54. Irony in pop music

Posted on 06/06/2017

54. Irony in pop  music

Irony adds amusement and interest, but is not characteristic of rock or pop music lyrics. The latter are based either on formulae, as where studios compete to produce a track for an artist such as Shakira, or sincerity (Ed Sheeran) plus formula. Heavy metal is largely sincerity plus formula plus testosterone. No irony.

In case your mind has been deadened by too much metal: the definition of irony is that it expresses a meaning in language that normally conveys the opposite. The use of ‘ironic’ in pop has rather blurred its meaning. Or indeed removed it altogether, as in Alanis Morisette’s song ‘Ironic’, which contains none. Many pop musicians think it fashionable to appear ‘ironic’, when this is just a stick-on label rather than genuine irony.

Having implied that heavy metal is innocent of irony, a closer look at the great Lemmy of Motorhead, shows that this is not quite true. His song ‘Motorhead’, about an endless binge, contains the following:

And if I can’t be wrong I could be right,
All good clean fun,
Have another stick of gum,
Man, you look better already

This is indeed irony, since inability to be wrong should mean that you are always right, not just ‘could be’. Mind you it’s a distinction without a difference since you can hardly make out a word he ‘sings’!

Luckily there is still irony around. Much of it is in folk music. Greg Brown’s ‘Mose Allison played here’ is a masterpiece:

Brow lists all the awful features of the club and then continues:

And that’s all the good part
The bad part’s the smell
And what was your name again, oh – yeah – right – Brown
Your crowd just drinks water
Surprised you’re still around

And nobody’s coming, because hey man you see
Advertising’s expensive, hey, what guarantee

But as I set up I am proud to be here
Because once last November, Mose Allison played here.


The final phrase is ironic as well since there must be lots of other places Mose Allison has played that are not so ghastly. And at which he could have played with even more pride.

Mose Allison himself on ‘Parchman Farm’ sings ‘aint never done no man no harm’ and ‘all I’m doing is drinking my wine’ when the lyrics go on to say that he is working in prison with a 12-gauge shotgun at his back because ‘all I did was shoot my wife’. Savage irony indeed.

Robbie Fulks is an ‘altcountry’ singer. His Scrapple song contains the suggestion that the food in Pennsylvania ‘aint fit for a collection plate’. A collection plate is in principle there to receive financial contributions from a grateful congregation, and so the suggestion that it is there to receive bad food has a good twist to it!


Kevin Ayers’ ‘Stranger in blue suede shoes’ has a nice part where the bartender rejects him on the grounds of his shoes and then offers him some ‘second class food’ at which Ayers observes, ironically, ‘nice guy, meet them everywhere’:


In mainstream pop, Carly Simon stands out for ‘You’re so vain’ with its magnificent chorus:

‘you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you?’

And of course it is!


Perfectly pitched irony. Rare as hen’s teeth in the average pop song though.


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