By The Landlord
Hey! What do you think you are you doing? Stop looking at this. Didn't you see the headline? Can't you read? Nature is a language ... etc. Don't you know that the internet doesn't do irony? Did you see any symbols or acronyms here? No. Irony is only possible through little winky faces created by semicolons and brackets or really clever and funny expression known as LOL. LOL! Ha ha ha! But who's laughing now? By the way, before I ran the bar, did you know I used to work in the blanket factory, but it folded? Where's the drumkit?
"There's nothing more ironic or contradictory than life itself.” Who said that? We're closed, don't you know. Ah. Perhaps after all, we are open today. It's only Robert De Niro, after all, dropping into the bar for swift one. Hi Bob. Are you being ironic?
"You talking to me? I don't see anyone else around here.”
Now we get more assorted remarks about what irony does as customers begin to drift in. “Irony is the hygiene of the mind,” says the writer and socialite Elizabeth Bibesco. In which case, my life must be spotless.
“A tragic irony of life is that we so often achieve success or financial independence after the chief reason for which we sought it has passed away,” says the American author Ellen Glasgow. Too right. That boat has sailed.
So where is irony? Has it run out? Like oil? Or money? Now here's the author Douglas Coupland to tell us all about it: "The internet has destroyed irony in the world, or at least wounded it considerably. What are we to do about an invention whose end result is that starving people are looking up things on marthastewart.com?" He might be right. Irony is no good for business transactions. It only leads to misunderstanding. And we don't like that, oh no. Americans don't do irony, I'm told. Only smart ass Americans such as Bill Hicks. Or French people. Or Private Eye magazine. Where is this going? And to think that the internet was designed to save us time...
So what is irony? And how does it work in song? Is irony the fact that in 2014, a Los Angeles memorial tree dedicated to George Harrison was killed by an infestation of beetles? Or the fact that Weird Al Yankovic admits: "The irony is of course that my career has lasted a whole lot longer than some of the people I've parodied over the years.” And now he’s joined in the bar by Nile Rogers: “There’s been this strange irony to my whole life. All my original bandmates have died, when I was the most wild and most reckless of us all. But I'm still here.” Play us a tune, Nile.
Irony is a bit of an umbrella term that covers three areas – tone, action/situation, and perspective. Tone broadly speaking indicates saying one thing but meaning the opposite, but there's a whole palette of colours here, not merely sarcasm, but acidity, wryness, dryness, from the gently humorous and inclusive to the downright caustically nasty. It's hard to pick out irony in lyrics because they are sung rather than spoken in an obvious tone of voice. But dig deep and ye shall find them aplenty. Spurned lovers addressing the objects of their desires? Songwriters attacking those in power, or talking about situations, or indeed religion with false praise? Oh yes, and here we can pick out with a heavy dose of XTC:
Ironic tone is also fertile area between band members, especially those who fall out, or are about to split up. Paul Simon famously did a sneaky song about his sidekick Art, and, from my home town of Manchester, where being ironic to one another is almost obligatory, Peter Hook describes his relationship with his former New Order mates: "It's quite ironic I suppose, it's that thing about being in a group when you all start out as friends and then invariably end up hating each other. So I just thought they needed telling really, in case they were labouring under the apprehension that they were still friends." No irony there of course.
But here's an irony in itself. Alanis Morissette is famous for a song that she later admitted, possibly without irony, that irony of 'Ironic' is that it's not an ironic song at all." Well, not that sort of irony, anyway, but we'll come to that. But fair enough, we can thank her for at least another that does.
But in general, poor old Jonathan Swift, who fooled an entire nation with his brilliant Modest Proposal, or John Dryden, Alexander Pope, or all the other great 17th and 18th century satirists, whose infinitely witty Grub Street ambiguities are now being dulled into oblivion by the literalism of internet culture rather than the glorious mischief of the bookish literary, their flame only kept alive by Private Eye and others who continue such traditions, before they bite the dust.
Yet among my favourite ironic writers is the great Joseph Conrad, who actually wrote in his third language, yet still mastered the art with delicate twist and cruel precision. Here, in the Secret Agent, he brilliant describes the absurd anarchist Mr Verloc, lazy and pompous, not by a direct onslaught, but by gently mocking him by adopting his point of view.
He was tired. The last particle of nervous force had been expended in the wonders and agonies of this day full of surprising failures coming at the end of a harassing month of scheming and insomnia. He was tired. A man isn’t made of stone. ... The shoulders of Mr Verloc, without actually moving, suggested a shrug.
With plot twists and intricate perspectives, Conrad employs every kind of irony going. In the wold of film, for me the equivalent is the great Ealing Comedy, The Ladykillers, where a band of hapless bank robbers led by Alec Guinness fail to take secretly stash the lolly, or take out their landlady, and instead knock each other off, ending in a final railway signal denouement. Delicious.
This remorselessly takes us on to situational irony, that, arguably, is increasingly taking over everything and where Alanis does succeed with a list of ironic scenarios. We are now in world increasingly awash with such irony, with a backfiring state of affairs causing perhaps opposite of what people intend to happen. Where’s this going? First, consider the irony that people often seem to believe what is written on buses:
Or as the actor Steven Weber puts it: "The irony is that the people we tend to vote for actually look down on voters and voting. That's like a snake eating its own tail! A wolf in a trap gnawing off its own head to escape!" Or a bloodsucking leech sucking the blood out of the nation, Steven. The largest current topical irony is that the American people voted against the elite, but got one of the world's wealthiest men as president. Or one that, as some have suggested, can't actually read, and misheard what he was supposed to say at a speech when he planned to say, near the Mexican border, "Let's build a mall!". One slip up, and it all gets out of control. Oh the irony. Seems likely, y’know. Just check out this suit:
America. Land of dreams and all aflow with events of unintentional irony. But here’s Chris Rock, the black comedian hosting the 2016 Oscars where there was not a single black nominee, making sure nobody misunderstood him.“Welcome to the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards! You realise, if they nominated hosts I wouldn’t even get this job.”
History is full of situational, and long-term irony. The Romans persecuted Christians by throwing them to lions. Ouch! The west armed the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s, and also recruited and trained Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Ouch! Now, did you know the most shoplifted book in America is The Bible? Ouch! Or that a statue of a homeless Jesus sleeping on a bench was installed in Orlando where the homeless are banned from sleeping on benches? Ouch!
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, but refused to keep one in his study. Why? He feared it would distract him from his work. Does that ring true? Yes, it gets sillier. A man sued the Guinness Book of World Records for damages after they awarded him the world record for ‘Most Lawsuits Ever Filed’ for over $10,000. In 1974, 80,000 lapel buttons created by the US government to promote toy safety were recalled as their edges were too sharp. So now literally ... ouch! Or that condoms were given out at a Canadian university with notes attached promoting safe sex. These were later recalled because the staples used to fasten the note had punctured the condoms. What a bunch of pricks.
And of course irony stretches to those who were metaphorically hoisted on their own petards or absurdities. Are they Darwin Award winners? Pietro Aretino was an unrelenting dirty-joke telling Venetian 16th-century satirist who laughed himself to death by falling off a chair and hitting his head. Bobby Leach, a Cornishman born in 1858 wasn’t the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was an American teacher, Annie Taylor, in 1911. Still, he was the first man, so I guess that was the main thing at the time. He recovered from his injuries, but then in 1926 on a publicity tour in New Zealand, he died after slipping on an orange peel. Well at least it wasn't a banana skin.
Or how about Nitaro Ito, who in 1979, as a political hopeful in Japan’s House of Representatives, tried to get a sympathy vote by staging an attack on himself? Unfortunately he did it too well, and stabbed himself to death. But you have to have sympathy for one politician. Ancient Greece’s Draco was very popular, and one tradition to show honour was that people threw hats and cloaks towards him. Yet he became so popular that on one occasion the crowd got too enthusiastic. He was smothered to death under the massive pile of cloaks. Was he killed by 'vested' interests?
Songs then are full of ironic events and situations where things backfire, or are unwittingly caused by protagonists causing their own downfall. Perhaps many songwriters are ironically the victims of their own success, becoming unhappy in their pursuit of happiness. But a final type of irony, less common in songs, is that you do see in Greek tragedy, or Shakespeare, or indeed many thriller films or TV dramas – where as the audience, you see more of what’s going on than one or more of the characters involved. This occurs in Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, the tragic tale, darkly and cleverly told around the kitchen about a boy who jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, the narrator realising it is her secret boyfriend as her family mention the event between other banalities.
But the most famous example of dramatic irony is surely the story of Oedipus, who unwittingly marries his own mother and kills his father in pursuit of the truth of his identity. Why? Perhaps because he subconsciously wanted to all along? Perhaps he fell fowl of a Freudian slip – when you say one thing but mean your mother. Now, a gratuitous dog picture:
So then, that’s enough irony to keep you going, I hope. And this week’s master of plot, tone and situation, keeping an iron hand in a velvet glove on all your ironic nominations turns out to yet another guest guru making their debut behind the Song Bar pumps. Hurray! Let’s welcome the artful attwilightlarks, who will compile a write-up and playlists from your suggestions next Wednesday. Deadline? Monday night? Why? Because one has to plan ahead, and the calendar days are numbered.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.