Isn't It Ironic?

The tangled discourse of anti-market snobbery at Harper's


In September 1996 in Manhattan, I saw a rock band called Yum-Yum perform as part of the alternative rock industry's biggest showcase, the College Music Journal Convention. The band's label, an affiliate of Atlantic Recordss (part of Time Warner), had pulled out all the promotional stops. Label flacks inched their way around the crowded room, shoving Yum-Yum stickers and other paraphernialia into everyone's hands.

The band, which included a mini-string section, played a set of sad, pretty pop love songs. They emulated the sound and approach of old Burt Bacharach records or the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, without those masters' level of compositional complexity. I enjoyed the set, as did some other music 'zine writers at my table. Later, I even bought the record.

That made me part of an exclusive crowd. Though the Atlantic hype machine successfully placed articles about the band and its singer/songwriter, Chris Holmes, in the trifecta of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Spin, fewer than 10,000 people bought the album. In L.A. music stores I saw the sure signs of a record promoted beyond its audience: used promo copies littering dollar CD bins, just months after the album's release.

This commercial failure was predictable. The type of smart, sensitive, string-laden pop Yum-Yum made hasn't been commercially viable for a very long time. Nowadays it is the music of record-collecting pop fanatics. Yum-Yum's bomb was just one more example of a major label getting overly excited about its newest find–Chris Holmes had been a bigwig in the Chicago underground music scene with his earlier band, the "space rock" Sabalon Glitz–and failing to make the rest of the world take notice. Yum-Yum toured a while, then faded from sight and most people's memories.

Holmes, a wealthy University of Chicago graduate, returned to Chicago–none the worse for wear, suggests rock journalist Jim DeRogatis, who wrote about Holmes in Rolling Stone. "Trying to be a rock star for Chris would be like spending the summer in Europe after graduating," DeRogatis tells me. "He can always fall back on teaching political philosophy at some good school." Holmes was a man of contradictions, DeRogatis suggests; while he liked to brag about being a rich kid, he hated it when writers described him that way.

In February, a new buzz about Yum-Yum started on e-mail listservs and phone lines among people who both knew the band and read Harper's Magazine. The March issue of Harper's contained a 10-page feature story about Yum-Yum, written by Chris Holmes's childhood pal and former roommate Thomas Frank. Frank is a rising leftist intellectual star who edits The Baffler, a magazine of cultural criticism, and writes critiques of advertising and big business.

What made this obscure failed rock band of interest to Harper's? Frank had a theory about the band, one with which almost everyone who had independent knowledge about Yum-Yum disagreed. The Yum-Yum record, Frank postulated, was not intended as a sincere work of popular music. It was instead an ironic gesture, an attempt to "fake fake itself" (his italics). Pop music was the "fake" being "faked." The album was, Frank asserted, a "critique" of "the pop-music industry" even as it was a product of it. Thus, the story fit well with the main mission of Harper's: helping middle- to highbrow intellectuals confirm their inchoate contempt for the modern market order.

Holmes didn't really like the kind of soft pop the Yum-Yum record represented, Frank asserted, referring to Holmes's "supposed" fondness for Bacharach and his "farcical" proclamations about his craft (such as "it's such a pleasure to work with" strings). According to Frank, Holmes chose the "strategy" of "claiming that his love of the lowbrow article in question [string-laden pop] is as heartfelt and genuine and un-ironic as that felt for it by the demographic for whom it was originally made."

Frank's article reads like a depressingly typical tale of failed would-be pop stardom. The only distinguishing factor is the random sprinkling of "ironically" or "tongue-in-cheek" as adjectives. Holmes goes on a package tour sponsored by Seventeen magazine; he writes a guest column for Sassy; he banters with the audience in a not-entirely-sincere way; he crafts a press kit from which rock journalists repeat details without checking them.

Frank follows Yum-Yum on tour to a Fort Wayne, Indiana, bar and stares agog at badly dressed and groomed Midwesterners who "had honed and refined their hedonism to an edge far sharper than what one finds in the larger cities. Their Midwest wasn't about prayer or hard work….It was about drunkenness, cocaine, and copulation"–all unknown, apparently, in the "larger" and presumably more refined cities. There, I suppose, people are merely convivial, use conversation-enhancing stimulants, and make love. To Frank, the irony in which Holmes swims arises inevitably from the sick failures of capitalist modernity: "Fake earnestness, earnest fakeness…[are]…both of them equally cozy within the market order and between them represent…all the options left to us anymore."

By the time I got my copy of the March Harper's, I had already heard, via e-mail lists or phone calls, complaints about the story's dubious premise from about a dozen Yum-Yum-conscious Harper's readers. The executive editor of Spin magazine, Craig Marks, was peeved enough to write in The Village Voice that he found Frank's account "bafflingly misguided." Marks suggested the real story was probably that "Holmes, too embarrassed to admit to his hard-ass buddy that…he actually liked girly-pop…fed Frank a steaming plate of cred-saving bullshit. And Frank bought it….Now that's ironic."

Peter Margasak, a rock critic with the alternative weekly The Chicago Reader who has covered Holmes's career, says he "was just stunned" by the article. "No one in Chicago would believe for a second" that the Yum-Yum record was not a sincere and seriously intended shot at rock stardom.

Darcy Vaughn, Yum-Yum's viola player, acknowledges that it's difficult to do some of the things pop stardom involves, such as getting dolled up and posing for promo shots, without an inner chuckle. Still, she insists that Holmes never behaved with anything less than utter sincerity about the music he was making. In the studio, Vaughn says, he would solemnly relate how certain lyrics came to him in a dream after a breakup with a beloved. The album consisted of sweet, open-hearted, string-laden love songs, and Vaughn recalls that Holmes always professed a genuine affection for that kind of pop–"especially with prospective girlfriends."

In his Voice piece, Marks called Holmes one of "the schmooziest musician[s] I have ever encountered." Margasak, the Chicago Reader critic, knew him as someone who went around town bragging about what a huge rock star this Yum-Yum record would make him. The consensus of those who know Holmes is that he badly wanted to make it big and that the Yum-Yum record was a sincere attempt at doing so.

It appeared to most of these people that Holmes and/or Frank had in effect pulled something over on Harper's. Margasak says Frank discussed interviewing him for the story but never followed through. Vaughn remembers talking with Frank when he accompanied the band for three days of touring but says she had no idea that irony would be a central theme of the story.

I was fascinated by the notion of a publication like Harper's, one of America's leading intellectual magazines, running an almost entirely single-sourced story by a childhood pal of the subject that struck almost every knowledgeable reader as screwy, if not flat-out wrong. In response to the criticism, Harper's Senior Editor Ben Metcalf denies that the story said what I, Marks, and others thought it said. Frank's point, he says, was not that Holmes didn't like Yum-Yum's kind of music but that any intelligent person must have a relationship with popular culture that is multi-leveled: Someone who collects Elvis kitsch might not really like Elvis; but obviously, on some level, he feels an attraction. This oh-so-sophisticated take is what made an otherwise unremarkable story about a failed rock band worthy of Harper's.

On the face of it, an entertainer who puts on a game face during a Seventeen-sponsored tour and then mocks it afterward (as Frank suggests Holmes did) isn't necessarily being "ironic," any more than a fast-food clerk is being "ironic" when he evinces a concern for a customer's order that he doesn't really feel. But Metcalf thinks Holmes is different from other performers because of a quintessentially Harper's distinction: Holmes, you see, is "a very smart guy." Metcalf repeats this phrase like a mantra during our conversation. Whereas a Mariah Carey or a New Kid on the Block (to use his examples) does the show business grind without any awareness of its silliness, someone like Holmes has to know better. In other words, a Venezualan-Irish girl from Long Island and a bunch of Boston street kids are just pop-star puppets going through the motions. But Chris Holmes, a wealthy University of Chicago graduate, must be different–even if, to outside observers, the game's the same.

This sort of attitude is pervasive in Harper's. Exposing the entertainments of the hoi polloi, especially the hoi polloi outside Manhattan, as pathetic, sad, and disturbing is a popular exercise for the magazine's writers. Harper's hires superhip novelist David Foster Wallace (author of Infinite Jest) to write long features making fun of cruise ships and Midwestern fairs; Harper's is where excellent young New Republic writer Stephen Glass goes to skewer telephone psychics.

Metcalf explains that Frank's article about Holmes was really much more complicated than I thought. If it seemed to say one thing, it was really saying something else as well. Irony is a game of and for "very smart guys"–Harper's readers. In Frank's story, Marks observes, "all the other musicians are dumb, pop rock is dumb, the music industry is dumb, music journalists are dumb, other rock bands are dumb, people in the Midwest who go to bars to see rock bands in their mullet haircuts are dumb, and the only smart people in the whole scene are Tom Frank and Chris Holmes."

Frank stands firmly by his interpretation of Yum-Yum, saying Holmes's apparent sincerity does not in any way contradict an ironic intent. He explains Holmes's bragging about "the project's certain success and his impending stardom" as merely behaving "in character." Holmes himself utters the word ironic only once in the article, saying, "No one thought it was funny or ironic that we were doing Seventeen shows. Nobody got it. Nobody knew who we were." What was there to get? Would-be pop stars do things like that. It's their job.

After asking me if I was an English major, Frank begins lecturing me on the fallacy of intention, wondering why I'm asking him to explain his story. The article strongly implies that Frank has special insight into Holmes's intentions: It announces his longstanding friendship with the subject in its first paragraph, and its obsessive, single-sourced following of Holmes makes it appear that Frank's interpretation derives from his subject. But then, crediting Holmes with ironic intent just because he claimed it would also be a fallacy of intention.

In the end, it's hard to pin down Frank's position. But a Harper's piece doesn't have to make a clear point. The front of the magazine is devoted largely to reprints of documents, articles, and images, usually presented with insouciant sarcasm and meant to be laughable. The magazine's features, by contrast, are of overwhelming deadpan sententiousness, or at least seem to be. In Harper's, it's hard to know what to make of anything. As a longtime reader, I often hope the editors are only kidding–as when they offered up novelist Annie Dillard's set of disconnected statistics about mass deaths or devoted nine pages to meditations about the deeper meaning of running over birds.

But there is at least one sincerely felt attitude that Harper's Editor Lewis Lapham spreads like an inky miasma over the whole magazine: He treats the horror of modern capitalism as self-evident. The story of Yum-Yum could easily be read as illustrating the frequent impotence of the capitalist "culture trust" whose power Frank rails against in his other writings. After all, the promotional might of Time Warner (even coupled with Holmes's "very smart guy" ironic manipulation of the press) led, as it so often does, to a money-losing flop. But that angle just wouldn't suit Harper's.

The issue in which Frank's article appears also contains a Lapham editorial attacking Washington Post columnist (and Reason Foundation trustee) Jim Glassman for "find[ing] no reason to think that the barbarism implicit in the restless energies of big-time global capitalism requires some sort of check or balance…by a lively…practice of…democratic politics." The essay is a bitter condemnation of the market order without a hint of explanation of what exactly is so hideously wrong with it (especially as compared with the alternatives).

Frank, who snagged Lapham to write an introduction to one of his books, echoes Lapham's foggy bitterness when he blames the dominance of "fake earnestness, earnest fakeness" on the market. Basing his conclusion on the unproven and insulting notion that no one–or at least no smart person–can genuinely love capitalist products such as pop music, Frank, like Lapham, practices a snobbery without understanding. The enemies of capitalism used to argue that it would lead inevitably to war and the steady immiseration of the working class. Now, the best they can muster against it is that it's just too, too vulgar. I'm not sure whether this weakening of anti-capitalist rhetoric is ironic, but it is worth thinking about as the century in which the market order overcame its most powerful challenges draws to a close.