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Irony Maidens

Americans love to laugh. Americans also love to rock. There is onething, however, Americans don’t love: They don’t loveto laugh and rock at the same time. If laughter were made ofcocaine and rocking made of baking powder, there would be nodomestic market for crack. Americans have strict parameters forwhat they are willing to be amused by, and the records they buyjust don’t make the cut.

Ifyou are a semiregular reader of this magazine, you are probably awareof the Darkness, the British neo-cock-rock band who sing aboutbelieving in a thing called love, contracting genital warts, andplaying ping-pong on Wednesday nights. The group’s excellent debutalbum, Permission to Land, has sold more than 600,000 copies inthe United Kingdom (in other words, one out of every 100 U.K. citizensowns a copy). However, as of this writing, it hasn’t even crackedBillboard’s top 200; here, they can’t even sell 6,000 albums in a week.That may have changed by the time you read this, but even at theirbiggest they’ll never sell the number of records they deserve to. TheDarkness cannot succeed in America, because Americans are notcomfortable with art that works on multiple levels. Which is not to sayAmericans are especially dumb or especially single-minded — it hasmore to do with how we are conditioned.

The problem with Permission to Land is that musically it’s a sincerely good rock album (in the same way Def Leppard’s High ‘n’ Dryis a sincerely good rock album), but lyrically it’s entirely satiric(the same way a Spinal Tap album is satiric). This combination does notresonate with most Americans, and I’m not sure why. People have noproblem liking Tenacious D because they’re ostensibly a joke (eventhough Jack Black is a compelling singer), and some people love Slayerbecause they’re ostensibly serious (even though Slayer lyrics arehilarious). But Americans don’t like things that express both posturessimultaneously, and that’s pretty much the Darkness’ whole aesthetic.

Now, there are some who would argue that the British have amore sophisticated sense of humor than Americans, but that’s notaccurate; a lot of British humor is built on the premise that it’suproarious to see men wearing dresses. Benny Hill was notsophisticated. However, it does seem like the English are morecomfortable with the juxtaposition of extreme absurdity and aggressiveintellect; this has always been clear on British TV shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus (and more recently on The Office),and with British comedians like Eddie Izzard (who dresses in drag forno apparent reason and makes jokes about arcane European history). Thishas nothing to do with sophistication. It has to do with not needingclear definitions of what art has to be. Americans have becomeconvinced that everything they want is supposed to be obvious: Sitcomhumor is always broad; radio is dominated by music that is instantlyaccessible; the film industry is generally unwilling to produce moviesthat cannot be placed into established genres. What is good about theDarkness is not obvious. They play anachronistic music as if it’s thebiggest thing in the world. They seem like a joke, but they rock withsincerity. As a consequence, their U.S. audience is minuscule.

“But what about irony?” you may ask yourself as you readthis. Aren’t we supposed to be a generation of ironists? And isn’tirony all about being self-aware and knowing? Well, yes. Except thatirony is no longer used as a way to describe the distance between theliteral meaning of an expression and its intended meaning; irony is nowa quality in and of itself. You see this all the time in book reviews:If a writer is deemed ironic, that term inevitably refers to theauthor’s presumed sarcastic voice and self-reflexive sensibility, asopposed to what he or she is actually writing about. In a vacuum, ironyhas a neutral connotation; in its current cultural context, it’s almostalways a criticism. For some reason, there is an American belief thatnothing can be really funny and really important at the same time:Someone who’s profoundly intelligent can be amusing, and someone who’shilarious can be sporadically insightful — but you always have tochoose.

This is why the Darkness will struggle. The best complimentthat any Americans can give them is that they play “ironic heavymetal,” which isn’t true. They play earnest hard rock, and they singearnestly comedic lyrics. They are not funny enough. But they’re toofunny.