Cringe-Pop and the Case of Irony Gone Awry


Cringe-Pop and the Case of Irony Gone Awry

Illustration: Shruti Yatam / Arré

One of the greatest musicians of new-age India once said, “Good or bad is not the criterion, as long as people like it.” That man is also the creator of a whole rap song about chicken fried rice, the sole reason Rihanna knows what “kirana” is, and a major contributor to the rise in people visiting gyms. That man is Baba Sehgal, a person who has given up all pretence of once having had any talent, so he could get people to groove to his music while making multiple Excel sheets. But despite all of his shenanigans, Baba Sehgal actually made a pretty valid point. With the internet at our disposal these days, people don’t really need to have any actual talent, or have to achieve anything extraordinary to be famous. In fact, now you don’t even have to like something to make it famous. There is a team of upper-class hipsters working overtime to ensure that every bit of internet apocrypha gets pushed on to your timelines.

We hipsters have now made it acceptable to be “so bad, it’s good”, or produce art that is terrible and self-aware enough to be consumed ironically. Today we have artists like Baba Sehgal, who are dedicated products of this “hipster irony”, or as this widely shared NYT piece put it, “the most extreme manifestation of ironic living”. Which has brought us to a place in our cultural lives where Baba Sehgal’s audience is laughing hard at his expense, even as he makes money off mocking his audience. The only true loser, is art.

How did we get here?

Taking a cue from the mock-popularity of Rebecca Black and several versions of Gangnam style, desi hipsters first took on older Bollywood movies and their forever mind-boggling creativity. As with all things internet and the need to find newer icons we could pull down, we took on political posters and their shady fonts and typefaces, declarations of friendship, and the particular argot of the subcontinent. Everything was deemed worthy of becoming a meme. In the cringe-music department, we witnessed Taher Shah mid-LSD trip, a convicted “godman” yelling “love sarzer”, and a girl in a cap taking selfies. And then we got Omprakash Mishra.

“Mishra is the perfect idol for a generation of internet consumers like us who are lazy, snarky, and full of opinion. Because it is so much easier to pull down someone than it is to be actually creative and full of ideas.”

The writer David Foster Wallace once commented that American television had adopted a self-deprecating, ironic attitude to make viewers feel smarter than the naïve public, and to flatter them into continued watching. This is a formula that works equally well on the internet, where people find things to laugh at because of how absolutely terrible they are. And every time we watch something ironically or say to ourselves, “man, if this guy can do it, I can do it”, we contribute millions of views to their channels and turn them into mini-celebs.

The line between “classic schadenfreude” and “classic blind worship” has been blurred. Dhinchak Pooja – who made a rap so bad that Ice Cube probably bust a gat by mistake – went from signing autographs in Noida malls to landing directly in the Bigg Boss house. At this point an online mob is losing its shit over Omprakash Mishra’s new song, despite it clearly being the worst thing to happen to music since the first guy to use auto-tune. About 500 people showed up for an event where all they did was yell the song’s lyrics out in public, making sure that if those aliens were watching, they took a U-turn and headed back to their planet.

Take a moment to think about what we’ve done. We’ve gone from putting these mediocre artists in memes to putting them in situations where they will dictate our cultural life. Mishra and Co are folks with access to a camera and laptop, not some new supreme leaders to rally behind. The guy made a song in all earnestness, but it is only our ironic enjoyment of it that made it such a sensation.

And what does this love for irony tell us about ourselves? That we like to feel superior over the people who don’t share the same sensibilities. At this point, people making videos about misogyny in Omprakash’s song, or the people who gathered in the cities to yell the lyrics are just a bunch of bullies picking on the small guy who doesn’t share the same aesthetic as us. One man’s kitsch is another man’s god. The people trending #IStandWithOmprakashMishra are clearly not great lovers of music, or they’d be more outraged that an extremely talented Indian musician recently died under very suspect circumstances.

Clearly we’ve taken our love of irony a little too far, because when we’re confronted with actual earnest art, our natural response is now to be sarcastic or cynical. It’s time we sought out earnestness and conviction in the content we consume, and stop falling back on the easy luxury that mocking someone else’s art provides. Cringe-pop has had its moment. But it’s time we bid it a well-deserved goodbye.