A couple of years ago, the always-inflammatory Salon ran a piece entitled “The 15 Most Hated Bands of the Last 30 Years.” Included on the list were such hate-favourites as Nickelback (hatred of them has become so common as to be ubiquitous), but also many of the bands whose work came to define the sounds of the ’90s. Think Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Matthews Band, and Hootie and the Blowfish. Surprised to hear that they are the most hated band? So was I. But then again, in many ways I really wasn’t. Though I was incredibly annoyed at rediscovering this list a little over a week ago, I saw it as just another sign that we are indeed still living in “The Age of Irony.”
At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why the list annoyed me so much. Was it simply because they had listed the Goo Goo Dolls, one of my favourite bands, on the list? Was it the commonsensical way it was written, as if of course we would all agree that those pseudo-authentic rock bands from the 1990s were really just plain awful and that anyone who thought they were actually good were delusional at best and philistines at worst? Or was it the patronizing, ironic tone it adopted, so common among self-styled music critics and others in the click-bait universe who manage to garner views by adopting a hipsterish ironic pose to every item of popular culture they encounter?
Of course, it was all of those things. In the Age of Irony, everything is just a surface to be mocked and ridiculed. Indeed, the source of the pleasure isn’t even in the cultural object, but instead in finding something amusing about it, placing oneself above it so that one is, allegedly, no longer under the thrall of the omniscient, omnivorous, omnipresent culture industry. At a deeper level, however, these types of ironic clickbait posts also suggest something deeper about our cultural zeitgeist. We might just as well say that we are living in an Age of Alienation, when it becomes much easier (and allegedly more satisfying) to use the texts that surround us ironically, rather than seeking out any sense of emotional authenticity they might contain (because how could anything produced by the mass culture industry be authentic, anyway?)
Now, I’m not saying that irony doesn’t have its purposes, or that it can’t be an effective political tool for the disenfranchised to strike back at the dominant world that swamps them with its ideologies. No one who has ever studied gay camp and its deconstruction of traditional gender norms and performances would be able to say that. However, I fear that this particular type of irony, a key part of the world of postmodernism, only ends up reinscribing the very power structures that should be critiqued. You can be ironic and laugh at how foolish the masses are, but only if you’re educated enough, only if you’ve managed to procure the types of reading skills that allow you to reach the Olympian heights of today’s finest ironists. Otherwise, you’re just another one of the foolish plebians, shut out of the party.
You may call me old-fashioned, and perhaps I am blinded by my own love of many aspects of 1990s culture (I was born in 1984, so I am too young to have the millennial sense of distance from the ’90s). But, on the other hand, can you blame me for wanting to obtain a little bit of authentic feeling from the music that defined my youth? Truly, I think that some of these “most hated bands” do allow us to gain some sort of feeling, a measure of the zeitgeist of the last decade of the 20th Century (and, I might point out, the second millennium). Simply dismissing them as “most hated” as if that is a piece of commonsense wisdom ultimately says more about the ways in which the contemporary decade looks at its 20th Century forbear than it does about the music itself, or about those who like said music. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go turn on my Goo Goo Dolls, settle in, and re-experience that heady, moody time known as the ’90s.