullhorn goin' Holy fuckin' shit, are we fuckin' great!' then that's what we're gonna do."