Life without irony

There’s a general awareness that irony is, as this writer puts it, “the ethos of this age.” But I’ve never taken much time to think it through, and so I’m grateful for her brief, thorough explanation. Even better, she offers some thoughts on what it would mean to live without irony—pretty different from today’s norm.

What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.

I would call those Christian virtues, and even these days I hear exhortations from Christian teachers to strive for such a life. Which makes the next paragraph scary—the writer describes how irony manifests itself in everyday life, and it doesn’t sound all that much different than the life that many Christians I know live, and even champion.

Here is a start: Look around your living space. Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd? Listen to your own speech. Ask yourself: Do I communicate primarily through inside jokes and pop culture references? What percentage of my speech is meaningful? How much hyperbolic language do I use? Do I feign indifference? Look at your clothes. What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves? Do you attempt to look intentionally nerdy, awkward or ugly? In other words, is your style an anti-style? The most important question: How would it feel to change yourself quietly, offline, without public display, from within?

Chris and I face a similar challenge in our music. We focus on songs that are tied to a very definite time and place, and it would be easy to package it up and present it as a “style,” something that folks could observe from a distance as a curiosity. Many, many other groups currently playing American folk music do exactly this. If a group elicits a “Yee-haw!” from an audience member who doesn’t “Yee-haw!” things in everyday life, that’s what you’re watching.

But we remain committed to the idea that the music we play is not simply entertaining because it revives a style, but is good in and of itself. We love the songs we sing, and there are plenty of similar songs we don’t love and therefore don’t sing. We sing our songs without a trace of irony, and that’s how we give listeners an honest glimpse of a very different way of seeing, sometimes even the opportunity to vicariously adopt a different point of view.

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