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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Sharing music without a business model

Here’s a long, detailed, but readable account of one long-time musician’s experience with the effect of streaming music services Pandora and Spotify on his ability to make money from his recordings. The writer saves the punchline for his final paragraphs:

As businesses, Pandora and Spotify are divorced from music. To me, it’s a short logical step to observe that they are doing nothing for the business of music– except undermining the simple cottage industry of pressing ideas onto vinyl, and selling them for more than they cost to manufacture. I am no Luddite– I am not smashing iPhones or sabotaging software. In fact, I subscribe to Spotify for $9.99 a month (the equivalent of 680,462 annual plays of "Tugboat") because I love music, and the access it gives me to music of all kinds is incredible.

But I have simply stopped looking to these business models to do anything for me financially as a musician. As for sharing our music without a business model of any kind, that’s exactly how I got into this– we called it punk rock. Which is why we are streaming all of our recordings, completely free, on the Bandcamp sites we set up for Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi. Enjoy. [Emphasis added]

For awhile musicians could make a couple of bucks each time someone would buy a physical recording from them—but most were only able to reach a small number of listeners in that fashion, and as a result made little money. The streaming services now extend a musician’s reach tremendously—but at such a small royalty rate that the money is inconsequential, much less than they used to make selling recordings one by one. Oh, if only we made the same amount per sale as before, but to so many more people!

Sadly, that’s not how things turned out when the technology changed. But the change still made it infinitely easier to reach listeners. Once you give up on the idea of making money off that particular transaction (as the writer has), new possibilities open up.