Irony, Mimicry, and Mockery: American Popular Music of the Late Twentieth Century
Ferrandino, David John
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This study explores the role that irony has played in the creation and reception of American popular songs in the last four decades of the twentieth century. Popular culture underwent a widespread shift away from sincerity and toward irony during this time as Americans struggled to cope with the rapid social, political, and economic transformations taking place, from the Sexual Revolution to the Vietnam War to the rise of the internet. Irony is an indispensible outlet for venting frustrations with such tumultuous changes, as it opens up a crucial distance between an individual and society, allowing a perspective from which to rationally consider conflicting viewpoints. Many artists and musicians turned increasingly to irony as a method for social commentary because of this distancing effect. Popular music is, however, uniquely suited to be a tool for ironic critique because of its expressive immediacy and synaesthetic character, opening up space for the clash of contradictory meanings. In this dissertation I trace the history of the rise of irony in American culture through an examination of four such cases. Chapter 1 considers Randy Newman and his use of constructed character personae, or masks, to criticize social injustice and prejudice in his 1974 album Good Old Boys . Chapter 2 explores the ironic potential of the cover song as used by the late 1970s groups Devo and The Residents to attack the decadence of the music industry. Chapter 3 focuses on “Weird Al” Yankovic’s medleys of 1980s and 1990s pop songs performed in a polka idiom, with analysis informed by the complex and ironic history of the polka genre in America. Chapter 4 addresses the mid-1990s music of alternative rock band Cake, a group whose cool, ironic detachment disguises a passion for environmental politics and the culture of post-WWII America. I have focused on these specific musicians because they each have a distinct approach to using irony that is informed by their specific socio-historical contexts. Taken as a group, these case studies demonstrate the extent to which irony has become a ubiquitous technique in American popular music over the course of the twentieth century. To explore how and why irony became so ingrained in the American mindset, I propose a reformulation of the concept based on the perspectives and experiences of the listener rather than solely privileging the intentions of the author. Irony is not an inherent property of a work of art but rather an interpretive strategy informed by listeners’ expectations and their familiarity with the shared musical gestures and tropes of particular cultures. Internal friction among disparate, simultaneous meanings in a piece of music is often perceived as irony by listeners and the goal of my analyses is to highlight these dissonances by investigating the cultural factors at work in the creation and reception of a given song. Irony is thus a tool for broadening perspectives and reconciling differences and it is for these reasons that it has become such an integral way of thinking for Americans during a time of constant cultural flux. Rather than just a humorous or sardonic moment in an individual work or a clever manner of speaking, irony is a way of making sense of complex cultural products and the key to understanding and appreciating popular music created during the last decades of the twentieth century.