There is a moment on Ought’s debut album, More Than Any Other Day, when the singer drops the cynicism and just blindly submits to euphoria. Suddenly, his world opens. He’s enlightened; he goes grocery shopping and he fucking loves it; he finds transcendence in the delirious levity of being “prepared to make the decision between two per cent and whole milk”. Then the music (listen above) fires up into a blissful swell and he cracks, starts yowling stuff like “today, together, we’re all the fucking same”.
The scene perfectly captures a record obsessed with the (post) modern condition. It’s a mess of contradictions for sure, but I dunno, it’s the kind of mess that speaks to me. One minute Tim Beeler (lead singer of Ought) is “disgusted by life”, the next he’s “in love with everything in sight”. Panning out, it seems the band have tapped into a strange new cultural phenomenon - one whose principles read like Eastern riddles: to be self-aware yet unselfconscious, sincere yet ridiculous, burdened yet buoyant, all at once, all the time.
One way this has been described is ‘post-irony’. There’s a sort of sneering undertone whenever the term pops up online, which is understandable - the meaning is vague and words like ‘post’ and ‘irony’ tend to indicate annoying people. But there is substance in the idea. And unless you’re deep into a zero pop culture diet, you’re probably aware of it already on some level.
The truth is, post-irony is pretty much everywhere. Anything overtly cliché - things that should attract ridicule but actually make you warm and tingly - is post-irony. Ought’s funny, instinctive juxtaposition of cynicism and hope is post-irony. That queasy head rush you get listening to QT, Sophie and PC Music is a textbook symptom. When Future Islands played Letterman, at least 70% of the singer’s facial expressions were post-ironic, as was the enthusiasm with which people shared the video. Internet sensations like Riff Raff, Kitty Pryde, Yung Lean and even Lana Del Rey all have a post-ironic flavour, although they’re more reliant on post-ironic listening habits, which is not to discredit them. We’re not talking some vanguard mastermind conspiracy here. Post-irony is an array of regular attitudes floating in the air. It isn’t good, bad, pointless or pretentious. It’s just there.
Older people might remember a zeitgeist immune to ambiguity, a time when trends would oscillate between extremes. When prog outgrew its boots, the smart crowd cut their hair and invented punk. As punk’s “no future” wish came true, post-punk resurrected studio manipulation and delved into polyculture. Likewise, the mid-90s swing from US grunge to Britpop illustrated the cultural gag reflex when things get deadly serious. It was a fickle back-and-forth that, like the left-right political pendulum, eventually made it all seem a bit superficial.
But in 2003 history sent us a warning, and that warning was The Darkness.
You’ve gotta be even-handed, because it was a messy time in 2003. Half the internet was still geeks and sex addicts, and the mainstream alternatives to Justin Hawkins’ classic hard rock crew were a disgrace. Soft rock was still in its inexplicable colonial phase. Whinnying ninnies like Coldplay and Travis refused to be put down, despite our steel-toe capped efforts. Even the media fantasy of The Strokes as tearaway saviours collapsed when you saw them live, as well-ironed and depressingly branded as Rick Edwards’ wardrobe. It’s easy now, in our enlightened state, to recall The Darkness - four theatrical glam jesters - lording it up at the Brits and riding guitars like horses, and say, ‘No, these were not heroic men’. But, as perplexing as it seems now, that’s what 2003 needed. Luckily change was on the breeze.
It started brewing a decade earlier in the ‘90s. Pivotal was the emergence of detached, cult indie bands like Pavement and Silver Jews, who wouldn’t dream of “rocking out” without their trusty air quotes. In the wider culture, the Sims video games and first-wave reality shows like The Real World gifted normal people a new self-consciousness. Together they made the ’90s a breeding ground for irony, which dutifully manifested in pop culture with actively postmodern TV shows like The Simpsons. But the creative frontline sensed trouble.
Authors like David Foster Wallace and George Saunders, who specialised in rigorous social deconstruction and complex moral fables, foresaw a recession of morality and emotion in art. In response, using corporate slang and subtle humanism, they developed a new, savvier tone of sentimentality. In his near-Biblical 1993 essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’, Wallace - with his tongue halfway in cheek - lays down the state of play, identifying “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country," who would be "willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists,” and happy to "risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama."
What Wallace comically addressed here was an impossibility in a then-television culture (now our internet culture) to write anything remotely sincere without over-analysing its originality and authenticity. It’s only recently that a sophisticated interpretation of that has crystallised across alternative music. “Challenging something's commercial nature is a commercial tactic in itself,” PC Music’s AG Cook recently told Tank Magazine, “and authenticity is a tricky currency that is often swayed by branding and advertising.” Cook goes on to outline a subtler critique of capitalism, “where shock value and direct irony is replaced with ambiguity and uncanniness.” It’s a blueprint for PC Music’s post-ironic manifesto: not to parody pop culture - that would merely be funny - but to inspect the world’s ugliness and try to reflect it, ideally in a fun and creatively radical form.
Cook describes his music as an “immersive world of ideas and references”, and it can sound intentionally ridiculous: PC Music fucks with people, and they’re fucking good at it. But there’s more to them than riling Resident Advisor commenters. Cook and his partner-in-sublime SOPHIE use cute vocals and pristine surfaces to distract from jarring, grimey production, which represents the bits of capitalism you’d rather ignore. The up-pitched vocals make singers blatantly glorifying sex, consumption and money sound like young girls glorifying sex, consumption and money. In their song “Hey QT”, they use the image of a fictional energy drink called ‘QT’ as a hyperreal sign of gimme-gimme consumerism ("Buy me a drink and I’ll drink it, drink it... Red and blue. Red, silver and blue" GFOTY yaps on her own PC Music released tribute to the certain beverages). Yet brands like Red Bull - so blatantly the direction of such satire - are also their real-world benefactors, via Red Bull Music Academy, who’ve hosted shows by the label and Sophie. These days we take corporate compromise for granted, but by magnifying such manufactured contradictions, they can’t help but challenge, engage and potentially radicalise listeners in ways in which straight-up irony could only create mutual superiority.
For regulars at pop culture’s downtown hub, the theory behind Ought and PC Music is nothing new. Even as Pavement rose with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain in 1994, Weezer’s chest-puffing bravado on The Blue Album already had a hint of meta-consciousness, albeit rebutting self-deprecating grunge rather than irony. But now, as hyper acceleration flings pop culture into the ’90s intelligentsia’s mould, post-irony is more relevant than ever. Artists like Yung Lean and Riff Raff, in particular, manifest a post-ironic subconscious in the culture. The latter’s ham-fisted stereotype fulfilment is so clownish, that it’s practically a metaphor for the clownishness of white people. But he’s also too sincere and likeable to write off as a meme. While his boasts land deliberately off-the-mark, part of his brand is that they also feel like genuine cries for help. It’s as if he emerged fully formed from the internet’s imagination, and it’s hard to imagine him outside of it.
There’s something similar to say for Lana Del Rey, whose ‘inauthenticity’ - while negatively magnified on sexist principles - is actually tightly bound to her appeal. While reasonable people accept that her bad-boy blues and “fucked my way to the top” fronts aren’t totally sincere, it’s that melancholy interaction between authenticity and artifice, authority and awkwardness, that generates her post-ironic mystique.
Elsewhere, Montreal has seen a glimmer of the action. As Grimes, Braids and the likeable clan of Arbutus Records dive exotically into their precious inner natures, two of the scene’s lynchpins have transcended new age dabbling to replace escapist soundswirls with audacious performances and jarring self-seriousness.
One is “pop philosopher” Sean Nicholas Savage, who plays louche tropicalia (sometimes from his iPod) while crooning lovelorn paeans full of melodrama, masturbation innuendos and comically wounded vocals, all usually delivered with no shirt on. Majical Cloudz, a confessional electronic duo fronted by Devon Welsh, matches him. Welsh’s dad is famous for playing Twin Peaks villain Windom Earle, and his son’s soul-baring vocal delivery and chronic self-awareness make him both commanding and comical, mellow and menacing - perfectly Lynchian. Like Future Islands, the pair’s shows draw a dividing line, not just between those who are and aren’t in on the joke, but also a third group: the fans who accept that there both is and isn’t a joke; and that part of the joke is that there is no joke. It’s in this fractured, ambiguous light that irony and sincerity blur together.
What’s regained is the ability to ditch air quotes. To re-evaluate those universal human values you disregarded sometime during season four of The OC. In an information age where we’re too world-aware, too e-ducated, too perma-plugged and wired to feel truly shocked by extremities, it’s this disarming in-between that really gets us. Whether it’s totally fit-for-purpose is debatable - for some, any barrier to self-expression is a compromise - but right now post-irony feels ice cool, funky fresh and irresistibly tingly.
Jazz Monroe also thinks deeply on Twitter, but in much shorter statements: @jazz_monroe.