By Andrew Edwards, PQ Monthly
The epiphany sounds like a Zac Brown Band song, and it looks like a collar-popped meathead dancing arm-in-arm with a slightly stooped woman whose cane, which rests neatly on the barstool beside me, matches her cowboy boots.
It’s my first night in Nashville, and the sodden July air is alive with the sounds, sights, and smells of honky tonk. My cousin and I are exploring the few blocks of downtown that inspire the city’s nickname, Nash-Vegas, and we’ve stumbled into a chintzy live-music joint masquerading as a karaoke bar, in which every last patron but me chose the same song. The only thing I have in common with the sardine-packed drunks around me is the glass of whiskey in my hand. Naturally I dispatch the last two fingers down my throat and order another.
Casting sideways glances like they’re evil spells, my eyeballs are primed for some world-class rolling. The bartender in the NASCAR jersey wouldn’t know an artisanal cocktail if it muddled itself all over him. The women hollering off-key from my right aren’t concerned that their watering hole has a one-and-a-half-star rating on Yelp. The band breaks into a Billy Ray Cyrus cover, and even a few hipsters appear in compliance with the establishment’s zero-irony policy as they rollick next to the stage. This place is just so … earnest.
Yet something strikes me before the snarky lobe of my brain takes full control of my body: I’m bewilderingly, confoundedly, disconcertingly drawn to the energy churning about this place, from the classic country-western records plastering the walls to the shards of peanut shells stuck to my sneakers. At first I blame Jack Daniels, but when the band breaks into “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” and I observe frat boys and senior citizens unite in unabashed glee, I concede the lack of pretense in this place is nearly as potent as the liquor. It might not be my style, but it seems everyone has converged in this gaudy tourist trap for no other reason than to enjoy themself.
Met with the type of cheese-ball zeal that would typically turn my stomach, I feel aberrantly free. No wall of self-awareness obstructing my enjoyment, no sardonic fence keeping me from cutting loose and having a good fucking time. In retrospect, it’s absurdly appropriate (and yes, ironic) that elbow-to-elbow with all manner of Tennessee-honky-tonk stereotypes is where it dawns on me that my old pals Irony and Cynicism, when left unsupervised, make it impossible to have honest and fulfilling experiences. Truly absurd, though, is how quick I was to judge in the first place. Is it symptomatic of my status as a millennial that I’m astonished at having fun in a context devoid of the things I find hip or trendy? Or is this defensive tendency deeper, rooted to something inside me I didn’t choose, but might be able to help?
First, I must admit that I am profoundly more self-conscious than I would like to be. Whether a result of years in the closet, unpleasant pre-teen experiences at the hands of my classmates, or a couple of crossed internal wires, I find myself constantly grappling with the critical voice in my head, with a dispiriting success rate. You’re a fraud with bad taste. You’re not even a fraction as smart as you think, and everyone knows it, it hisses. Even more troubling is how skillfully the voice disguises itself as those of my friends, my peers, my boyfriend, even random sidewalk passersby to cement its effectiveness at crippling me. Luckily, as we all know, the best way to conquer your own insecurities is to project them onto others. Irony and cynicism, I’ve come to recognize, are invaluable tools to that end.
In a 2012 New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Live Without Irony,” Princeton professor Christy Wampole asserts: “The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism.” Irony is the ethos of our age, she claims, and is “the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices.” In examining my own habits, as well as those of my generation, I see the writing splashed across the walls. I can’t be told I’m wrong if I’m not saying anything real to begin with. I can’t be laughed at for my lack of rhythm if my dancing is already making fun of the guy next to me. Living ironically allows me to feign indifference before the world realizes I’m an idiot with nothing to offer. The true irony is that in behaving this way, I’m already offering nothing.
That said, the world would be a dreary and humorless place without irony to bolster comedy, rhetoric, and social critique. “Fundamentalists are never ironists; dictators are never ironists; people who move things in the political landscape, regardless of the sides they choose, are never ironists,” Wampole points out. If that’s not an argument for at least a modicum of irony, then I’ll start wearing my own NASCAR jersey.
But rampant irony and cynicism, in place of sincerity and involvement, are copouts. They are simply calculated responses to fear of judgment and shame that ultimately accomplish nothing. Instead, let’s all try a little genuineness. There’s no shame in that.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.