Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why So Serious?

Feign outrage! Set phasers to "troll"! Clothe your indignation in inanity! A Pitchfork feature has prompted online controversy and lively debate! (Vomits in overreactive excitement)

Actually, for once the conversation isn't about how hard a certain review pandered, or trainspotting the number of Bon Iver headlines in a single week, or if the Vampire Weekend cover girl is "tappable." Barthel and Abebe are using the Top Videos of the 1990s countdown as a cultural weathervane, examining the balance of sincerity-VS-irony. While any discussion of irony/"irony" will be, to a certain extent, frustrating and inconclusive, Abebe's made the valuable point that Aught-style irony is fundamentally different from '90s irony.

The distinction is fundamentally the same as that which separates two styles of post-modernism: retro-necro pastiche and hauntology (which respectively resemble '00s and '90s irony). Both employ a knowing referentiality, and thus are formally similar, yet they express very different relationships to the contemporary mainstream: the former revels in artifice and built-in obsolescence, mischievously celebrating a culture whose facades are its substance; the latter mourns the same condition, pining for alternate paths not taken and now impossible. The latter understands the emptiness behind the facade is not an erasure of taboos, not some fissure into a realm of anarchic hedonia - it is existential abjection.

Now, to rephrase in slightly more useful terms... Aught-style irony is (was?) all about arrow-straight citation, expressing uncynical affection and even reverence for its references. A commentary-free pop-cultural patchwork of purely aesthetic concerns. Abebe offers Weezer's "Buddy Holly" video as an early specimen, though I'd say this "pointless, morbid game of references and sarcasm that never actually says anything" was first fully articulated on Odelay! by Beck.*

However, '90s irony was born of disgust at the flattening-out of culture, at the commodification of fringe elements, and at the realization that so many of our memories & developmental milestones were cooked up by some Madison avenue huckster. When Nirvana appeared with natty suits & blinky innocence for the "In Bloom" video, of course they were having a dig at the geeky politesse of rock's infancy. But more importantly, they were saying, "Okay, we're on Geffen, we're on MTV, we've been swallowed by the monoculture. We might as well be the fucking Dave Clark Five with a fuzzbox."

Which is where slack comes in. Were it not for that sloppy scoffing not-giving-a-shit, '90s irony would be nothing but more mawkish referentiality. But these artists had come from an audience that was too savvy to fall for Bill Bernbach's thimblerig and were well aware that any conventional success meant assimilation. Resistance was futile, but at least they could demonstrate an awareness of their own appropriation instead of appearing as guileless rubes (or worse, brass ring-snatching apostates). Slack signified that these artists neither cared for nor sought mainstream approval. The Malkmusian smirk was the last, best defense against total co-option.

This indifference against the machine is the earnestness that Abebe sees underlying '90s irony, "irony to communicate completely earnest things, that the audience would receive completely in earnest." The problem - that is, the transposition of '90s irony into '00s irony - is that the mainstream absorbed the medium without the message. It became a cheap trick to pile up pop-cultural detritus while completely ignoring the gestures of subcultural revolt. Perhaps the resurgent sincerity of the past decade was in reaction to the mainstreaming of snarky pastiche - and yet, if audiences are now attuned to endlessly floating signifiers taken with shakers of salt, this would result in more distance and less earnestness than in the '90s. Sincerity cannot survive as such if it's perceived ironically, and consequently it's become a simple affectation, mere aesthetic, just another branding tactic - like lo-fi or slack.** I accept Abebe's point that "you’d have to be a lot more committal to front Fischerspooner than to front a grunge band!" But to call electroclash "almost tragically sincere" begs the question: sincere about what? Fischerspooner et al. (and indeed many of today's most "earnest" acts) didn't offer sincerity, they performed "sincerity" - a gestural sincerity, an aestheticization of sincerity. Again, this only serves to underscore the subtextual vacuity of today's culture.

Remember the Lollapalooza-spoofing episode of The Simpsons?
Gen-Xer 1: Oh, here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.
Gen-Xer 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?
Gen-Xer 1: I don't even know anymore.
Finally, Abebe is rightfully wary of remembering the '90s as a ten-year sneer: "They seemed, as a young person, strikingly earnest and optimistic, especially around Earth Day." Political causes of every possible persuasion - from global warming to AIDS awareness - sprouting like dandelions in the wake of "PC" fatuity. And of course, this was the decade that gave us emo, "conscious" hip-hop, and the testosterone-soaked confessionals of nü-metal.

(*) - In film, the blame falls squarely at the feet of Tarantino.
(**) - No matter how ratty your hair or anemic your stated ambition, you ain't slacking if you have a booking agent before your first tour.


JM said...

What? Odelay's great, man.

Seb said...

Damn, I shoulda called this post "The New Pollution", right? Oh well.

I listened to Odelay! as much (maybe more) than anyone when it came out. Hell, I was convinced that "Derelict" was better than anything off Pre-Millenium Tension (of course it's not). But the album lacked the nous of Mellow Gold and, fourteen years later, it seems more than a little embarrassing and vapidly winking. By the time Beck had put together his slickly choreographed & backing-track-heavy arena tour to support Odelay!, the subversive snark had withered away.

And yes, both Barthel & Abebe clearly have a lot of affection for '90s irony, as do I. Perhaps I wasn't making that clear enough. But again, to be careful, the zeitgeist that I most fully identify with & am the least troubled by is '91-'96, not even the full decade. The latter half of the '90s (which were embarrassingly po-faced all around) fuckin' sucked.