Like many people well into middle age, I’ve felt increasingly out of sync with the modern world in recent years. The things I value most seem to be less appreciated in the 21st century, while the values of the new century seem foreign to me.
It’s impossible to tell what posterity will make of the age one is living in, and it’s not unlikely that the present day will go down as the Age of Isolation or the Age of Unreality. Personally, though, I think it may be tagged as the Age of Irony, and I have a big problem with irony.
“Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary” defines “irony” as “the use of words to express something other than and esp. the opposite of the literal meaning.”
That’s a good starting point, but there’s more to it than that. As it’s used today, “irony”—a.k.a. “snark”—means a shying-away from the emotional content of life’s experiences, a retreat into a certain kind of fatalistic humor. Something bad happens to us and, instead of saying “This is awful,” we say “Oh, great,” or “That’ll teach me to get my hopes up.” The words and, more important, the attitude serve as a kind of armor around our souls … but they’re an armor that, each time it’s used, becomes a little harder to get off. Before we know it, we’re sardonic as a reflex, sarcastic as a personality trait, ironic as a way of life.
Now, I can be as ironic as the next guy, but I try not to be when it counts, which is in my art and in my dealings with the people who matter most to me. I do my best to express my emotions straightforwardly in the songs that I write and the shows that I stage, and in talking with the people I love.
I think that’s why I’ve been so drawn to country music in recent years. So many other forms of music—including the pop music and musical theater which were my favorites for my first 45 years or so—are reflexively ironic, looking to mask the emotion at the heart of their songs in “cleverness,” which in most cases means to deny the power of that emotional heart, to make the song performative rather than expressive. The best country songwriters dare to not be clever, to simply say what they have in mind.
There’s a 1944 song by Cole Porter called “I Love You,” which reportedly was based on a challenge from his old friend Monty Woolley. Woolley didn’t express it this way, but essentially his challenge to Porter was: “You’ve written a hundred love songs like ‘Let’s Do It’ and ‘You’re the Top,’ which use love as an excuse for cleverness, for wit, but do so at the expense of the actual emotion. Can the great Cole Porter write a love song that’s simply called ‘I Love You’?”
Porter responded by writing a terrific song, but I’d argue that he failed the challenge:
‘I love you,’ hums the April breeze
‘I love you,’ echo the hills
‘I love you,’ the golden dawn agrees
As once more she sees daffodils
It’s spring again
and birds on the wing again
Start to sing again
that old melody.
“I love you,”
that’s the song of songs,
And it all belongs
to you and me
These are fine lyrics, and Porter’s tune is lovely, but nonetheless he’s ducked the emotion again. He puts the title in the mouth of the breeze, the hills, the dawn and the birds, and then says “I do too.” It’s a cleverer take on Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s glibly dismissive “Everyone Says I Love You” (1932). In its own way it’s as clever and as heartless as “Let’s Do It” (1928) and “You’re the Top” (1934)—it simply uses hackneyed poetic imagery as its mask, rather than glittering wit.
By contrast, Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” (1951) has the directness that Woolley rightly found missing in Porter. It’s an artfully crafted lyric and tune, to be sure, but it never lets the art get in the way of the emotion.
Today I passed you on the street
and my heart fell at your feet—
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.
Somebody else stood by your side
and he looked so satisfied—
I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you.
I’m not arguing that Williams was a better songwriter than Porter; each was among the greatest songwriters America has ever produced. To say that Porter was incapable of writing a song like “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” isn’t to say that Williams was capable of writing “You’re the Top.” I love both men’s work, and can only wish that I was as good a songwriter as either.
The main difference between them is one of genre: Porter was writing for Tin Pan Alley and the Broadway musical theater, working in a tradition forged by Gilbert & Sullivan, Stephen Foster and George M. Cohan; Williams was writing country music, drawing on the same vein mined by Jimmie Rodgers, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. If they had been switched at birth, maybe Porter would have written Williams’ songs and Williams would have written Porter’s.
What I’m saying is that at this stage in my life, I respond more to emotional directness than I do to wit. I don’t appreciate Porter—or Gilbert, Cohan, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, John Kander or Lin-Manuel Miranda—any less than I ever did, but there’s something about the raw emotion of Williams and the tradition in which he worked that speaks more powerfully to me. Some people find that emotional power in blues or folk or rap; I find it in country.
I recently saw “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), the latest Marvel Comics megamovie. I enjoyed it—and, as always, I found myself drawn to Steve “Captain America” Rogers (Chris Evans), the sincere, idealistic heart of a picture otherwise packed with grim nihilists, angry militarists and witty cynics.
That the film’s values ultimately align with those of Captain America rather than with those of Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is heartening, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s one of him amid a sea of them. And the fact that Rogers is a man of the 1940s transported by happenstance to the present day suggests that the filmmakers think that it’s Stark—with a heart that’s literally armored—who is the spirit of our age, not Rogers. Call him Irony Man, if you will.
Irony is at its core a form of humor, performing the classic function of humor in letting us laugh at things that are hard to face head-on, including the insecurities of life, the vulnerability that comes with real love and the inevitability of death. It’s an essential human coping mechanism, and I appreciate it for that.
I think, though, that we live in an age in which irony has metastasized, in which chic cynicism has come to be viewed as wisdom. It’s an era in which humor without a biting edge seems old-fashioned or childish; in which someone’s head gets blown off on a movie screen and people laugh; in which emotional authenticity seems ignorant, unsophisticated, a failure of imagination.
That’s an understandable response to the horrors of modern life. In an age of environmental devastation, mass shootings and megalomaniacal politicians fighting to appeal to our basest selves, we could all use some armor on our souls. If this is an age of irony, it’s no wonder.
It’s not an age in which I’m happy to live, though, and I don’t have to if I don’t want to—none of us do. In the songs I sing, the songs I write and the plays I direct, I’m going to keep looking for the bedrock emotion, the heart at the heart of it all. Irony divides us, cheapens us, sells us short. Authentic emotion is what unites us, and art that expresses that emotion is the best answer to an age of irony.