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Music on trial: What we lose by calling our tastes “ironic”

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The other day I was walking with a friend, and the topic of our music tastes came up. After exchanging tastes for a bit, my friend mentioned a country artist that she liked, but then she immediately explained or defended her taste by saying, “I mean I like it, but it’s like ironic, so not really.” Huh? I understood what she meant, I think. Did I though? Does this conversation sound familiar to you at all? Ironically liking music? What exactly does ironically liking something even mean? I’ve had this conversation countless times, and it’s about time I try to break down what exactly we are trying to say.

To like something ironically means to take part in it for different reasons than those it was intended for. Usually, to like something ironically means to like it on the basis of amusement. A good example of this would be when someone attends a football game because they find NFL fandom entertaining. The person doesn’t care which team wins, nor does the person have any idea of how the scoring system works, so irony drives the fun. These ‘ironic’ actions occur frequently in today’s society.

So, if this is the case, is country music nothing more than a punch line to my friend? The ‘ironic’ label seems to imply something more than simply finding something awkward and comical, though. Labeling a genre or artist you like as ironic only tells us that you like them for a laugh and nothing more – but did my friend really only enjoy the music for that? Many people feel the same need to defend themselves about affection for pop or other genres of music that aren’t commonly enjoyed by their peers.

Of course, this can become confusing when we attempt to understand genres and their audiences, specifically in terms of hip-hop. Usually the audience of underground hip-hop, and, to some extent popular hip-hop, is made up of members of the white middle class. The audience is ironic because usually hip-hop’s lyrical themes aren’t really in line with that crowd. But this group’s enjoyment of the music is not ironic in any way. The pleasure they derive from listening to that music is there, and it is real.

In a world that is becoming more obsessed with anything ‘ironic,’ we are losing something essential along the way by dismissing art as such. That is, we miss out on enjoying something for what it truly is.

Irony becomes blurry when we look into our past and engage with what we used to listen to. For me, I remember watching 106 & Park on BET in middle school when Amerie’s “1 Thing” was on the Top Ten. I loved that song. At that time I considered it ironic because it wasn’t a song that I thought I would ever like, and it did not fit in my narrow pop-punk library. I thought it was funny whenever I mentioned to my friends that I liked Amerie, and usually I covered up my enjoyment of the song by saying something like “I only like the video because she’s pretty.”

Dismissing “1 Thing” as ironic perhaps reiterated what I thought was my good taste in music. It told people that I couldn’t fall for such garbage, that there was no way I could be interested in a contagious tune like that. But now it’s not ironic to me anymore. “1 Thing” was catchy when I heard it, and it still is. So if you play it to me on a Saturday night after 10:30 p.m., you better believe that I can sing along and recite Eve’s verse instantly. It’s just that good.

All in all, this ‘ironic’ label distorts our relationship with music. Being ironic with our music taste is dismissive and cynical and says that we can like something yet keep our distance, that we can laugh at something that creates emotions in other people and yet not be phased by it. It’s like having your cake and eating it too.

But what happens when we stop using “ironic” to describe our taste in music? Well, then we may begin to like music for what it actually is. We may begin to like the rhythm. Then, after that, we may begin to become emotionally involved in it. Then we may just eventually dare I say enjoy it.