Since 9/11, though the tendency may have begun earlier, it's been a critical commonplace to dismiss irony as a kind of lazy apathy, a phony hipness ploy, and to celebrate cultural effluvia as heralding a new sincerity, one that allows for more optimism, or authentic feeling, or whatever. Consider for example the review in the Villiage Voice for the latest album by trendy Spandau Balleteeers, Interpol. Never mind that the reviewer tries to have it both ways, seeming to cool and world-weary for the very album he' s (she's? I forget) praising for avoiding the "apathetic shtick" of indie rock. Indie rock had lots of problems, myopic self-involvement being perhaps the largest, but let's put to rest once and for all the idea that it's alleged irony was some kind of affected trend no different than using synthesizers or drum samples.
What's the difference? Irony, assuming it's actually there and coherently detected by the listener, alwys refuses to permit escapism, which is the main function of pop culture in our society. Ironic music, ironic art refuses to be used as a brainwashing escape or as a vicarious emotional exerciser for people who live dead lives of working meaningless jobs in dreary suburban nonscapes. In fact, its primary function is to make you aware of how frivolously escapist other pop culture is, and hopefully help you reject it and reject the dead-end world it's supposed to ameliorate for you.
The new "sincerity" in crappy music like Interpol is a return to the 80s for sure, and not just in its witless mimickry of haircut pop that was revolting to begin with. What they are sincere about is making a buck, and the silly pseudoearnestness in their songs is there to allow you to groove on what it might feel like if you actually had emotions in your everyday life while letting the band mime those emotions for you. What's back is music as empty escape, as fantasy fodder; and in a few more years we'll appreciate even more what an anomalous oddity the 90s were, equal to the 60s in that a large segment of youth culture poised on the verge of rejecting the hipster prison advertisers and culture industry bigs had designed for them. Revolution was in the air, sort of, but that's a lot more than you can say for our current times, when barely 50% of Americans are capable of figuring out just what a complete moron the current president is.