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Ironic Ink

05.11.2001 | CULTURE

While attending a show recently, I witnessed a scene that both amused and horrified me. A group of us were chatting idly in between bands when one of my friends did the classic 'look-but-don't-say-anything' motion: tapped me on the shoulder and pointed straight ahead. Standing a few folks in front of us was a girl in a tank top-type shirt, revealing a tattoo of the Twisted Sister logo on her shoulder.

We giggled to ourselves as quietly as possible and wondered if the tattoo artist had tried to talk the poor girl out of it. "You are aware that a tattoo is on your body forever, right? It doesn't wash off." Humor soon gave way to a strange sense of uneasiness. This girl looked to be in my age range (early 20s). So this skin adornment could not be explained away as a product of bygone zeitgeist, an era when a love of Twisted Sister would have been an honest expression of the times in which one lived. This was a tattoo born of irony. A tattoo that said, "See, I don't really like Twisted Sister. It's just funny because people used to really like them! Isn't that hysterical?"

I will concede it is possible the girl actually liked Twisted Sister. Based on her age, however, I seriously doubt it, unless she was really into metal at age 6. Plus, I find it hard to believe that anyone honestly likes Twisted Sister because Twisted Sister was a terrible, terrible band. (although in Dee Snider's defense, he was one of only three artists to testify before Congress against Tipper Gore's PMRC)

Irony is the sad curse of our age. I knew this already, as I'm sure you did as well. But it was only when I saw this tattoo that I realized the insane extent to which it had replaced emotion in our lives. We must face the awful truth: We don't actually like anything anymore. We pretend to like things, play at enjoying things that we all agree are stupid because it is much more fun and much less risky than expressing an honest feeling. Now we have reached a point where we permanently mark our bodies to display to the whole world our non-love. Our dedication to the avoidance of real affection.

The creeping 1980s revival, which has finally gripped the mainstream consciousness, is a prime example of this phenomenon. It has been propelled solely by the collective smirk we adopt whenever the decade is mentioned. It is a self-contained joke, set-up and delivery all rolled into one. Like the tired Borscht Belt shticks of yesteryear, we have heard all the stories before, and one only needs to mention simple phrases to get laughs. Mullet. Leif Garret. If nothing else, it has made the job of lazy comedians that much easier. Watch any recent episode of Saturday Night Live and observe that half the sketches have no jokes, only references to that foul decade. The audience laughs heartily, thinking these references to be humorous enough to stand alone, decontextualized.

We have to ask ourselves: What do we really find funny about the 1980s? Is it the big hair and the terrible synthesizers? Or is it the fact that people really liked these things back then? An even more chilling possibility: Do we find it funny that people honestly liked things period? What will the history books write about us? Will they write anything? I fear that our lack of passion for anything but mockery will brand us a Grover Cleveland era, mentioned only as a bridge between more fiery epochs.

We play with fire when we turn an entire decade into a punch-line. It dehumanizes the participants and minimizes the triumphs as well the evils. The 1980s were a complicated decade. They had Ronald Reagan but they also had Jello Biafra. There was the PMRC and there was Run DMC. There was the crushing of the industrial working class and the backlash against affirmative action. There was also the simultaneous rise of hardcore and hip-hop, with an emerging network of independent labels and distributors to support both. All of these things--good and bad--can happen again, folks. Keep this in mind as the retro-crazed dolt currently occupying the White House tries to perform a one-man revival of trickle-down economics and jellybean diplomacy. It can happen. And we can fight it if we want.

I had a roommate in college who honestly enjoyed 1980s heavy metal, Iron Maiden in particular. There was no irony in his affection. For some reason, this stuff really spoke to him. Though I didn't dig it myself, I appreciated his enthusiasm as genuine. But whenever he would tell someone that he liked Iron Maiden, they would always think he was kidding, and mock his love with air guitar and tongues hanging out of their mouths.

At the time, I got angry at these people for mocking him. Now I just feel sorry for these painted souls, with their skin too clogged with ironic ink to let any honest passion come through.

About the Author
Matthew Callan blogs daily at MSN Sports Filter. He has contributed to the NY Press, NPR, and "Excelsior You Fathead", a biography of Jean Shepherd. His Freezerbox piece "The Lemon Pledge" was given honorable mention in the 2003 edition of "Best American Non-Required Reading," and his fiction has been shortlisted for contests in Zoetrope: All-Story, Bomb magazine, and other publications.
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