Contrary to popular belief, “irony” is actually not a term invented by Alanis Morissette to describe First World inconveniences, nor is the greatest example of the technique found on a cotton shirt from Busted Tees. There are many working and also playing definitions of “irony,” but essentially it refers to something being used to express the literal opposite of what it means. So, like, it is ironic to use “literal” to mean “figurative,” but I totally just used it to mean “literal’ in that sentence, so I was not being ironic. Oh my god, we have fucking ruined our language.
I like this explanation, which comes from a fancy-pants old grammar book called “The King’s English,” which in turn comes from a fancy-pants site called Wikipedia*: “Any definition of irony — though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted — must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same.”
Musically, John Mayer is one of the most earnest artists on the planet. His lyrics are straightforward and heartfelt, and his bluesy slow-guitar style is exactly what you would expect to accompany those words. “Waiting on the World to Change” has got to be one of the most earnest songs of all damn time, and the fella never introduces humor into any of them. There is not a touch of irony in John Mayer’s music.
John Mayer the guy, however, is a different story. He goes out and says a lot of stuff that he absolutely must intend to be taken as tongue-in-cheek. “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock”? That is most certainly not meant to be an earnest statement. But it also isn’t an ironic one, as does mean some version of the sentiment expressed, just not the totally extreme one.
And then we get this new thing, “Paper Dolls.” The song itself is, in true John Mayer form, totally earnest. It’s a sad, matter-of-fact love tune about a girl who got away. It contains lyrics like, “You”re like twenty-two girls in one / And none of them know what they”re runnin” from / Was it just too far to fall? / For a little paper doll.” The music is sad, slow, bluesy guitar. John’s voice is way wistful. The song is entirely sincere.
The video, on the other hand, enlisted the skills of Joanna Rohrback, who you probably know as the inventor of the viral megacraze, Prancercise. The original Prancercise video is, in and of itself, totally hilarious — and maybe actually in an ironic way? For John’s video, she creates “Romancercise,” which means she flits about to the beat while the song’s lyrics are overlaid in a pastel low-rent font.
Okay, so my main point, which is really an argument — from someone who has never been a particular fan of John Mayer, mind you — for why this video is good? When the Lonely Island makes a funny video to accompany a funny song, that isn’t ironic. But when John Mayer makes a funny video to accompany an earnest song, it is actually ironic — and it feels like the guy has finally found a way to meld his music with his persona. And as an unexpected result, this video definitely kind of totally literally works.