Every day between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Cory Alan and Mr. Furious are posting to the MFR [blog], publishing year-end thoughts and post that slipped out of the regular rotation. Mr. Furious Records – Giving You Music.

For the sake of a shared definition; ironic statements are statements which communicate a message opposite of the plain meaning of the words used. For example, Cory tells me that he believes “My Humps” is the best song of 2005; I say “Cory! You are 100% right! ‘My Humps’ is an unparalleled work of aesthetic genius!” The effective use of irony requires a shared cultural context and set of understandings between parties (i.e., BEP sucks Elephunk and after); without it, the listener is likely to miss the messages’ ironic subtext, and recieve the opposite message which is found in the plain meaning of the words. Cory feels validated, instead of contradicted.

Irony is often used when talking about meaningful, important subjects; war, love, and right/wrong (or good/bad, if you’re of a different ethical bent). There are situations where statements are made about these things using irony, which raises the question; is a message-sender morally responsible for listeners who take ironic statements at face value?

On the howie&scott record signs.comets, we have a song called “Midnights & Tape Delays” that is about more than high school football:

Rocking back to think about our celebration, I see you
And what it means to occupy another nation
Saddle up our horses
We’re throwing down with everything we’re worth
It’s all about the pitch and roll, and up the field
Toe the line
Texans raised on turf war aren’t about to yield behind schools
Or ocean’s divide

And I can’t help but feel sincerely misaligned
Since I found the heaven and the hell
The devil and the angel
The night and day within your eyes
In your eyes
Midnights and tape delays
Crawled into you too late
Three in the morning and leaving at 8:00
Stuck in the snow today
Looked from the road – away
Echo effects in the cold instead

Lines four and seven-eight are the dangerous ones. On the surface, a listener might easily hear a message of encouragement, of “stay-the-course!”, of toughness on the gridiron and in battle half a world away. But the song is intended to send up those positions, revealing their tribalist roots and illustrating that strategies learned in Texas football are not an effective basis for international relations. It’s a subtle irony, not easily caught.

If a listener hears “Midnights & Tape Delays” and is encouraged to become or stay a war-of-choice-starting, torture-explaining, jingoistic advocator of unjust violence*, then I would feel like I’d done something wrong; an early indicator of moral responsibility. Can we find a means by which to explain how I am culpable for unintended consequences of my statements?

Jody thinks that message-senders are obligated to make their ironic expressions clearly ironic. She talks about a shared responsibility; for the senders to make their statements broad enough to be seen, and the listeners to be reasonably attuned to the cultural context of the art and artist, alert for irony. It seems like a solid approach to me, and I worry a bit that “Midnights & Tape Delays” may not satisfy its requirements. It probably does if you know me personally; it may not be OK if you don’t.

The stance of “critical realism” towards the universe in general, and art in particular, that I have argued in other posts here is reflected in Jody’s thinking. Her position recognizes the impact of art on the rest of the world; both aesthetic statements and attendance are meaningful and significant in relationship to our physical, mental, spiritual, and moral universes. I think it captures the essence of the moral use of irony, without going overborad on dishing out responsibility for consequences an artist couldn’t forsee or control.

*Note; I am not advocating a position of complete pacificim or demonizing every military action in American history (see: Kosovo, Afghanistan) so Republicans don’t freak out!

5 thoughts on “THE "MORAL" USE OF "IRONY"”

  1. This topic is pretty interesting, and not what I expected when you told me you were going to blog about the moral use of irony in music- I sincerely thought you were going to rip on The Darkness for a couple of paragraphs :)

    But this is a good topic. I understand Jody’s concern that, if you don’t make irony clear enough, it can do some damage, because it definitely can. If you write an anti-drug song about how awesome cocaine is, but sound sincere, people who are suggestable might accidentally start to think that maybe cocaine IS pretty awesome, even though you were trying to make an anti-drug statement.

    But, I don’t think there’s any moral obligation, really. I mean, it seems like if you even use irony at all, there’s going to be SOMEONE who takes you seriously, no matter how blatant you make your ironic statements. So then you’re left with the choice of either (a) being ironic, and not really worrying about who might take it the wrong way, or (b) be sincere, all the time. You COULD make a disclaimer before the song that says “I’m Being Ironic!,” but that takes away any sting or effectiveness that the ironic statement has.

    In your example, you talk about “Midnights and Tape-Delays” (which has one of the coolest melodies you’ve ever written at the end of it, by the way), and the lines that are anti-imperialistic, and how you might have written those lines too subtly for everyone to understand that you don’t really mean it.

    MAYBE! And that might be a big deal if you were writing a religious text or a newspaper article, but since it’s art, it’s a different case. People expect religious texts and news articles to be sincere and factual. Most people expect art to be poetic, abstract, and a lot of times, people expect the artist to say something that means someting completely different, because of it’s context.

    But even if your words are misread, what are the possible effects of that? Let’s say someone hears it and takes it literally- if they agree already, no harm done. If they take it literally and they “disagree,” who cares? If it bothers them, maybe they’ll listen closely enough to decipher what you actually mean. Let’s say someone hears it, and it actually ifluences them to have an imperialistic state of mind- then they probably shouldn’t be allowed to listen to that type music in the first place.

    I’m not trying to be snotty or condescending here- I’m saying that some people (small, naive children, for example) who listen to music and take everything they hear literally (whether right or wrong, sincere or ironic) should probably not listen to songs like “Midnights and Tape-Delays,” “When the President Talks to God,” or my upcoming anti-cocaine hit single, “8-Ball in the Corner Pocket.”

    So, no- I don’t think the message-sender is morally responsible for listeners who take ironic statements at face value. I think people who are “rational” people (you know, aside from people who don’t know any better, like dogs and dumb babies) should be morally responsible to listen to music actively, not passively. If we worried too much about how people would intepret our art (or even our everyday words), we’d become paranoid of ever expressing anything in any way other than straightforward sincerity.

    Which is boooooring and totally safe! Kind of like not doing cocaine!

  2. I’ve always been of the opinion that, with art, the sender and receiver must meet halfway.

    As the artist, you do have some sort of obligation to make sure the listener knows what you’re talking about. But You get to decided how far to go. The listener has an obligation to search for the meaning, but shouldn’t be lost in the dark.

    If the listener is unwilling to go the distance to meet halfway, then they should be left to listening to numbing drivel that doesn’t do anything, like any creation of Scott Stapp’s. If they don’t try to get it, then it’s their fault that they don’t get it. But if the artist is unwilling to go the distance to meet halfway, or goes too far, then they run the risk of seeming condescending, aloof, and pretentious. Which, I guess, isn’t always a bad thing, but you’re not likely to get anywhere with it.

    I’ve always felt that They Might Be Giants have done an excellent job of writing songs about stuff that are worth something at face value, and more if you delve into it. Because everybody wants a rock to wind a piece of string around.

    In the case of “Midnights and Tape-Delays,” I never thought the intention of the song was to advocate a non-ironic position, and for that I look to the line following seven/eight: “And I can’t help but feel sincerely misaligned.”

    Maybe I just read the lyrics differently, and maybe it’s because I actually know you, but that’s always been a signal to me that this isn’t your gung-ho support of anything related to current military operations.

    I’m interested to see the opinion of someone who doesn’t know you personally, and see what conclusions they arrive at.

  3. @ Cory – “If you don’t make irony clear enough, it can do some damage…” – “But, I don’t think there’s any moral obligation, really.”

    What ethical criteria recognizes damage done to a person by another, without recognizing any kind of obligation not to do that damage?

    Imagine your 8-Ball song… with the most pro-coke lyrics imaginable, sung as “sincerely” as possible, and you do makeup and clothes and your video to be pro-coke too. Take it to the limit (but it’s ironic!) but there are no clues about the irony in the art (nothing but knowing you personally – even in interviews, you ironically say that coke is awesome).

    Then a kid starts doing coke. Are you saying the artist has ZERO responsibility?

    I’m saying the artist has SOME. JT says it best – there must be a “halfway” meeting place between artist and listener, where the former should make their irony decipherable to a reasonable person, and listeners should be reasonable people.


  4. Yeah, definitely halfway as far as understanding goes. If the artist doesn’t reveal irony, then it can cause damage. If the listener is naive, then it can cause damage. But if you’re so “sincere” with your irony, is it really irony at all?

    Howie, you said that “The effective use of irony requires a shared cultural context and set of understandings between parties.” I agree. And if I did the cocaine song and NEVER LET ON EVER that I was being ironic, then I would call that define that as something different than irony.

    So if irony is misunderstood, we can assume one of two things; either the artist used irony effectively, and the listener f’d it up, or the artist didn’t really use irony effectively, and the listener is fairly innocent (I can’t really envision too much of a gray area, unless maybe a listener mistakes a foriegn idiom for a literal statement or something).

    So, when I say that the artist isn’t responsible at all if the listener mistakes the message, I kind of presupposed that the artist would be doing something that we could actually classify as “irony,” rather than lying.

    If I made the cocaine song, and never told anyone (not even my friends or loved ones) how I REALLY felt about cocaine, and never ever let on once that I wasn’t sincere, and didn’t talk about how awesome cocaine was with an exaggerated enthusiasm, or a sarcastic tone, I don’t know how we could even begin to classify or disect the morality of it beyond that I’m being immoral by lying, rather than misusing irony.

    I like this discussh! Keep it coming!

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