It's not all that ironic, it's really just unfortunate.

So a few days ago, I was reminded about how much I LOVE the Jagged Little Pill album. I remember sleeping over at my grandma and Papa's and I was listening to it and reading the words out of the booklet, trying to memorize how she said every word. Don't even worry that I listened to the entire album the other day at work, and just couldn't even help myself from singing along. There has been an argument about the song "Ironic" for as long as I can remember. Critics say that nothing she says is really ironic, it's just bad luck. Here, read this:

it is ironic, isn't it? (1996)
Alanis Morissette has taken more than her share of hits for the song "Ironic." Critics have argued that she doesn't really understand the meaning of the word, and that the examples of irony she gives are simply not ironic. To be perfectly honest, I'm more surprised that there are music critics who do know what "ironic" means than I am that there are 21 year-old pop singers who don't. But that's a whole other essay.

It's not an easy word to define. Not even language scholars agree on whether a certain situation is "ironic" or not. For instance, if Alanis and Moose (Alanis's childhood costar cum nemesis) both moved independently to LA from Ontario and later became lovers, some would argue that this situation by itself constitutes irony. On the other hand, if Alanis and Moose each moved because they individually were convinced that Ontario was devoid of potential mates, and then met each other at a bar in LA, that would be ironic. So in the interest of fairness, and erring generously in her favor, I took the time to examine the lyrics of Alanis's song, and discover for myself what was truly ironic and what wasn't. Results are tallied below:

1. "An old man turned ninety-eight/He won the lottery and died the next day."
While an amusing (if morbid) coincidence, there is nothing particularly ironic about the death. It is certainly an awe-inspiring sequence of events -- the gentleman celebrating his 98th birthday, winning the lottery, and dying all in a two day period. What kind of shitty luck is that? The ineffective slant rhyme, btw, is a little jarring, too.

2. "It's a black fly in your Chardonnay."
The irony here is that there is nothing remotely ironic about this line. In perhaps her one sweet moment of unadulterated genius, Alanis has shown us the true meaning of irony by giving an example of it that isn't ironic at all! Get it? It's a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning: the textbook definition of irony!

3. "It's a death row pardon two minutes too late."
This one's kind of a coin toss, and really depends on the context. Imagine the following situation: Jimmy is black and has allegedly murdered fifteen people in Texas, with malice aforethought. No doubt he's going to fry, right? All the while, his pretty young Public Defender facing obstacles both legal and societal, struggles to overturn Jimmy's conviction. The actual killer, as it happens, was the son of a cattle rancher whom Jimmy'd stripped of a football to make the winning play at the cattle rancher's son's homecoming game. The pretty young Public Defender, after years of searching, finally discovers the blood-stained sand wedge the cattle rancher's son used in the murders, covered up and down with his incriminating fingerprints. The PYPD races to the aid of Jimmy, with whom she's fallen in love and doesn't care who knows, and receives a stay of execution for her wrongly-accused beloved. But irony of ironies: the pretty young Public Defender forgot to set her clock forward for daylight savings time, and Jimmy's already been dead for two minutes while she's breathing a sigh of relief in the Governor's office as the Governor, bewildered, makes the phone call only to discover to every one's dismay that Jimmy's already toast and now he has to break the news to the pretty young Public Defender, who isn't going to take this little zigzag of kismet well, one suspects. Now, that's ironic. That was so easy, there's no way I'm giving Miss Thing credit for it.

4. "It's like rain on your wedding day."

5. "It's a free ride when you've already paid."
Sorry, no. Alanis seems to think that "irony" means "bad timing".

6. "It's the good advice that you just didn't take."
This is very close! Ignoring good advice is ironic, but only if the listener suffers some kind of befitting karmic punishment as a result. Alanis gets half a point for the setup, but because she only sketchily implies the irony, we cannot grant her full credit.

7. "Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly/ He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids good-bye/ He waited his whole damn life to take that flight/And as the plane crashed down he thought, Well, isn't this nice?"
This quatrain is truly a feather in Alanis's cap, because it contains not one, but two legitimate instances of actual, honest to God irony. A) It is, indeed, ironic that someone who is afraid of flying would die in a plane crash during his first flight; it's an unexpected disruption in the normal course of events that gives us insight into human folly. And B) said someone is being, you guessed it, ironic when he says, "Well, isn't this nice?" since we must presume that he is being sarcastic.

8. "It's a traffic jam when you're already late."
See No. 5. When Alanis finds a concept she likes, she runs with it.

9. "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break."
Oh, come on. You were doing so well with the plane guy.

10. "It's like ten thousands spoons when all you need is a knife."
If the speaker is rifling through a silverware drawer which is known to contain knives, then this is ironic. If she's in a spoon factory, it isn't.

11. "It's meeting the man of my dreams/ And then meeting his beautiful wife."
The implied irony here is that Alanis has searched high and low for her soulmate, finds him only to discover that, wouldn't you know it?, he's married. Sheesh, all the good ones are taken, aren't they? But a moment's consideration will show that the situation is actually in no way ironic, since we would expect all the good ones to be taken. What would be ironic would be to meet some ugly, stupid, fat kid that Alanis spurned while a cast member of Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That on Television, and then meet his beautiful wife.

Final Tally
Attempts at describing irony: 11

Successful attempts: 2.5

Confusion of irony with "poor sense of timing": 6

Completely missing the term: 3

Now that you have the stats, you can wow your friends with your overwhelming command of both pop culture and the English language. The painful truth of the matter is that Alanis apparently did not quite center herself over the concept of irony before she and songwriting chum Glen Ballard sat down to compose the catchy ditty.

I believe, though, that we should not be so quick to judge. Winona Ryder's character in Reality Bites couldn't define "ironic" and had to have dopey Ethan Hawke explain it to her. And it took me longer than I'm comfortably prepared to admit to determine which of Ms. Morisettes vignettes were legit. So, Schoolhouse Rock it aint, but I'd like to see you do better with a song about assonance or hyperbole.

So is it luck? Is it irony? Is it just bad timing? Whichever way you look at it, I think you should watch Alanis perform with Crystal Bowersox from American Idol. I didn't watch even 1 single episode this season. But I did get recommended this little cutie on youtube because of my Jagged Little Pill playlist. Hella kudos for Crystal to hold her own on the stage with such a powerful talent. They both sound amazing, and the angsty little 10 year old inside of my heart got goosebumps, I'm not even trying to lie.


Heather Howell said...

What's the matter Mary Jane?

The Mad Hatter said...

I don't know where the article came from, but it is awesome. Just laughed (in my head) for a good 10 minutes. Why my head?, you ask. Because I am at work, and even if you're having fun, the appropriate facial expression at work is misery.

kybee said...

haha @The Mad Hatter, well now I just laughed OUT loud in my living room.

kybee said...