What did I think would happen? I suppose I hadn’t really thought about it. Still, what actually did happen came to me as a bit of a surprise.
The concert started at 7:30, the doors opened at 6:00. At around 5:00, I stopped by the venue to buy my ticket. What did I see? A line. There was a line. Fans were already gathering so they could get right up to the front of the stage—fans wearing Stryper t-shirts and holding records they hoped to get autographed.
Why did this surprise me? It wasn’t that Stryper had fans. Of course they had fans. The surprise was how willing these fans were to identify themselves as such. And even more, how unwilling I was to do the same.
Lest you think I’m using Stryper or their fans as the punch line of a joke, let me explain myself. For close to a decade of my life, when I told people I was a Stryper fan it was a badge of pride. Then there came another decade where, when I mentioned liking them, people thought I was joking and I sheepishly denied it. Now I’m in a decade where people buy music, concert tickets, and t-shirts for ’80s big-hair metal because they think it’s “ironic.”
To like something “ironically” is to like something that wasn’t meant for you, and to like it for reasons other than those originally meant to make it appealing. One example might be going to a Nascar race mainly to observe Nascar fans in their natural habitat, though you have no idea how the scoring system works or who the drivers are. Let’s be honest, irony played a much bigger role than Nascar ever did in making Ricky Bobby a household name.
As the line formed, I realized I didn’t exactly know how I was supposed to feel about this concert. Was I supposed to be excited to see my one-time favorite band? Did I think the concert would be, in some way, funny? Was I there for ironic reasons? Would I maybe get nostalgic for a time long past? Or would I end up loving every minute?
And who were these people in line with me? They were mostly my age. When they were kids, they probably covered their bedroom walls with the same posters I had. Could it be that these were, in fact, my people? Could it be that though we’d perhaps weathered the ’90s differently, we had each come to gather on this common ground—ground we all felt, at some point in our lives, was the soil from which we’d grown?
I played it cool and kept my distance. The last thing in the world I wanted was to get into some conversation with a stranger about what we hoped would make the set-list, or whether the band would be wearing yellow and black spandex, or if vinyl was truer than digital.
I slipped into the venue and climbed up to the balcony where I planned to observe the show from a distance. But so help me, by the middle of the second song I found myself headed for the stairs to stand among the crowd right in front of the stage. Why? Because my favorite band from high school was putting on an amazing live show. They moved me from being a distant observer to being a part of the experience.
A couple days after the Stryper concert, one of my more recent favorites, Josh Ritter, played a rare full band show here in the city I love. During that show, he helped me make sense of my experience at the Stryper concert. Toward the middle of the crowd favorite, “Kathleen,” Ritter’s band shifted into a slow waltz and he began to talk about how we’ve come to regard so many things we used to love as funny now. He reminded us that there was a time when we bought Hallmark cards for the sentiments they expressed, not for the humor of how cheesy they could be. Then he invited us to do something I hope I’ll never forget. I’m paraphrasing, but here’s what he said:
“In all this love of irony, I wonder if we’re forgetting how to love things for what they are. And I wonder how much we’re staying on the sidelines for the sake not feeling awkward when what we could do is become a part of something beautiful. Let’s do something real tonight. Let’s put away our cynicism for a moment, and lets create a beautiful piece of art together. Turn around and find someone—anyone, it doesn’t matter—and lets share a very short, very loving slow dance. Just find someone. It doesn’t matter who. And if it doesn’t work, just bounce off to someone else. Let’s turn this room into the biggest slow dance in this city.”
This was a risky thing for Ritter to ask of his audience. We spend a lot of energy working hard to distance ourselves from things that move us. But do you know what happened? The people responded. The concert transformed into a dance hall, and every last person in the room was smiling from ear to ear whether they danced or not. Why? I think it was because the moment became what Ritter was hoping it could be—a work of art.
I think the phenomenon of liking things ironically is disingenuous and self-protective. It comes across to me as more of a boast: “I laugh at the things that actually seem to stir the hearts others.” But, just as C. S. Lewis said that “an atheist cannot guard his beliefs too carefully,” the same can be said of anyone who attempts to like something ironically.
The beautiful flaw in liking something “ironically,” is that if you’re not careful, what you start off liking primarily for the way it plays in our culture eventually begins to grow on you, and you start liking it for what it really is. And when you start to like something for what it actually is, then your heart gets involved. And when your heart gets involved, you move from the balcony to the front of the stage. And when you move to the front of the stage, you begin to participate. And when you participate, you begin to grow and change, and dare I say, enjoy yourself.
Those people in line? They were my people. We had so much fun.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).