Monday, August 10, 2009

Camp vs. Irony

I had a discussion with Dobson the other night about the difference between camp and irony. I was curious as to what separated the two. Was it possible to commit to both simultaneously? It's a thin line, and has little to do with the content itself but rather the way it is presented. Dobson said that "it's basically that moment when you look at the camera and drop character that you stop being camp."

Something can be 100% camp. Rocky Horror is camp. The Darkness is camp. Everything John Waters does is camp. Conversely, something can be entirely ironic. Threadless shirts are ironic. Last Action Hero is ironic. Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" is ironic for how unironic it is.

But this issue is not completely black and white. In order to clarify the distinction, Dobson and I contrasted music videos of the 80s and 90s.
Michael Jackson was camp. There's no doubt about it. It isn't just the presentation, but how seriously he took himself. He really was that weird. This commitment is why he is a cultural phenomenon, and not just an 80s sideshow. Look at the conviction he presents in "Beat It."

While "Beat It" was camp, "Bad" delved into irony territory. Jackson is committed, but it's a mediocre song and a mediocre video. Even the dancing is lackluster. Also, Martin Scorsese directed this video for some reason. The moment Scorsese directs your street dancing 80s pop video, it becomes ironic.

The Beastie Boys are also a good example. "Sabotage" is camp.

Of course they're all in fake mustaches and add silly cop stereotypes, but I still consider it more camp than ironic. They commit to the silliness. It's really the product of Spike Jonze listening to the song and going "it would be cool if this were the theme song for a 70s cop show!"

"Ch-Check It Out," however, is 100% ironic. It's all weak rehashes of their previous videos. There's no commitment. They're playing dress-up in front of a greenscreen.

The 90s are a bastion of ironic videos. Jonze and Gondry both made stuff that was visually stimulating and on the cusp of the sincerity dearth known as the hipster movement. Weezer's "Buddy Holly" is 100% ironic.

If you want to look for pure camp, however, you have to turn to the 1980s. It was the genesis of music videos. No one really knew what they were doing. And based on the finished product, it seems to be the only promotional material which they expected no one to see.

"Safety Dance" is pretty darn camp. Ren fest. Midgets. Maypoles. Cavorting.

But if you want the best, campiest music video of the 80s, go no further than Men at Work's "Land Down Under."

It combines campy elements to create something extremely endearing and rewatchable. All of the actions on screen match up perfectly to the lyrics. What do they do during an instrumental? Just add something crazy like dig dancing, or playing the flute to a koala plushie.

If they wanted to be ironic, they could have easily winked at the camera as if to say, "we know Australians aren't really like this." But they never do. They fully commit to the belief that all Australians are vegemite-sandwich eating, Foster's spraying, vomit spewing, fun-loving wackos.
"Land Down Under" is the music video that all music videos should strive to be.


  1. i've always loved that Men at Work video. it's one of those things where i am pleased even by its very existence.

    a set of videos that flirts with mixed doses of camp and irony are the "performance" videos of Hall & Oates, especially the extra-gimmicky "Private Eyes." the trench coats and Oates' over the top eyelash-batting are simply fantastic. obviously the whole thing is pretty tongue-in-cheek, and i think even more so than with "Sabotage" since Hall & Oates and the other band members in the video are just dressed up without any distinct characters to commit to. but at the same time, they're just so into how goofy the whole thing is that it's mostly just endearing. particularly with Oates; he always reminds me of a Bruce McCullough character. Hall seems a little more smug, but maybe that's just due to his sweet fashion sense.

  2. Camp -- Attempt at humor succeeds, and the people involved are fully aware that this was intended.

    Irony -- Attempt at seriousness fails, but the people involved don't realize. (melodrama?)

    When "Camp" fails to be funny, it's not irony. It just sucks.

    Gotta disagree with a lot of your choices, here. I don't think "Beat It" was intended as camp. It was MJ breaking out into a more stylish type of music video. It may seem campy looking back, but at the time it was seen as really hip. Looking back, it may seem silly, but that wasn't the intent. Present day irony?

    Also note: Queen would be a regular rock band if Freddy Mercury wasn't out there camping it up.

    I don't think Beastie Boys ever attempted to do anything serious. All of their videos are camp. "Ch-Check it Out" just blows.

    "Buddy Holly"'s video was never meant to be taken seriously (if it was, it wouldn't have fucking HAPPY DAYS in it). No one thought that at the end, after talking to Arnold about the fish, that people would be blown away: "Wow. They inserted themselves into a fish conversation!" Not irony.

    2006's Romeo and Juliet directed by R. Prestigiacomo was irony. People were fully expected to invest themselves in the story, acting, and settings. The R+J parody was ridiculous camp. There is no better analogy than this!

  3. the initial music video examples may have been a bit flawed (mine included), but i think Adam's brief definitions of camp and irony fall short. or at least the bit about irony does. his version seems to be the one where the artist isn't in on the joke. an example might be the clips of that Hungarian pop band in the background of Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" video; part of the point of the video is to make fun of that sort of band, but they were unaware of this when they signed on. i guess that's a form of dramatic irony since they're sort of "characters" in the video.

    anyway, Nick uses that version of irony (more or less) when he talks about Jackson's "Bad" video; MJ was totally sincere, but the whole thing comes off a lot less bad-ass than intended. but he also flirts with a version of comic irony with a sort of metafiction slant (where the artists wink at the audience primarily to draw attention to the form and/or lampoon it) when he mentions "Buddy Holly" and the trend towards self-conscious hipsterism.

    in only vaguely related news, i though about how the line between camp and irony (of the second variety) is complicated by the "ironic" appreciation of something that is traditionally just sort of campy, like the roller derby.

  4. My choices are not 100% accurate, but I agree with Sarah in that I think you misinterpreted my use of irony. You apply the irony to the audience, when I'm talking about the artist. "Beat It" is camp because it expects me to accept Michael Jackson as a street tough. "Bad" is ironic because it redid "Beat It" but deliberately made it bad (except for MJ who wasn't in on the joke). "Buddy Holly" is completely ironic, because they're consciously using camp elements to boost their own hipness. A true camp artist would never be camp to be cool. Camp only becomes cool when it's picked up by hipsters ironically.

  5. Too confusing. From now on, my only descriptors are "sucks" and "is okay," and my response to these sorts of discussions will be Gen-X-style sarcastic indifference.

    By the way, were you influenced by this comic? How ironic.

  6. I actually haven't seen that comment. It was influenced by Dobson showing me that Men at Work video and us agreeing it was the campiest thing ever.

  7. Camp can be either intentional (John Waters), or unintentional (Ed Wood). What makes it camp is there's a modernist commitment taken to extremes. The actors, directors, etc. all act as if they are making a very serious thing, and the resulting over-seriousness creates humor.

    Ironic, the way Nick is using it, is that insincere, "look I am part of the joke" mindset that came into fashion in the 90's. Tarentino makes ironic movies: Deathproof isn't just a re-make of Vanishing Point, it's constantly making sure everyone knows it's about Vanishing Point, and is boring and talky because it's the second part of a double feature. Tarentino wants everyone to know they shouldn't take him seriously, so he makes a movie that is ironic.

    Also Adam your R&J analysis is wrong. (One of) the problems with R&J is that Roberto never made clear to his cast what the fuck he wanted. Should we commit to a character or not? Some actors couldn't help but commit (Randy, Nate), and so their scenes occasionally cross over into camp (Nate tearing up the bed, Randy's stage voice being so out of place), while others never made any effort to commit at all (Vince, Ryann), playing almost a completely ironic take (Vince especially). I think Roberto wanted camp (or at least couldn't avoid it) because he didn't like that I kept trying to do ironic readings of the play's final lines, to the point that he got Dr. Hansen to record a 100% un-ironic reading of the ending speech.

    But yeah, it's not about intent, it's about committing to what you're doing. Bugs Bunny is ironic; Hannah Barbara cartoons are camp.

  8. I think the fundamental issue here is that comparing camp and irony is like comparing an adverb and an adjective. Irony denotes that something differs from its reality or expectation. Camp denotes in what manner, or to what degree, it differs. Something can be humorously ironic without being campy, but I do not think the opposite is true. Camp is a type of irony and it depends on one's expectations as to whether a certain level of flamboyancy or exaggeration is campy or not.