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May 26, 2010

That Ain’t Irony, Son: The Hipster T-Shirt Dilemma

Hipsters have taken irony from us. They’ve co-opted it and mutated it into a sad little shell of what it once was. Just as they’ve done with The Golden Girls. Irony to the hipster is nothing more than creating a clash of symbols. Which is really just sarcasm, not irony. One only need examine these snippets of conversation I overheard at a recent Dirty Projectors concert:

“Check it out, I’m wearing a trucker hat. No, I don’t truck. Too many carbon emissions. I ride a bike. It’s ironic.”

“How about this knarly beard? Am I lumberjack? No. Clear-cutting is appalling to me. I work in IT, but I do own a Bonnie Prince Billy CD. Ironic, huh?”

“My T-shirt? Why yes that’s a BP logo. Why? Because I despise them. Irony at its best.”

It’s the T-shirts that get me the most. It’s rare to find a T-shirt that’s ironic by itself. This one succeeds. These do not. Yet if you search “ironic t-shirts” on Google, you’ll think that every t-shirt with a pun or a flippant quote is ironic. Alas, situations provide irony. Catchphrases do not.

Now, I’ll give hipsters some credit. They’re not necessarily buying the corporate produced T-shirts that are clearly aimed at them. They’re scouring garage sales and thrift shops and boxes in their parents’ attics looking for something unique. But there’s nothing ironic in a skinny, pasty hipster girl wearing a T-shirt that says 1993 First Team Bucks County Nose Tackle. It might get a few thumbs up at a Jonathan Lethem reading, but that’s the opposite of irony, because that was the intended effect. She wanted to impress like-minded people. The T-shirt would only be ironic if it produced the opposite of the desired effect, in some synchronistic way.

For instance, imagine the girl wore that T-shirt to a town hall meeting where the debate of the night involved tearing down an art gallery  to put in a football stadium. She may be trying to voice her indignation in the form of an absurd, illogical T-shirt. But what if the town board saw the shirt and said, “Well, we were going to turn down the stadium proposal, but obviously the town is full of football fans, most notably the skinny, pixie-haired girl, who once challenged the status-quo by succeeding in an arena traditionally ruled by obese black men. Football stadium approved!” Now that’s ironic.

The picture above shows a mugshot of a man wearing a “World’s Greatest Dad ” T-shirt. Skirts the edge of irony, but it ain’t quite it. Turns out the man was arrested for soliciting a 14-year-old online, certainly not the actions of the planet’s finest father. Ironic? I’m still not convinced. It’s disturbingly contrary, like a terrorist donning a peace sign, but it isn’t ironic. For his sake, part of me wants to imagine he is a dedicated hipster, and he wore this shirt, and committed this crime, so that I would blog about him and say he is the greatest ironic prankster of his generation. But I won’t do that. Because I believe in the integrity of irony. And I believe this guy is really just a pervert.

March 13, 2010

That Ain’t Irony, Son: Morissette’s Malcolm Gladwell Moment

I only have a few pet peeves. Now you’re sure to hear about them all on the pages of this blog, and you’ll inevitably send me angry missives that start, “Dear sir, contrary to your assertion, I have found at least 512 instances where you were a cane-wagging Andy Rooney of a bastard.” Really, though, I poke fun, but I don’t exactly get worked up.

Take some common usage errors. Its or It’s? Than vs. Then? There, They’re or Their? Affect vs. Effect? These are apparently the sorts of things that send defenders of the King’s English to the top of bell towers with rifles slung over their shoulders. To me, it’s all just a symptom of the ineffectiveness of spellcheckers. Doesn’t bother me much. If the meaning is intact and the rest of the writing is lucent, then I tip my hat and move on.

The misuse of the word irony is another story. One of those few pet peeves? Most definitely.

You could blame it on Alanis Morissette, as I do many of the world’s problems. In my philosophical years, my pals and I would often discuss how the only ironic thing about her song Ironic was that none of it was ironic. Comedian Ed Byrne must have had a bug in our bottle opener, because he did a mighty funny bit about the exact same thing.

It’s well-worn ground to say the least, so I won’t dwell on Morissette’s reckless cutlery purchasing habits or her possible po-mo genius. I will, however, say that while the song doesn’t mark the beginning of the problem, it marks the tipping point. These days, irony and its derivatives have become the alohas of circumstance—ubiquitous catchall words for anything unexpected, coincidental, or contrary.

“So Phyllis, I’m at the grocery store the other day to buy some chipped beef and wouldn’t you know it, I ironically bought some corned beef instead!”

“I had just buried the body in the backyard. Then I turned on the TV and the latest episode of Ghost Whisperer was on. Ironic, huh?

“My new album is filled with irony. It’s mostly country music and hip hop…which I despise.”

If you’re keeping score, none of the above are proper uses of irony. Ironically, they are all snippets of dialogue from a little-known, late-era O. Henry collection, titled Bet You Didn’t See That One Coming, Did Ya Charlie?

In an effort to staunch the cultural bleeding, I’m asking that like-minded folks send me any examples of the misusage of irony they can find (in films, on news broadcasts, anywhere). I will include the blasphemy in a recurring column known as That Ain’t Irony, Son. Hopefully, we can put an end to the nonsense. Or laugh at it at least.