“In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him. Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes-brush, a sort of intellectual “There!”—yet at the brink of this story he has as yet gone no further than the conscious stage. As you first see him he wonders frequently whether he is not without honor and slightly mad, a shameful and obscene thinness glistening on the surface of the world like oil on a clean pond, these occasions being varied, of course, with those in which he thinks himself rather an exceptional young man, thoroughly sophisticated, well adjusted to his environment, and somewhat more significant than any one else he knows.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald The Beautiful and the Damned (1922)
Discourse over the meaning of modern irony is hardly new. Scott Fitzgerald chose the above paragraph to open his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned set more than a century ago. Of all Anthony Patch’s many faults, Fitzgerald introduced the reader to the attraction and insouciance of irony first. Sitting at the precipice of his own aching moment of modernity—the world then, too, seemed quick, dislocating, interconnected in discomfiting fashion, conspicuous in its consumption—Patch emerges in the novel as a pessimistic placeholder for the author himself, and yet the “shameful and obscene thinness” that ate at Fitzgerald has grown no deeper in the roughly 100 years since. The modern dandy, today’s Wayfarer-wearing disrupter, still festoons him or herself in aesthetics, slipping away, only slightly, behind the critical distance of the ironic.
And yet, rock music has remained as safe as any popular art form from the perils of irony. The postmodernism that came to playfully gut and mock the edifices of the 20th century never quite reached rock, a discipline itself conceived as a subversive but not internally incoherent system. Like the linguistic theorist Ferdinand de Saussure argued about language, meaning in independent rock music was too built on a relationship between the signifier and the signified, tied together as inextricably as two sides of a sheet of paper. You could even Instagram yourself in an ironic shirt in front of your authentic vinyl collection without shame. If modernity offered a hard candy shell, we still lived in its soft, gooey center. Emotive pop music meant to make the audience feel a certain type of way—the audience then felt that way. There was never a doubt about meaning. Independent rock bands and fans became committed Structuralists—albums meant what they were supposed to mean.
Our age grew serious, though our rock records already were. Mounting, legitimate anxieties about the environment, economic inequality, race and religion collided with the aching terror and emptiness of bougie-ness, of bespoke everything. Mainstream rock and pop responded hesitantly to some of these concerns, although Green Day’s dalliance with earnest political critique on American Idiot proved more cautionary tale than anything else. Largely rock remained an instrument of emotional expression, avoiding politics, save in safe or oblique ways—The National’s “Fake Empire” being the best example. Rock musicians eschewed intentional irony entirely, even as inverted meaning consumed their fashion choices and the cultural world in which they played. It would be hard to name a popular artist in the past few decades who set out to make an internally subversive piece of music.
Despite this mountain of tradition—or maybe because of it—the Serious Rock Record began to show weakness last fall. Two very different albums, one of more limited popularity and the other more broadly engaging, suggested internal transgressiveness in the world we’ve come to inherit as “independent rock”. Parkay Quarts’ Content Nausea and Ariel Pink’s Pom Pom began their ironic meditations with new names: “Parkay Quarts” the phonetic play on “real” band Parquet Courts and Pink dropping “Haunted Graffiti” as the suffix to his stage name. It was the beginning of the twist—both bands were and weren’t the band the listener expected. The records possessed equally slippery meaning.
Pink declared his music a solo project, even as Pom Pom featured his widest range of collaborators, and Parkay Quarts, only two members of the four-piece Parquet Courts, entitled their LP, Content Nausea, ironically and self-consciously, their second album of 2014. Both albums asked for serious attention, and were treated seriously by critics, but both records also subverted themselves in name, form, and content. This brand of irony was new to independent rock: Pink and Parkay Quarts both are and aren’t serious, a different project for the music listener and cultural critic of the middle part of another uncertain decade.
Parkay Quarts tellingly shifted their name for one-off release, Content Nausea, from the titular nostalgia of their other moniker. Parquet Courts inspires images of the mid-80s Boston Garden: hallowed ground of an NBA dynasty. Or more personal nostalgia, the kitchen floor of your childhood. It is a name that occupies a place somewhere in a collective and fond memory. Parkay Quarts is, taken literally, 32-ounces of butter substitute. The winsome qualities of Parquet Courts, whatever their weaknesses, are fully hollowed out when recast as Parkay Quarts. The new version represents a phonetic and actual substitute for the real thing.
Content Nausea is often ironic and serious in the same moment; an album that deeply considers our ADHD-age of scrolling and “content production” is itself internally conflicted. It is, after all, more content. The album resounds as an anxious and tricky mediation on Our Revolting Relationship to Media. It is one of these How We Live Now pieces, that unfortunately comes through the same channels it decries. The band was an exciting, titillating, late-season news piece on all the reliable content production sites: “NEW ALBUM FROM PARQUET COURTS/PARKAY COURTS”, the headlines screamed. The title: Content Nausea. Tellingly, the first track is the annoying, metronomic, “Everyday It Starts” with the first lyrics: “Everyday it starts… anxiety.” The band couldn’t help being co-opted by the same machine they raged against, like the guy in traffic who wonders, “Where the fuck did all these cars come from?”
In a self-conscious twist, Parquet Courts/Parkay Quarts became the traffic—they were the nauseating content. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene reviewed the eponymous lead single, “Content Nausea”, commenting on its indictment of the digital age: “The effect is stunning and exhausting.” There was no acknowledgement of participating in the problem enumerated in the music he was reviewing. The band was in on the joke, even if Greene wasn’t; “Content Nausea” was named “Best New Track”. Greene’s review would be cataloged along the others somewhere near the top of Google’s search algorithm for the term “content nausea,” and with that the irony undertow pulled everyone a bit further from the beach.
Parkay Quarts anticipated the discourse about Content Nausea, a necessary and playful evil. The two members of the reconstituted band, Andrew Savage and Austin Brown, found themselves just as complicit as Greene was reviewing their work. How can a band inveigh against the consumption of content that allows for their existence without participating in the problem? The other option was silence. Savage and Brown paid more than passing attention to this disjoint. On “Pretty Machines”, Savage sings, “Punk songs, I thought they were different. I thought they could end it, but, no, it was a deception.” In Savage’s world punk or rock songs can’t “end it” anymore, one of those self-defeating comments that both empties and imbues “Pretty Machines” with its meaning. Art is, in this sense, something of an abusive fetish: We turn to it for answers, even when we know it to be compromised. Savage mulls the spent “beers” and “tears,” something that must be a placeholder for a thrashing search for meaning, in being a band, before deciding, “These days I fear my window was just a reflection.” The chord resolution unintentionally recalls the “a little peculiar” from 4 Non Blondes “What’s Up?”. Savage finds himself staring at his reflection, the hopes of escaping the self through art finding only the self again. Songs can’t “end” the problem when they are also part of the problem.
And it is this self-reflection/self-referential that drives and derails Content Nausea. Savage and Brown unleash satisfying and pedantic screed on single, “Content Nausea”:
“Scrolling binary ghettos for escape, for reminders this will be a good year to free poets from the back-patting dungeons of content and comments, to free artists from empty and vulgar broadcasting ritual. For this year it became harder to be tender, harder and harder to remember meeting a friend, writing a letter, being lost, antique ritual, all lost to the ceremony of progress, like the central organs removed, they’re only weighing you down, you didn’t need ’em”
It’s the same type of Commerce Is The Problem polemic that offered energy but ultimate weakness to Julian Casablancas’ latest work with the Voidz. After all, labels, even if only small ones, promoted and sold these records. The power of these albums, such as they allow themselves any, lies in the ability to subvert their very existence—a game Parkay Quarts plays but Casablancas won’t or can’t. Savage and Brown put a Strokes-inspired lead guitar in “Pretty Machines”, the same song that leaves them not with punk songs but with a look in the mirror. Rock songs are nothing but the same “pretty machines” we are encouraged to buy. Still Savage and Brown hope you hear and buy their “Pretty Machines”. They hope it means something to you even while they know this is all bullshit. Tricky. As far what is “lost to the ceremony of progress”, Content Nausea spins irrelevantly in the sea of zeros and ones it decries; its only power is self-awareness of its lack of meaning, the last armor of the modern artist. If you’ve heard the album, it is likely through one of the many “binary ghettos” or “back-patting dungeons” that comprise the “vulgar broadcasting ritual” of the musician, and Parkay Quarts knows it.
The power of irony has always lain in a mixture of engagement and remove. The power to appropriate and play without explicit consequence. You can wear a Michael Bolton t-shirt because liking Michael Bolton is stupid; you can also still like Michael Bolton. You are allowed guilty pleasures. Taylor Swift has practically perfected our modern mixture of joy and shame. The post-modern condition allows for certain disguise, the banal and the morose, the meaningful and the meaningless to occur coterminously. Things can be so bad, they’re good. Campiness or silly conceits can be so stupid, they’re brilliant.
Maximizing play in art, even at the risk of becoming independent rock’s Troll-In-Chief, Ariel Pink released his third long-player, Pom Pom this past autumn. Pink is at once a Very Serious Artist and one with doubts about how useful terms like these are. If Content Nausea is exhausting, Pink’s new disc is a marathon sprinted in dizzying circles. Each track features internal inconsistency and drastic arrangement shifts, the most beautiful, incoherent and intentionally inchoate grouping of songs since They Might Be Giants’ genre-bending “Fingertips” 21-track medley closing Apollo 18. It is perhaps worth noting the much unheralded They Might Be Giants had already mastered the game of genre-play more than 20 years ago with substantially less irony.
Pink smashes genres together with glee, at times sounding like a lost Magnetic Fields album and others like a maniacal, prodigal child covering New Order songs. Colliding arrangement impulses, time signatures and influences allows Pink a measure of remove, appearing more as curator than artist, a distinction that may help to explain the ditching of “Haunted Graffiti” from his performance nomenclature and Pom Pom‘s long list of collaborators; it is a circus and Pink is its ringleader.
Part of the charm in Pink’s work, and it certainly has saved him from more savage criticism of his dumber public comments, lies in his ability to subvert himself. By the end of Pom Pom, it is only clear that Pink is a technical craftsman—everything else is disputable. Is he a womanizer or a bleeding heart? The jangly “Put Your Number In My Phone” reveals Pink as vulnerable, unrequited for a moment, singing the title lyric before unleashing the lyric, “I hope to get some time alone, I want to get to know you more.” Midway, serving as the song’s bridge, a voice message, possibly real, plays, “Hey Ariel, it’s Jessica. We met at the taco truck in Silverlake, and I don’t know you’re, like, really busy or something, but I haven’t heard back from you, and I was just wondering, like, if you could …” The real or fictional jilted Jessica is interrupted by the final two syrupy choruses, the maudlin Pink singing “Talk to me, it’s now or never babe.” The implication is slippery: Ariel Pink is a guy who just wants to be loved, and he’s also a guy who collects phone numbers and never calls you again. “Put Your Number In My Phone” was the record’s first single, and Jessica’s apocryphal fate as someone who had the misfortune to actually follow the song’s advice remains unknown. He recently told the New Yorker about his new pornstar girlfriend while scrolling through Tinder. The listener gets a distinct sense that just behind Ariel Pink’s straight-face lies a wry smile.
It’s hard to know how serious Ariel Pink is when he declares Grimes “retarded”, claims he was “maced by a feminist,” or acknowledges a possible songwriting gig for Madonna by remarking on the “downward slide” of her career. It was the latter comment that earned Pink the ire of Madonna’s fans on Twitter, a mob backlash that Pink compared to “how Rwanda happened” in that same New Yorker profile. Like the interrupted voice message on “Put Your Number In My Phone”, Pink relies on the plastic meanings of modern irony. His comparison of Madonna’s fans to murdering Hutus is a visual metaphor so frankly absurd that it almost becomes acceptable again. Riding the bendable curve of meaning Pink is seemingly never entirely responsible for his comments or his music. If he offends, it was an intentional and subversive offense. Like your whip-smart middle school friend who ended every tense moment with “Geez, I’m just fucking with you,” searching for meaning and the immutable in Ariel Pink’s world is a useless enterprise.
Pink and Pom Pom are all things at once. He lionizes his sexual prowess on “Sexual Athletics” before confessing that he wants a girlfriend. Such contradiction allows Pink to critique only when he wants. Pom Pom‘s penultimate track, “Exile On Frog Street”, a lugubrious example of such convenience where Pink discusses himself as the mythic frog who might turn into a prince with a kiss from the right girl. Its closest stylistic approximation—and the more I thought the thought that follows, the more it was the only, unavoidable pathway to grappling with Pink’s record—is Peter Bretter’s puppet Dracula musical in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Another thing that was intended to succeed ironically, Jason Segel’s character has vested himself completely in something so bad, it might be good. The Dracula musical worked on two levels: Segel’s misery is palpable when he sings, “Die, die, die… I can’t” and the audience at the end laughs at Dracula’s death. It’s campy, stupid and great. Tragicomedy saves both artist and viewer from serious consideration. We can laugh in the face of our own struggles. After all, in the world of the self-regarding post-modern, yearning and seeking are only narrative tropes to be subverted.The irony overflowing Pom Pom achieves the same outcome: Ariel Pink is something of a puppet singing songs so painful, they might be hilarious.
None of this is to say that Pom Pom or Content Nausea are bad records or that their success lies only in their self-conscious or subversive qualities, but they are surely different than much of the rock and pop of the last few decades. No major indie rock band has yet sought to subvert their own art. Vampire Weekend won’t be releasing a record confronting the realities of being a WASPy band while also being a WASPy band. The National never pokes fun at their morose qualities in their music. Instead, they grow more legibly morose with each passing release. The last Arcade Fire record was about some of the same modern dislocations worried over by Pink and Parkay Quarts, but it took itself so seriously that its main touchstone was the figures Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology who appeared on the cover of the album—it was anything but subversive. When Win Butler wondered “What if a camera really do steal your soul?”, it might have been laughable, but he wasn’t joking.
At best Ariel Pink and Parkay Quarts force their listeners into a conversation about meaning and subversion, a discourse that feels increasingly insouciant. Just how much do we enjoy ironic artistic displays? While irony is a comfortable design for a t-shirt or the reason you play “Ice Ice Baby” at a dance party, it represents a more difficult proposition for art. That both albums represent some of the most exhausting music released in 2014 shouldn’t surprise anyone. Popular music need not have a center, but it helps. As social movements like Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter emerge in these our last days of a warped democracy and feudal economic superstructure, one wonders if musicians shouldn’t been engaged in the process of building moral weight in their music, not writing what amounts to a Dracula opera.
Rock survived postmodernism and irony because it was already an anti-establishment genre. But then rock became the establishment art form, co-opted by the modern media hellscape that Parkay Quarts finds so abhorrent. Following the logical syllogism, if everyone is a radical, no one is, and it stands to reason that artists might reconsider how and why to be a musician. How can you subvert the system when you’re lodged inside it? In retrospect, even the most attractive political rock song of the current generation, the anti-Bush “Fake Empire” has almost achieved its own unintended irony for its attachment to the empty progressiveness of the 2008 Obama campaign. And the unfolding meaning of the cultural world contains the anxiety of the artist. What if your authentic artistry later appears ironic? It’s enough to make you put a little something in your lemonade. Pink and Parkay Quarts attempt to hijack the discourse by subverting any potential meaning before it can be warped by the listener. An empty epoch demands more substance, not a more powerful vacuum.
Though Scott Fitzgerald’s Anthony Patch was a worrisome version of the artist himself, the author was no ironist. Fitzgerald, despite his modernist moment, its own empty age, was at heart a Victorian, a lover of meaning, of stupid, floral flourishes meant to move the reader. Ariel Pink and Parkay Quarts suffer no self-conscious worry that they’ve become the most cynical products of a cynical culture. As Fitzgerald suggests in the opening paragraph of The Beautiful and the Damned, irony represents only a passing stage in development, an attractive one for a 25-year old dandy. Whether bands and artists grow out of this protracted post-adolescence is a question posed but unanswered by Ariel Pink. A new fixation with irony surely isn’t the answer. Otherwise bands aspire to be only oil on our cultural pond: glistening, colorful and entirely superficial.