Saying one thing and meaning another. We've been there and done it and now it's time to get real, says Oliver Bennett. Seriously
THIS YEAR'S Eurovision Song Contest, for all its baggage of boom- bang-a-bang self-mockery, felt sad and valedictory. For it betrayed the contest's final loss of innocence. Once replete with hands-across-water sentiment and genuine competitive eagerness, by 1998 we all understood that it was a joke - hell, even the Germans knew it was a joke, fielding a satirical entry. Indeed, it seemed that Eurovision did what the Maastricht Treaty couldn't: unite Europe in a federation of smirky knowingness.

Yet the real winner of the contest was not a transexual Israeli, but irony. Britain, in particular, has seen an unprecedented ascendancy of the ironic posture, and sometimes it seems as if the whole nation has its tongue in its cheek. Our popular culture is infused with it. Unsure of our own taste, we turn to fashions of different eras, not so much wearing polyester slim-fit shirts and Farah hip-hangers as quoting them. We are barely able to watch a genuine quiz show on television: instead we have shows that "subvert" or "poke fun at" the quiz show format: Lily Savage in Blankety Blank, Vic and Bob in Shooting Stars or Supermarket Sweep with campy host Dale Winton. Shows like Mrs Merton rely on her celebrity guests "getting the joke" - one has to ask whether the joke is worth "getting" - and Eurotrash, with its effervescent perverts, transfixes the nation with smutty mass-market irony. Even Spiceworld: The Movie was "ironic" in the way it pre-emptively laughed at itself. Such is the state of the ironic nation: everybody wants in on the joke, and no-one wants to risk misunderstanding. Indeed, some of us seem frightened of taking anything seriously.

People even go to ironic clubs where they dance ironically in Seventies clothes to disco classics or lounge-a-long-a easy listening which, however much its advocates claim to have "always loved Ronnie Hazelhurst's work", remains a kind of ironic nostalgia for a never-never land of the pop imagination. God, there is even ironic home decor where people "decade-blend" with taste-free impunity; kitschy plaster saints from holidays in Catholic countries, sub-Cardin space-age silver ornaments, gloopy lava lamps - all difficult to enjoy without an ironic "reading". Stuff that Britain's massed ironists describe - in that mixture of affection and hip derision - as "cheesy".

But has the ironic attitude gone too far, become too mass-market? Since everybody gets the gag, the result is that irony is now the lingua franca of the zapping classes. Ten years ago, a Fleet Street editor was defining a brief for writers, and one of her noblest strictures was "no spotty- faced irony". Alas, she was swimming against the tide for since then we have been engulfed by a wave of the kind of smartass irony that was once the niche province of our more irritating undergraduates. "People who watched Carry On films 20 years ago would watch them in a completely different way now," says John Lynch, media and popular culture professor at Leeds Metropolitan University. "The problem is that it is very easy and safe to laugh at these things." Which tells another truth: that irony is at its most piquant and powerful when it is a low-circulation in-joke, not a mass-market jape.

It is useful, though, as irony can help us get away with anything. Pornography, as it appears in several men's magazines, is parodic: anyone who takes it literally is a fool and a troglodyte. But it amounts to the same thing - a semi-naked girl, there to titilate. And in a way Quentin Tarantino does the same with his affectless violence: we laugh first, and enjoy the carnage second. Commercials employ irony, on the trendy basis that TV viewers are now "media literate": one of the best is a jokey American ad that declared "Join us and become unique". Guinness and McDonalds are just two products that currently use irony in their UK advertising. "It's a powerful tool because it invites people to share in the brand's fun," says an advertising executive.

Worst yet is the tendency to dignify this whole project as "postmodern irony", as if to givethe ironised product intellectual veneer and hike it to the geist. And equally galling is the way that we Brits pat ourselves on the back for being masters of irony, pitting ourselves by common consent against irony-free American. Sadly for us this is not strictly true, for in the US college graduates gather to listen ironically to Dean Martin (who, may he RIP, was terrible in the first place), and affect the stylistic ironic-retro language of the cocktail lounge.

Loungecore indeed. Then there is the hip double-think behind TV shows and personalities like Seinfeld, David Letterman, Frasier, ad clever-clever nauseum. And who can forget Alanis Morrisette's single, "Ironic", truly a leap into the pool of profundity? "It's like rain on your wedding day... a free ride when you've already paid... the good advice you didn't take... like a black fly in your Chardonnay... isn't it ironic?" Not really - more like bad luck, actually, as Eng Lit students have been quick to point out. But this lump of Birkenstock Rock was just hi-jacking the hip I-word. As for art - even seasoned hacks cannot decide whether Jeff Koons is taking the piss or not.

The enervating effects of irony have been noted by Douglas Coupland, Canadian author of slacker novel Generation X, in which he suggests that irony robs one of "the power to act". Indeed, it was in the Gen X zeitgeist movie Reality Bites that Winona Ryder's character was asked in a job interview to define irony: "Uh... irony. It's a noun. It's when something is ironic. It's, well, I can't, uh, really define irony, but I know it when I see it." To not know what it means, but to understand what it looks like - such is the state of the art among today's any-old-ironists.

Where does it all come from? In his essay "Post Modern" of 1980, Peter York noted that the "art criteria of the early Seventies were that a work, an entertainment, should be stylish, ambivalent, ironic, eclectic, a touch retro, a bit classy (but that classiness distinctly ironic: post-classless, you understand." A little bit of "post", a touch of "neo" and dollop of camp and there you have it: irony. It was probably the Seventies that saw the ascendancy of the ironic pose and gave all the best source material for today's stylistic irony. It was during this decade that late Andy Warhol perfected his blank persona - "oh, great" - and his Brit doppelganger David Bowie was lionised in a book called The Man In The Irony Mask: very useful when he had to wriggle out of his notorious fascist salute. Yet it's taken until now for irony to truly join the mass market. "I predicted this years ago," says Peter York, who recalls a lecture by the journal The Modern Review at the Oxford Union, where people came on holding their own inverted commas. York would distinguish pop irony, however, from the time-honoured use of wittily ironic subtexts and parallel meanings. "In the mass-kitsch, low-camp attitude people feel safe with something old, silly or dead, as their taste cannot be called into question," says York. "Often the kinds of people who now like, say, Abba and the Bee Gees wouldn't have liked it the time. It's a category into which you can dip without stigma. It's harmless fun, often for kiddies who weren't even born at the time."

This has arisen, he says due to the incredible stock of stylistic imagery available for today's young bricoleurs. "The amount of material is phenomenal because of the technology of retrieval. It has become so undiscriminating. But it is unavoidable in our time because we live in a wraparound past." A net result of irony overload is that sincerity sometimes seems in short supply, and York will admit that the ironic attitude is "now a bit enervated". But still the scavenging continues, as the desperate revival industry snarfs up style-bites with rapacity.

Along the way, irony may have changed its meaning. Its commonest definition is saying something but meaning its opposite, like mild sarcasm: "Oh, sure". Of course, literary and dramatic irony goes back forever: some people even think that certain gospels in the Bible are ironic. Certainly Chaucer and Shakespeare have their moments of irony. The late eighteenth century took satire and irony into a new sphere with writers like Swift. But the ironic attitude as we know it today probably started as a masonic code among like-minded people - often gay, and bound up in camp - to differentiate themselves from lumpy, literal straights. Oddly, pop irony has become not exclusive but inclusive. DJ Enright, literary critic and author of Irony: The Alluring Problem (OUP) thinks that the wave of irony is "a way of having it both ways; of joining in and of being satirical". As for post-modern irony, he says: "It's like a lot of literary theory: foolishness, and completely without meaning, but all the rage." Enright's title comes from Thomas Mann,who also wrote: "The intellectual human being must choose between irony and radicalism. A third choice is not possible." Ironists tend not to be political, as their pose involves distancing themselves from daily life. At worst, they are paralysed by the pose.

Might there be a backlash to the age of irony? Is there a counter-ironic quest for authentic experience, or, as Peter York suggests, "have even sincerity and authenticity become a spoof?" John Lynch points to the rise in Buddhism and New Age religions and self-help as evidence that there a seeking for real values continues amid the confusion and relativism of the age of irony, and also points out that the reaction to Princess Diana's death was an attempt to connect with something real against the onslaught of supremacist triviality.

As Peter York says, with barely perceptible irony: "I'm sure Mr Blair will do something to resolve the problem." Indeed, perhaps New Labour's Third Way will exclude irony from the roster of permissible attitudes. False sincerity, on the other hand - now there's a way forward.