We Who Do Not Wink

My name is Andy D, and I am a white rapper. I have written pop songs about love, sex, partying, sex with werewolves, and female ejaculation. I have had a moustache for three years, a rattail for two years, and wear almost exclusively pink shirts emblazoned with air-brushed pictures of kittens and unicorns. I am absurd, and I know it. I am absurd on purpose. What I am not doing is being ironic.

Let me explain. I have been called ironic many times. And at every instance of being called the I-word, I have responded violently - either smacking the offending prig with an open-handed slap or with a tongue-lashing along the lines of “your face is ironic!” or “shut the goddamn up!”

That said, this past spring, while drinking with some of my friends, the subject of my style came up, and one of my fellows did the unthinkable – called me ironic. Actually he said that the entire Andy D persona is predicated upon being ironical. Rather than clenching my hand into a furious fist of rage, I calmed my sweaty palms in a moment of inebriated curiosity and decided to explore my aversion to the concept of being… gulp… ironic.

His point was simple: I was ironic because in the absurdity of my rattail, moustache, wardrobe choice, and the nature of my music style and chosen topics of my song, I was making fun of certain groups of people – I was making a “judgment statement.” He claimed I was indexing the hallmarks of white trash and urban culture and conflating them to make a running joke, to which my music and appearance where the ever-present punch-line.

Ouch!

I recoiled at first, struggling to legitimize myself, as we white middle class men are wont to do in justifying our eclectic taste in the contemporary age. I was running scared – I said “no, no, the first rap song I heard was ‘Brass Monkey’ by the Beastie Boys;” I insisted “Russell Simmons said himself that ‘hip-hop is not black music, it’s young music’ – I’m still young right?” I confessed “My parents lived in a trailer when I was born, and my uncle had a rattail!” Oh man! Am I little more than a rapping hipster? Had I been doing this all for one long goof?

I immediately discarded that notion – no one can have a hair style for so long without liking it on some level – two years of having a rattail is a bit excessive for just a joke. I finally got a grip. I remembered we live in a time of such cultural confluence that the question “what kind of music do you listen to” is no longer meaningful; the relevant question now is “what music are you listening to right now?” The truth is I never really thought about why I was ever so offended, and being that this guy was my friend, it seemed the perfect opportunity to reason out my own feelings on the sitch with someone I knew and to understand his reasons for thinking as he did. I began to ponder the actual capabilities of one’s hair to be ironic.

How many musically-defined subcultures exist in contemporary America? Each has a uniform, a series of things one indexes to show group solidarity, effectively making prejudice (lit. prefabricated judgment) all the more easier – if one wears tight black pants and has a Mohawk, and Dead Kennedy Pins in their black leather jacket, one might be putting out into the world not only their style but their taste in music and identification with the social climate of 1977 New York and London. Same goes for Mods or Metal Heads or Indie Rockers. I don’t fit into any of these categories, yet I refuse to be unmarked. I’m a problem to prejudice. The sincerity of these others is apparent to everyone, why isn’t mine?

This question made me think of another example - urban culture AKA black people. How is it then that Lil’ Jon and the Ying Yang Twins can rap about the laudability of strippers and indeed build the whole hip-hop sub-genre of Crunk around their love of exotic dancers using humor and absurdity all the while, but when I rap about sex with werewolves also employing humor and absurdity, my own work bears the burden of being ironic on some meta-level to which Lil’ Jon and his ilk are immune?

This is when I realized it wasn't me making the judgment statement about
other perceived groups of people, it was my friend - him and everyone else who ever thought that what I am doing is ironic. And this is when I realized the real insidiousness of this problematic situation. It wasn't long before I was calling my friend a racist and a classist - the very same charges he had just been leveling at me in so many words.

I'm not setting up my friend as a straw man here in a moment of drunken clarity to level extremist claims against him; far from it. Instead, I’m just explaining that this was the moment I realized why being called "ironic" pissed me off so much – because coming as it did from my friend and all others representing the nadir of Gen-X sensibilities, embedded at this statement’s core is the idea that "you should know better."

The gestalt of my rattail and moustache and wardrobe is ironic because with my presumed higher education, my largely suburban upbringing, my knowledge of nostalgia and pop culture, and my very whiteness, I should know better. People with “real” rattails are seen marked as white trash who obviously don’t know better. And implicit in this thinking is the notion that Lil’ John doesn't know better than to drink from his jewel-encrusted golden chalice of crunk juice. They are not ironic because they are seen as minstrels. Not entertainers or artists, but minstrels. In the current Zeitgeist of Gen-X figureheads like Chuck Klosterman instating "unironically" as an almost indispensable adverb in nearly everyone one of his columns, Minstrelsy is alive and well. And I am assumed to be ironic because I should know better.

I’m a bad minstrel because I do not wink. There is a knowing wink between artists using absurdity and their audiences that lets fans in on the joke. It tells them, "yes I know I should know better, and I do! And you know that I know so just have a good time and love me." It’s beyond self-awareness. Even the most seemingly sincere artists knows when to wink. Morrissey - case and point. No artist has perfected the wink better than Morrissey. So blended are his (melo)dramatic lyrical flourishes and the cathartic self-referential twists that let Smiths fans know when to roll their eyes and laugh, that the guy has it down it a science. My accusatory friend is one of those rabid Morrissey fans, and oddly enough this whole time he was calling me ironic as a sort of compliment, not nearly as dismissive as others who have called me ironic have been. He actually contends that to be ironical nowadays is difficult and takes skill. Verily I say, for in a culture so hyper-tuned to irony (that found outside of literary analysis), I'm sure it would be difficult indeed to pull the wool over on the contemporary indie-rock gimlet eye. The problem remains however that I'm not being the I-word.

Take Prince as a counterpoint to Morrissey's mastery of the wink. Here is an artist who has presented himself in apparently crazy ways and made amazing music. He is a 5 foot 2 inch effeminate waif, who by all accounts of accoutrement should be the best friend of Dorothy, but who instead is heralded as a hetero sex symbol and envy of straight doods everywhere. Never has he winked. Never has he let on that he was ever a part of any joke. Never has he offered any explanation not drenched in sincerity and hetero-sex-god-rock-n’-funk swagger. Yet Morrissey has to follow a fruity twirl of his flower bouquet with a croony lyrical wink like "don't forget the songs that made you cry, and the songs that saved your life."

Morrissey’s self-conscious use of irony – his music is often described as literate, or hyper-literate even – is the very reason he is not seen as being ironic. But for all of Morrissey's posturing and counter-posturing, never could he hope to be like Prince, for one winks and the other simply does. This is not to say that Morrissey is not sincere - he totally is. But he knows when to laugh at his own over-seriousness, or actually he knows when to let others laugh. Prince doesn't, or at least never let’s on that he does. Yet on a Venn diagram, I would say both share a largely common demographic of fans, who respects each for what they do – winking and not winking, respectively.

Is Prince's blackness a part of this? I think so, unfortunately. And here’s the marker of minstrelsy. Consider other black artists who love absurdity and outlandishness in the name of showmanship but who refuse to wink - James Brown, Rick James, Michael Jackson; not to mention George Clinton and Bootsy Collins for shit sakes.. All of them are loved for their music, and none of them play to irony. No matter how crazy they dress or act, they are never accused of being ironic. All of them I might add have gotten into positions ripe for social ridicule, perhaps none as much as Michael Jackson. Yet the guy has never been seen as anything but sincere, and this is because he like the rest have never stopped entertaining.

Everyone of this Gen-X mindset who has been a legitimate fan of these guys has never stopped listening to the music even as we all laughed at Michael's plastic surgery atrocities, molestation trial debacles, and eventual flight to Bahrain; Prince's name change to a symbol in protestation and the wild emergence of his Jehovah's Witness identity; James Brown's coke habit, spousal abuse, and bathroom shotgun antics; Rick James with his beaded braids on the Chappelle Show. We all laughed at them, not with them, because they never let us - they never winked to let us know they were laughing too. There's a simple reason for this - they weren't laughing.

White rappery seems to be a problem for everyone, so maybe my chosen medium is partly to blame. The question remains though - Why do Prince, Michael, et. al. not have to fend off accusations of being ironic like I do? I ask again - what makes their sincerity so apparent? I said before that my friend thinks that the entire Andy D experience is based on me being ironic – and the real operative words here being my friend thinks. It was all his assumption. Our intentions are really unknowable. What are people judging me on other than what they see - the way I present myself and my supposed racial/cultural background?

We have all been battling the assumptions of a Gen-X-influenced, jaded, cynical Zeitgeist that takes sarcasm and irony for granted. This is the temple of snarkiness, where the only emotion is the whininess of Emo, and then making fun of said Emo-listeners; every indie-rocker with asymmetrically-parted hair; every Pitchfork, Vice, and Gawker-reader, everyone one who prides themselves on getting the joke, even when there is no joke to get. Criticism has become the new good and critique means looking for the angle. In this environment even sincerity becomes an angle. “Oh you have that rattail because you think it’s funny right?” is almost completely meaningless to me, and long ago passed into the realm of insulting. It may seem like an overstatement, but these are the first words down a classist and racist line of thought.

In this insidious self-aware deconstruction of intention and subsequent assumption of commonly cynical approach to all cultural ephemera and hallmarks, something has been lost. By leaving out the possibility that one may consciously construct oneself to be at once eccentric and self-aware – more than one thing at a time - there has been the horrible conflation of self-awareness with insincerity.

Actually, to be eccentric without self-awareness is to be certifiably insane. Now there is left a void in which the aforementioned assumptions of the over-educated have become racist and classist when it comes to artists and entertainment. Some are afforded the benefit of the doubt that they are self-aware, and thus participate in the acknowledged wink with a sardonicism-attuned audience, while others are assumed to not be aware of their eccentricities (but still loved), an overwhelming majority of which are black - the crazy minstrels of the contemporary era.

Prince could be aware of his absurdity (and probably is), as he is certainly very much aware of his showmanship, but he doesn’t apologize for it – he buys into it, and that is the problem for the prevailing Gen-X sensibilities. The point is that it shouldn’t matter what Prince’s intentions are because whatever else they may be, they are certainly unknowable. The wink shouldn’t be necessary, but it is. We should perhaps assume sincerity before irony, but we don’t. We take it as a matter of course that it is something that either has to be bought into or rejected and made fun of when we should just take it for what it is – the way this guy chooses to incorporate style into artistic expression.

Wait, are we all being sarcastic? We don’t even know anymore.

Assumptions are no different from prejudice – both are uninformed judgments, or rather judgments informed by the most vulgar of stereotypes. In this case the default is one of irony for white artists and one of unaware absurdity for black entertainers. I am not the one making a statement with my rattail and rapping; it is everyone who reads what I do through the proscribed way of behaving for those “who know better,” with myself being one of those who should know better. It is they who are making the statement that I am being a bad minstrel - a white, male, suburbanite, educated minstrel. As long as I’m rapping about sex with werewolves, I should be winking, but I’m not. And I can absurdly yet unironically say that’s just how I roll bitches. This has been Andy D.