what started out as a little birthday post on my personal blog turned into a rather lengthy rumination on the wonders of jonathan richman and (his lack of) irony. i’ll post the text-only version here, but hop over to my blog to see the whole thing in all its (supplemental photos of jonathan’s proclivity towards deep-necked shirts and videos of lost, spectacular interviews) glory:Though Jonathan Richman is about as simple as it gets, he makes people feel awfully confused. “What’s with this guy’s shtick? He’s so smarmy. He’s just putting us on. He can’t be for real.”
That we have such a hard time understanding Jonathan Richman could be attributed to our strong inclination towards irony. Our automatic reaction to things that seem too optimistic, too out of touch, too earnest (where earnest equals overzealous and ignorant) is to dismiss them, to mock them, to place them in the field of camp, even to relegate them to the study of “zany anthropology” (see:lots and lots of Internet art). Think of Tonetta, Pants on the Ground , Friday, ForeverKailyn, etc.
Is it that difficult to believe that of the nearly seven billion people on earth, one of them might actually be a good guy who likes singing, being nice to people and not shitting all over everything that is sacred and good? I guess Richman’s supposed niceness might seem a little incredulous and twee when you think of all these things together:
He wrote and performed a song about being a little dinosaur, complete with matching dinosaur-dance, he uses the word “little” all the time (see I’m a Little Airplane, Hey There Little Insect, My Little Kookenhaken, the lyrics “And if the music isn’t right that day/Well my little body hardly has anything to say” from When I Dance), he wrote a song dedicated to his own niceness (“My name is Jonathan, and I can’t stand to see people with their feelings hurt”), he was quoted saying that he would never want to play music loud enough to hurt a baby’s ears, he once reportedly lined up an entire audience at a concert and gave them hugs, he turned teary-eyed at the thought of William Blake during a televised interview, some of his songs read like P.S.A.’s (I always imagine Stop This Car as a children’s animated short with a smiling car bumping along a windy road, totally lacking in the snide/mocking attitude of I’m Straight and its “Hippy Johnny”).
But listen closely and you’ll notice that Hippy Johnny holds the same name as Jonathan Richman, who can also be an asshole sometimes. He can be a really needy boyfriend (see Important in your Life), a total hard ass (see She’s Gonna Respect Me), a nagging parent - at noon on a Saturday - urging their child not to sleep their life away (see Morning of our Lives), an impolite eater (see I Eat With Gusto, Damn You Bet), even a home wrecker (see My Career As A Homewrecker).
He’s also notoriously difficult to interview:
But whatever, he’s just a guy. And even though there’s nothing easier than picturing him scarfing down a cheese burger and milkshake with reckless abandon (something about him is so American, so rock n’ roll), he’s been vegan for longer than I’ve been alive .
Here’s to sixty years of Jonathan Richman.
I was somewhat reluctant to post this, first because it may only be a glorified fan letter and second because it is not “about” art in a straightforward sense. But when I think of my attitudes towards art, my reasons for liking this and not that, I see that they can largely be traced back to my appreciation for this singing, striped shirt-wearing man. Richman’s seriousness is central here; I like artists who are committed, who mean what they say. I refrain from using the word “honest” here because that would mean venturing into tricky territory, but at the end of the day that’s basically what I mean. I like art that is honest and serious, and like Jonathan, funny as well. Not funny in a pointed finger mocking kind of way, but funny in a different kind of way. A humor that is generative rather than dismissive. It is only the latter kind of humor - and irony - that I so strongly dislike. I’ve come to learn that irony is made up of both seriousness and humour; in the worst kind of irony, this seriousness functions in an oversimplified, cynical way. The danger of this kind of irony is not that it’s “mean” (though it is this as well), but that it’s the easy way out. That this kind of irony is so popular, even amongst otherwise well-meaning individuals, may be testament to an easiness that disguises itself as the best and most natural way of looking at things. I hope Alain de Botton’s sentiment that “cynics are, in the end, only idealists with awkwardly high standards” is actually true, and that some of us might come to see this one day.
See Brad Troemel’s Why No Serious? A Case for Idealism in an Era of Constant Irony. I’m going to write about this one at a later date, promise.