Written by Matthew Collins
Depending on how much time you spend on the Internet, you might be familiar with the rap group Die Antwoord, a South African group which calls itself alternately “next level rap-rave” and “Zef rap” and whose members sport some preposterous haircuts. Die Antwoord, or “The Answer,” as their name translates to English, has left many stymied. Why, exactly? Because, despite how ridiculous they seem, they’re actually pretty damn good.
Die Antwoord are just one of many pop culture phenomena that have recently complicated our understanding of irony. With a proud “who cares?” attitude, recent trends in pop culture—like Tao Lin’s literature and last fall’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans—make it difficult to separate irony from sincerity.
Historically, this makes sense. Irony, so long a tool of the underground, is often tied closely to authenticity. An “authentic” person—someone who earned this title through certain signifiers (keffiyehs, tight jeans, etc.)—doing something decidedly “inauthentic” (listening to N*Sync) made for the best sort of late-90s/early-00s irony. In general, pop culture in the 1990s was pretty awful—resulting from attempts to make good products through big budgets, but without the soul that made first-wave pop so appealing (compare Michael Jackson’s Thriller to HIStory). In this climate, authenticity mattered. In the 00s, though, the underground unironically fell in love with a certain former N*Sync member and the mainstream learned who Wes Anderson was. Authenticity has gone by the wayside, and overt irony with it.
What we’re left with today is often called “post-irony,” although the term does a poor job of describing the state of things. We now have a smarter form of irony, irony used as a scalpel as opposed to a mallet. And it makes sense—even if irony can no longer serve its original purpose, it’s become such an integral part of American culture that it has become subtly embedded in everyday use.
Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant is perhaps the best mainstream example of this new, hyper-postmodern sense of irony. The film contains what a Snakes on a Plane-style irony-fest should: hokey plot, bad acting, and deliciously over-the-top glorification of sex and drug use. But the film does much more than revel in its genre’s campy history—The Bad Lieutenant is gorgeously shot and contains pervasive, incisive commentary on everything from race relations to police corruption and the definition of finding success in America.
Likewise, the increasingly popular Hipster Runoff blog—presumably written by Brooklyn author Tao Lin, whose style is remarkably similar to the anonymous persona behind the blog, “Carles”—directs irony back at hipsters through its hilariously self-conscious “hipster” writer. Carles, constantly concerned with “personal brands,” generally focuses on the marketability of people/bands/DJs/products/nations. Written in a deliberately obnoxious internet speak—lots of questions and air quotes, numbers substituted in words, “u” instead of you—Hipster Runoff reads like a joke but also raises concerns about society and our increasingly uncomfortable relationship with pop culture. See, for example, Carles’s piercing dismantling of popular street fashion blog The Sartorialist, which posted a fashion commentary about a homeless man. Relying on common wisdom encased in air quotes, Carles posts a picture of a homeless man lying in a puddle of his own urine, and pushes the need for the homeless to pursue personal branding—clearly, then they could just “get a fucking job” like “the plotline of that popular Will Smith joint ‘The Pursuit of Happyness.’”
The important distinction that needs to be made, though, is that irony and sincerity are now just sitting side by side—they’re inexorably linked. The Bad Lieutenant is a not a great film just because it’s a combination of a campy, “it’s so bad it’s good” mentality and smart directing—the unremarkable Planet Terror did that a few years back. It’s great because the ironic “badness” is threaded throughout its entirety, adding—in the most self-consciously postmodern way—a sense of surrealism and absurdity to a story that revels in the absurd.
We are, however, still used to being able to ask about sincerity and get a straight answer: yes, Andrew W.K. was just kidding all along; no, Snakes on a Plane isn’t a horror movie; yeah, my moustache is just for laughs. Today’s irony is far more ambiguous (there’s a reason Lin is “famous” for putting words in quotes—who knows what anything means when people are kidding most of the time?) and far richer for it. As the headline ran on Videogum: “Die Antwoord is ‘Fake,’ and So What?”