By Martin Bisi
On the way to an event last night called “Dances Of Vice,” I was planning this blog post about irony, and trying to define the different possible threads of irony in music.
So the event is themed, with most people in Victorian or fantasy clothing, and all the musical performances involve cellos, violins, and harps – everything very baroque. I walk to the side of the stage and I see a Flying V guitar. I think, OMG, how ironic ! The Flying V is a staple of hard rock/metal -almost the opposite of what the event was about. Then i see a capo clipped to the guitar. (A capo is a common accessory of folk music, and metal guitarists as a rule will not use them.) So the irony pleasure-center in my brain goes into double, triple overload. I ask the people around me about the guitar, excitedly pointing out the irony. The guitarist (for performer Fern Knight) is somehow summoned, and he says “don’t see one of those (a capo), on a Flying V too often, huh”. I think that might have been a first in history actually.
So that’s almost a textbook definition of irony – something being in a context outside of how it’s normally defined. But something about our use of the word with music, has always suggested to me the assumption that it was a new phenomenon.
The first time I was confronted with the issue of irony, was in the very early days of 80s indie rock, around the time I was recording bands like Live Skull and Sonic Youth. A friend of mine who specialized in Middle Eastern string instruments, and worked with Bill Laswell, said to me disparagingly: “there’s a whole lot of irony going on” —in reference to indie rock. I thought he meant that elements, primarily lyrics, were going into the music for the sake of being funny. I’m sure you can find funny songs in every culture. And all cultures have at least 2 distinct musical disciplines – sacred, and social music. In social, popular music -music for the people- you will have had humor, for as long as people had a sense of humor. So maybe when a type of humor in music is old and established, we just wouldn’t call it ironic. Somehow Johnny Cash singing “A Boy Named Sue”, or “I killed a man in Reno..” isn’t ironic, but Sonic Youth singing “We’re gonna kill the California girls..” is. (And that’s ironic in itself)
The other type of irony is using an instrument or method that is normally considered bad, and suggesting that it’s actually good, and doing it consciously. The way I just described it, you’d think we’d encourage that, and we do – when it works. But when it doesn’t work, we can dismiss it as a fad, or a pointless, vacuous attempt at irony. So when you add a kazoo solo in a rock song you’re ironic, but when you add distorted guitar to polka beats it could be the record of the year – hello Gogol Bordello.
Very recently, I threw the irony card at someone. I said to Amanda Palmer (from Dresden Dolls) who has been doing more songs on ukulele, that the ukulele was an “ironic instrument”. I asked: “where is the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele ?”—”why hasn’t Philip Glass composed for ukulele ?”. For those who’ve missed this, using a ukulele has been falling into a sub-genre called Steam Punk – people with a punk attitude who use non-electric instruments, such as one would find during the time of steam engines. (Can I write irony in all caps here ?) Well innovation wouldn’t be innovative, if it made sense to everyone at first, and what if the steam-punks prove punk doesn’t need loud guitar ? A little more time might tell.
I’ve suggested that traditional music is insulated from being thought of as having irony. Same holds for so-called serious music. In my young engineering years, I worked with Fred Frith who is a notable avant garde innovator, viewed by many as serious. He once said to me: “sometimes when music is really good, it’s funny”. And Frith is well known for laughing copiously during sessions. I think it’s because of the combinations of things he would try—and when they’d sound good to him, it was like the irony in a good joke.
I think if he had found that the right choice in a piece of music was a Flying V guitar with a capo on it, he would have laughed his ass off.
Martin Bisi is an American producer and songwriter. Visit him at www.myspace.com/theendcredits.