Last night – while I was listening to Justin Bieber and wearing my onesie – I signed off a WhatsApp with a 'LOL' and a series of emojis. Now because I want you to understand that I'm really an educated, sophisticated, cultured person, once upon a time I'd have told you that I didn't really mean any of these things. I was doing them ironically. I was just slumming it in the low brow. It was a joke at the expense of those lesser mortals who 'authentically' listen to Bieber, wear onesies and converse in emojis because they're genuinely into them. But in the past year, something has shifted online and in real life. Irony is over. We've broken down the fourth wall of popular culture; we've gone from wry observers to unapologetic consumers of the mainstream. Sorry, not sorry. The fact is, these days a well placed 'LOL' or winky face expresses what I want to say much more succinctly than an artful grasp on the English language. And finally, I'm admitting to myself that it's all OK.
We just don't care what people make of our lame tastes any more and we know that the veneer of irony has become increasingly unconvincing. What do we mean when we issue this disclaimer anyway? That really, we're superior to the basic or apparently naff thing we're enjoying. We don't want our guilty pleasure to undermine our reputation for good taste that we've so carefully cultivated; the side of us that appreciates Sufjan Stevens' music, reads Elena Ferrante and wears Céline. Or, at least, the side that wants other people to think that we do. The internet has broken down the consensus on what's cool or uncool. We don't fear being alternative or weird anymore, we strive for it. Being transgressive with our tastes makes us edgy and original, whether it's by listening to Little Mix or David Bowie. It's all relative and the scale is as big as the whole internet. In other words, it's infinite.
Of course, if you're a 15-year-old girl or 50-year-old woman, it's highly likely that you don't give a damn about what people think of your choices anyway. If you're 15, it's legitimate to like Bieber because you're his target market. And if you're 50, you've been around long enough to know that it doesn't matter what peo- ple think. But when you're late-twenties or thirtysomething, you're in perpetual limbo; that awkward place where you're expected to be a bit more urbane than you actually are but you know that it's easier and more fun to binge on popular culture. Why studiously digest Beethoven's Fifth Symphony when you can mindlessly sway to Destiny's Child? Why read Dostoyevsky when you can mess about on Instagram for an hour? The problem is, I'm worried I might be missing out by not trying a little harder. Isn't it just intellectual laziness?
I'm not alone, thank god. The rest of you are philistines too. According to a study carried out in 2015 by Bangor University, emoji is Britain's fastest growing language, with eight out of 10 people in the UK using it and 72% of 18 to 25-year-olds saying they found it easier to put their feelings across with an emoji than words. The thumbs up and blow kiss are no longer the domain of teenagers. Real grown-ups with jobs and mortgages are unapologetically walking around tapping aubergines and see-no-evil monkeys into their phones like they're going out of fashion (which they're not).
There is perhaps no better argument for the end of irony than Craig David. Bear with me. The Re-Rewind singer was a credible hit-machine in the Nineties and early Noughties with 13 UK top 10 singles, three UK top 10 albums, more than 13m worldwide album sales, and 12 Brit Award and two Grammy nomina-tions to prove it. Then the come- dian Leigh Francis caricatured David in his show Bo' Selecta! and that, combined with a few dodgy singles and misjudged moments of publicly referring to himself in the third person, colluded to undermine his credibility. The next thing we all knew, David had apparently become a body builder in Miami. And that was that: he was demoted from cool garage star to sarcastic punchline.
Happily for Craig David, irony is over. This year, he made his triumphant return with a really good Live Lounge cover of Love Yourself (originally by none other than Bieber), a Major Lazer collaboration and a popular Instagram account. When people went to his recent London gig, it wasn't one of those situations when you go to see Michael Flatley's Riverdance for a laugh because you're bored and your friend's dad has a box at the O2 (just me?). This was a real appreciation for an artist having a moment. Any lingering questions from the irony era were apparently dispelled by the genuine quality of the gig. This was liking Craig David. Full stop. He really was Born To (Re)Do It.
Instagram's part in making the irony card redundant goes beyond Craig David. Nothing stays niche or edgy for too long online. Take @SocalityBarbie, the spoof Instagram account set up by American photographer Darby Cisneros in June 2015, which was rich in irony. The account parodies everything we love to hate on Instagram: artful beach shots and stylised coffee froth with dozens of equally ridiculous hashtags for each post. But how do you identify which follow- ers are appreciating the posts for their acerbic social commentary and who just likes the pretty pictures of Barbie on the beach? Cisneros quit Instagram at the end of last year when her fun little project grew more popular than she could have imagined, writing, 'I started SB as a way to poke fun at all the Instagram trends that I thought were ridiculous. Never in one million years did I think it would receive the amount of atten- tion that it did but because of that it has opened the door to a lot of great discussions like: how we choose to present ourselves online, the insane lengths many of us go to to create the perfect Instagram life, and call- ing into question our authenticity and motives. It's been a blast running this account but I believe SB's work here is done.' When something is celebrated on such a mass scale, the joke is deflated by virtue of its popularity. The nuanced message in the pastiche is lost and all that's left is the pretty, empty shell.
No area of life is immune to this new movement of irony-free irony. Designer Anya Hindmarch is shifting clothes and accessories emblazoned with Tesco, Boots and Mothercare branding. She has managed to produce a luxe, highly sought-after collection anyway. Why? Because it has a sense of humour and it appeals to our nostalgic sensibilities. Even hipster style (Hassidic beards, ripped jeans, plaid shirts, thick-rimmed specs), previously worn as a performance of individuality and non-conformity has become mainstream. Although no matter how generic it now is, a curly Forties moustache and braces will always have something of the pastiche about them. The good news is that the internet has democratised taste but the bad news is that the internet has democratised taste. Our opinions and preferences are not just consumed by our friends, family and colleagues now. All the World Wide Web is a stage and every expression of taste is liable to mass consumption and judgement. So what have we lost? Liking things ironically required a certain wryness; a knowing snarki- ness that is, let's admit it, fun. Pop culture used to be a thing millennials would participate in ironically because it was mainstream and uncool. We were too embarrassed to admit that we loved McDonald's or the Backstreet Boys, so we ate a Big Mac or sang I Want It That Way when we were drunk and covered it with enough disparaging and playful remarks to protect our true individuality. But this nuanced way of thinking is lost on the post-millennial generation. They don't care. It's cool to be weird. Cereal cafes and upmarket chicken shops don't have to have a punchline anymore.
As much as I mourn a certain loss of cynicism, the best thing about the end of irony is the lack of judge- ment it brings. There is no right or wrong, just a joyful appreciation for whatever your preference is, no matter how odd or bad or silly. It's a brave new world people, and one where you never need to apologise for being a 32-year-old woman who likes listening to S Club 7. *Fist pump emoji*
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