As America looks back this week on the tragedy of 9/11, one supposed casualty will probably be overlooked: irony. As you may recall, sources as disparate as the Onion and Time declared it dead in the months following the destruction of the twin towers, claiming that a disaster of such magnitude must surely wipe away the smug emotional distance of the ironic pose hitherto favored by the youth of America (to be fair, the Onion was joking). The emotional distance affected by Generations X and Y was a result of their innocence, their lack of a Vietnam. All this, the pundits claimed, was over now.
Like many of the social changes predicted in the wake of 9/11 (such as the decrease in the type of trivial celebrity lionized by American Idol), the death of irony was greatly exaggerated. But irony began its slow retreat from the music scene well before last year: Consider, for example, the rise of Dashboard Confessional's Christopher Carraba, who writes with an unabashed directness that would make Burt Bacharach blush. The only respite from earnestness on the charts comes in the form of hypermacho hip-hop braggadocio from the likes of P-Diddy and Ja Rule (those guys are kidding, right?).
Compare this aesthetic state of affairs to the early '90s, when genre-mashing ironic masters such as Beck, Ween and the Beastie Boys cut and pasted pop culture in a way that made fun of musical styles and poses until they imploded and came out cool again on the other side. Most of today's current crop of underground wannabes wouldn't last a second in that atmosphere; they'd be cut down with a quick shrug and an even quicker satirical swipe of their musical base.
Ah, but how the mighty have fallen. The Beasties have long since given up irony for overweening sanctimoniousness, and even their longtime collaborator Money Mark, the keyboard player for the faux-funkiest of the '70s-style jams that helped propel the Beasties back to the top in the early '90s, has changed his tune since 9/11.
"I'm just going to hold up a big sign that says, 'The Music Will Speak for Itself,' and I won't say a word," Money Mark (né Mark Ramos-Nishita) said in an interview shortly after the attacks. This is progress? The man responsible for the slinky riff that drives the comeback hit "So What'cha Want?" is trying to send a message to the world with his music? The man who once compared his live shows -- complete with staged arguments with his bandmates, pratfalls and a balloon that inflates from a cornet while it's played -- to an Andy Kaufman performance, he's gonna let the music speak for itself?
Not that there's anything wrong with Money Mark's music. Aside from his unofficial status as the fourth Beastie Boy, Mark has released three solo albums and played on tracks by Beck, Deltron 3030, Handsome Boy Modeling School, Blackalicious, Moby, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Femi Kuti. Discovered while working as a repairman at Mike D's house, Money Mark relies heavily on the analog keyboards that make up the spine of his sound, although his albums include just about any instrument he can get hold of. The music echoes everyone from Esquivel to Jimmy Smith, often hopping styles in a single song or even a single moment. "Glitch in Da System," from his 2001 release Change Is Coming, bounces between a wah-wah guitar solo and out-of-control blipping keyboard notes that could have been lifted from Frank Zappa's Jazz From Hell. When that track is followed by Buena Vista Social Club clone "Another Day to Love You," it's clear that Money Mark is a "style is substance" aficionado of the highest order. Sure, it's derivative fluff, but it knows it's derivative fluff. In fact, that's the point. Music such as this aspires to be no more or less than what it is at the moment you hear it, music that relies on the reverberations of old songs to produce any meaning at all.
This is the appeal of Money Mark's work, both solo and collaborative: a wild disregard for the rules that separate musicians from each other, not in some smarmy "We Are the World" way but in a way that creates possibilities for listeners the same way punk opened the door for anyone who wanted to be in a band. By treating genres the same way punk treated songmanship, Mark and his peers did a lot to keep popular music from getting too full of itself. So what's with quotes such as "Artists are so important now. We can't lose everything?" It's something Barry Manilow would say. It's exactly the kind of attitude that made Paul McCartney write that damned "Freedom" song. It's the thought process that makes John Mellencamp think he can save millions of farmers at a rock concert. It's what got Johnny Rotten so pissed off in the first place.
Maybe this is unfair. Lots of people said things they wouldn't normally say after 9/11, and Money Mark was in Manhattan at the time of the attack. Surely he can be forgiven. And before 9/11, Money Mark gave props to Tom Waits for his "anti-rock-star deal." Surely Money Mark's found a way to find the fun in what he does again. His new tour, on which he's augmented by a rotating group of musicians, may find his sense of humor firmly back in place. After all, it's hard to picture a man who once recorded an animated show's theme song with Kool Moe Dee arguing for the supreme importance of art after the drama has passed.
Seeing the rebirth of irony in the heart of Money Mark would be a perfect thing to do this week. Instead of watching the endless loop of those buildings falling down on all the recap shows or listening to self-serving politicians blathering on about the American way, you could go see a man have some serious fun with some music and remember that all the songs didn't turn into dirges last year. And if he's still letting the music speak for itself, we can only hope Mark's letting it tell a few jokes now and then.