The Great Irony-Level Collapse

Used to be you could tell what people were like by what they liked. Not anymore.

an espresso martini served in a cocktail glass, on a table set with a maroon tablecloth, against a c...
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Hanson O'Haver
Matters of Taste

At the beginning of spring, a friend told me a story. She’d recently had a long lunch with a friend who kept ordering the group espresso martinis. They were delicious, yes, another round. When she awoke in her bed with heart palpitations and saw nine on the clock, she was unsure which nine it was. Espresso martinis, of all drinks — isn’t that funny? It was. Who would have thought?

As it turns out, everyone. From the notorious haunts of Chinatown east to unbearable West Village brunch spots, people were sitting outside with conspicuously brown drinks. I went to a gallerist’s wedding that served them after the cake was cut. At dinner with my girlfriend and her parents in Boston’s touristy Seaport District, I saw them at the kind of restaurant to which a girlfriend’s parents take you. They could be ordered at Lucien or Pastis or TGIFridays, or made at home with a recipe from the Starbucks website. The espresso martini wellspring was unclear to me — I heard it may have had something to do with a reality TV show — but the beguiling potion was suddenly everywhere. The definitive espresso martini piece has already been written, but the drinks themselves aren’t really what concern me. More unusual is the way they were embraced by the chic and the normal and the embarrassingly uncool all at once, with equal enthusiasm, totally eschewing the standard cool-common-passé sequence. Everyone seemed to realize that drinking them is sort of funny, but to also genuinely like them. I started to think of the phenomenon as the apotheosis of a decade-long shift in how trends unfold: an irony-level collapse.

I’ve always known fashion wasn’t just a straight line, with “in style” at one end and “out of style” at the other. I had heard it might be a circle. Once something goes far enough out of trend, it starts to be cool again. Inseams ebb and flow; monochromatic severity gives way to garish prints; sometimes it’s good to look like a lumberjack, but other times it’s better to be a jogger. Skinny jeans and “in style” may be approximately antipodal points today, but that only means tight pants are almost ready to start happening again. This same cycle holds beyond clothes: one generation sells their guitars to buy turntables, and the next sells their turntables for guitars. People — consisting of clothes and interests and consumption and output — could be plotted onto this circle, too.

Normcore, and its cultural equivalent, poptimism, complicated matters. If everyone is wearing tennis shoes and parent jeans and listening to Beyonce, how do you know who’s cool? The cognoscenti have always had a soft spot for items just past gauche — look at the Seattle scene’s embrace of fuzz and wack slacks — but eventually the norm and pop almost comprised the bulk of the trendsetter’s consumption. I started to think about people existing not on a cool circle but in irony zones, a system modeled on Paris’s spiraling arrondissements. Just as one can cross from the second to the 10th arrondissement without necessarily noticing a change, people may appear to have identical interests, but approach them from totally different directions. Think of Bon Iver as a sort of bridge across the Seine, connecting wholly earnest Taylor Swift fans in zone one with mid-tier alts. Sectors three and 11 may both be into camouflage and pharmaceuticals, but the former listens to Eminem and the latter Salem. It wasn’t hard to imagine two people becoming friends, perhaps even falling in love, without realizing they were operating on completely different irony levels.

Hanson O'Haver

The above map serves as a rough guide for how I envisioned the cultural landscape circa the late 2010s. The labels are not the names of zones so much as the types of things that might fall into them. Of course, not everything can fit on such a zoomed-out map; Espresso martinis, for example, weren’t really a concern at the time, though if pressed I would have slotted them somewhere in the 1-6-15 region. I’d like to emphasize that this is just an approximation of my own navigational system; just as there is no definitive cool, only differing opinions of what is or what isn’t, so too may one’s sense of irony zones vary. The important point is that I was once able to map these things, something I can no longer do. (I have at times wondered if this is just a matter of growing older and out of touch; I’d be happy if it were, but after some deep soul searching I’m afraid that’s not the case. Plus, I’ve talked to people in their mid-20s who have noticed the same things. [I don’t talk to people younger than that.])

In recent years, the internet-fueled monoculture has both spread and contracted simultaneously, with increasing speed. All but the most obscure items are made accessible with a simple search; on YouTube, it takes just as much effort to search for a 1985 Merzbow cassette as it does the latest Lil Nas X single. Jonathan Franzen said that, “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” A similar thing holds for taste: when almost any record or T-shirt or piece of Danish cookware can be found on eBay, are they still impressive to own?

This flattening has produced some strange bedfellows. Millions of teenagers got into Life Without Buildings and an ambient musician’s six hour experiment mimicking dementia. Adults with jobs in the media became obsessed with John Mayer and Britney Spears. People who had read Melville started wearing Brandy Melville. Look at a show like Bosch: An on-the-nose police procedural about a detective who plays by his own rules — and listens to jazz on vinyl. It seems designed for dads to watch earnestly, but found success among the knowing “dudes rock” set, as well as just normal people who watch a lot of TV. All of these groups legitimately enjoy these things, unbothered by worries of taste. There are still a few things that are definitively uncool — Kith, Marvel, Bruno Mars, venture capital—but just about anything else could be, arguably, cool.

This could be read as progress: it’s probably not great to go around judging people based on their presumed tastes. At the same time, something is lost. It’s important to try to be cool — that’s how new things are created. Culture is stuck; at times, it feels like we’ve been mining ‘90s nostalgia for longer than the ‘90s lasted. Beyond this, subcultures play a critical role in forming one’s place in the world. There are a lot of people, and it’s reassuring to see one and think, I bet I’d have some good things to talk about with that guy. There was a time when I felt I could know what kind of music or pants a person liked and be able to fill in the rest of their interests with reasonable accuracy; at this point, there doesn’t seem to be any connection at all. In the era of espresso martinis, my whole irony zone system has become a sticky, unnavigable mess.

Hanson O'Haver is a writer in New York.