THE 'REAL' REAL.
I need to talk to you about irony for a few minutes.
There is a common and falsely held belief among the more thoughtful
members of the smug t-shirt generation - myself included - that
it is far superior to be in a "real" moment than one that started
as real but is now only appreciated through an ironic filter. To
explain this theory, I'll use the example of the Cocktail Lounge.
To begin with, when I speak of Cocktail Lounges I don't mean the new generation of bars that call themselves lounges. You know - rusty lighting, fashion-mohawked bartenders, crappo drum-n-bass, white leather stools, expensive chartreuse cocktails, and a faint but distinctive German aroma. I am thinking of the well-preserved post-war Cocktail Lounges where hobos eat pickled eggs and whores count their change. These bars often serve two kinds of liquor - brown and clear - and feature bulb-lit signs behind the bar advertising beers no longer available outside of mining towns. More often than not, the Cocktail Lounge has three immediately attractive qualities, missed by their intended clientele but craved by the younger, more ironic set waiting to descend upon them:
- A great old sign outside (usually depicting line art of a martini glass and a few hiccup bubbles)
- Potentially cheap cocktails
- A jukebox that makes you go, "holy shit - these guys have Hank Williams, Sr. AND the theme song from The Greatest American Hero.")
Everything else - the aging patrons, ceramic tit mugs on display over the bar, and complimentary beef stew - is just icing on the cake. So, the scene is set and the ironists are chomping at the bit to get in, dominate the under-utilized jukebox, and smirk their way to inebriation. But there's a problem that develops rather quickly: TOO MANY IRONISTS!
Within six to eight months the Cocktail Lounge is overrun with a new breed of patrons. Younger, louder, wealthier, and more likely to take advantage of the bar's Playboy pinball machine or OV splits. The owners are generally happy with this new influx, not because they love grown men in snug-fitting sleep-away camp t-shirts, but because they love money. And these people bring money - they don't run an eternal tab like Hobo Willie. And they tip like crazy. So the proprietors are happy enough, even if it means having to hear Patsy Cline's "crazy" about 40 times a night. The new patrons, however, are not happy.
All they do is grouse about how this Cocktail Lounge used to be such a cool little find. Now it's filled with idiots - idiots who, incidentally, could be easily mistaken for them in a police line-up. The drinks have even gone up a fucking quarter. (this is often a way of asserting your first-come status. just loudly announce how Schaeffer's in a can used to be $1.75 "back in the day" - last month - instead of the completely unaffordable $2.00. for you, it's a mild inconvenience. for the bar's original patrons, it means having to sell an extra pint of blood that day.) And there's a wait at the jukebox. And your favorite booth - the one with a framed picture of Ann Jillian above it - is occupied by a bunch of jerks killing time before the Pedro the Lion concert. Fuck it all. Fuck it all so very, very hard.
What arises from this is a lengthy discussion, from booth to booth and stool to stool, about how much cooler it would be if you were the only young person there. How Fake the bar now seems. How less-than-precious. And what happened to all the cool old patrons, like the 75 year-old homeless lady who hid Spanish peanuts in her purse? This bar isn't the same without them. Because, really, wouldn't you rather hang out with depressed World War II veterans and stinky creeps than a bunch of people who share a common age, similar experiences, and compatible cultural interests?
Here's the real truth: people say what they do not mean. Because, truthfully, the undeniable but unmentionable advantage of a Cocktail Lounge "selling out" is that you still get the experience of being in a foreign space, Living Your Life, without dealing with the unpredictable elements that make LYL scary and difficult. The ironists' stated desire ¨ something Real - is often a stand-in for their true desire: something "Real". A safer, more aloof facsimile of what's real. Kind of like visiting Epcot Center's version of Paris, but with better music.
What causes this need, and the resultant dissatisfation? I think ironists' search for something Real is often just a lack of satisfaction with the very things that fuel (and pollute) their existence - detachment, analysis, ridicule, and spiritual impotence. The Real is desirable but there's probably a more basic place to start, to correct things. You don't need to witness a knife fight, or possibly be caught up in one. I used to think you did; I was wrong and so is everyone else, with the possible exception of William T. Vollman. But we can't all be Vollman. Some of us have to settle for being David Foster Wallace, the penultimate post-modernist/ironist. (just read his essay, "Shipping Out", in which he comments wryly and in thoughtful detail about a Caribbean luxury cruise, even though he spends most of his time at sea alone, locked in the confines of his cabin. he's there, but is he really there?)
(i'm often reminded of a great scene from Todd Phillips' GG Allin documentary, Hated. some NYU students invited Allin, a notoriously aggressive and self-destructive punk artist, to speak at NYU's Loeb Center. clearly, their belief was that Allin would be suitably shocking and this shock level would somehow transfer to the students who booked the performance, or saw it. i'm sure half of them had written and rehearsed their reviews of the show well in advance of actually attending it. infamy by osmosis. what happened was quite different. Allin was Allin. he got onstage, ripped some clothes off, and shoved a banana in his asshole while mumbling incoherently into the microphone. in no time at all he became an out of control storm, grabbing students by the hair and throwing banana/feces at the audience. within three minutes of the performance, nearly the entire audience had moved to either the back row of chairs or right beneath the exit sign. everyone was horrified because this is precisely what they wanted but never really expected.)
As much as ironists complain about other ironists ruining their hermetically sealed ironic experience, they're really just complaining about themselves. It's a form of self-loathing, I think. And a form I regularly engage in, to the point of paralysis. In fact, I've discovered there's really nowhere to go anymore if you want to avoid like-minded people. That's why I choose to drink exclusively in homeless shelters. Yes, it's quiet, unless someone has a case of Night Shrieks. And yes, it can be lonely and frightening. But as long as I'm buying the next round, I've got as many violent, schizophrenic, poorly manicured, geriatric, and, most importantly, interesting friends I could ever want.