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 particulary 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
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
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 everyone'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
5. "It's a free ride when you've
Sorry, no. Alanis seems to think that "irony" means "bad timing".
6. "It's the good advice that you just
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
See No. 5. When Alanis finds a concept she likes, she runs with it.
9. "A no-smoking sign on your cigarette
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.
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.
-- Matt Sturges
An old man turned ninety-eight He won the lottery and died the next day It's a black fly in your Chardonnay It's a death row pardon two minutes too late Isn't it ironic ... don't you think It's like rain on your wedding day It's a free ride when you've already paid It's the good advice that you just didn't take Who would've thought ... it figures 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...' And isn't it ironic ... don't you think Well life has a funny way of sneaking up on you When you think everything's okay and everything's going right And life has a funny way of helping you out when You think everything's gone wrong and everything blows up In your face It's a traffic jam when you're already late It's a no-smoking sign on your cigarette break It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife It's meeting the man of my dreams And then meeting his beautiful wife And isn't it ironic... don't you think A little too ironic... and yeah I really do think... Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out Helping you out