13 June 2005


One of the ironic things about this post is that by publishing it, I may be exposing my own misunderstanding of the term irony. Indeed, it has sat unpublished for six weeks partly because of this fear (and it was a propos of nothing until today). My interest is rekindled by this story on CBC.ca by Andre Mayer, about the 10-year anniversary of Alanis Morissette's CD Jagged Little Pill and her decision to release a new acoustic version of the entire album to mark this event. I have no objection to Mayer's claim that the new release, in essence, is yet another public exercise in narcissism on Ms. Morissette's part. However, Mayer includes a sideways jab that the lyrics in the song "Ironic" are actually devoid of irony:

For all its bluster, Jagged Little Pill’s best song was also its meekest; despite its basic misreading of irony.

I have seen this claim regarding Morissette's grasp of irony made before in stronger terms, in Jorge Cham's PhD. Comics:

1995. Alanis Morissette releases the hit single, "Ironic". Ironically, none of the song lyrics actually describe an ironic situation.

OK - looks like we're getting into lexical semantics here. I think what both Mayer and Cham are referring to is a distinction between literary or dramatic irony and a lay sense of the word. Ironic, in the lay sense, refers to a more general notion of unfortunate timing. I sometimes (ironically) refer to the lay usage as "Alanis Morissette irony". But I actually think that some of Ms. Morissette's vignettes are ironic in the literary sense.

Here's the relevant part of the Merriam-Webster definition of irony, which Mayer's article also links to:

3 a (1) : incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (2) : an event or result marked by such incongruity b : incongruity between a situation developed in a drama and the accompanying words or actions that is understood by the audience but not by the characters in the play -- called also dramatic irony, tragic irony.

And here's what Oxford has to say:

2. fig. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was, or might naturally be, expected; a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things. (In F. ironie du sort.)

These definitions seem fairly consistent. Now, a logician will tell you that all you need to prove a universally quantified statement to be false is to provide a single counterexample. "None of the song lyrics actually describe an ironic situation" is a universally quantified statement, so I only need to show that at least one situation in the song is indeed ironic. For the sake of completeness, I will evaluate all the situations below.

An old man turned ninety-eight.
He won the lottery and died the next day.

Expected result: old man gets to enjoy riches of lottery.
Actual result: old man dies before he can do so, despite his longevity.
Evaluation: ironic. This would be more ironic if the knowledge of owning a winning ticket is what caused the old man's death, but even without it, there's an incongruity here.

It's a black fly in your Chardonnay.

Expected result: The chardonnay is for you to drink.
Actual result: The chardonnay is for the fly to drink.
Evaluation: ironic. Presumably the black fly would also find this ironic, since it would rather be consuming you.

It's a death row pardon two minutes too late.

Expected result: the pardon will come in time to save the inmate.
Actual result: two minutes is long enough for the injection to take permanent effect.
Evaluation: somewhat ironic. More like plain bad timing.

It's like rain on your wedding day.

Expected result: nice weather on your wedding day.
Actual result: it rained on your wedding day.
Evaluation: ironic in the drought-prone summers of the Ontario of Alanis's (and my) salad days, where wedding days between May and September are very reliably sunny.

It's a free ride when you've already paid.

Expected result: had you known, you could have got a free ride.
Actual result: you didn't know, so you bought a non-refundable ticket.
Evaluation: somewhat ironic.

It's the good advice that you just didn't take.

Expected result: knowing how good the advice was, you take it.
Actual result: your narcissism leads you to ignore the advice.
Evaluation: This seems to be more indicative of stubborness than irony. It might be more ironic if the same advice had been given and followed in the reciprocal direction in the past.

Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly
He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
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...dontcha think

Expected result: Mr. Play-it-Safe arrives at his destination using the "safest form of travel".
Actual result: Mr Play-it-Safe dies the horrible violent death he always feared.
Evaluation: ironic. I think Mr Play-it-safe has a reasonable expectation of a safe arrival.

A traffic jam when you're already late.
Evaluation: This seems to be an example of poor planning rather than irony, especially if the traffic jam is a recurring one.

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break.
Evaluation: Maybe this sign is a "sign".

It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.

Evaluation: Assuming an even distribution of knives, forks, and spoons in the world, the chances that a sample of cutlery with 10,000 pieces would not contain a knife are too small for my calculator to render, but are something like (2/3)^10000. In this case there is a reasonable expectation that the set of cutlery would contain at least one knife. Unless, of course, it's a shipment of spoons. Otherwise, this is a bit ironic.

It's meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife

Evaluation: Maybe she shouldn't have written that other song about Mr. Duplicity, or spent all that time with him.

Overall, it seems like the situations do become less ironic over the course of the song, but, as I've argued, some of them illustrate an incongruity between an expected outcome and an actual one. I think what might have happened is that some sort of meme to the effect that "'Ironic' isn't ironic" got started and continues to get repeated, without deep analysis of the claim.

Again, I'm perfectly open to poking fun at Morissette's lyrics, but I think the Ironic thing is off the mark. Will I get Jagged Little Pill Unplugged? Probably not. I only own the original because a friend passed off an extra copy to me after her mother, ironically, gave it to her for Christmas two years in a row.


At Mon Jun 13, 06:15:00 PM 2005, Blogger Bridget said...

Thanks for a great (and very funny) post about something that's been bothering me for 9 years!

At Fri Jun 17, 03:41:00 PM 2005, Blogger Joy said...

My favourite essay on the subject:

At Sun Jun 19, 08:12:00 AM 2005, Blogger language said...

While I take your point and agree that some of the Alanis-bashing has been overstated, I think you're trying too hard. Your best case is the lottery verse, and it goes downhill from there much faster than you acknowledge. There's simply no way "rain on your wedding day" is ironic in any non-Alanis sense of the word. It's just annoying.

At Sat Aug 13, 07:35:00 PM 2005, Blogger David Romano said...

Enjoyable read. I'm surprised that your evaluation for A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break just has a link (which, unfortunately, is dead). I think that the situation is ironic because you're exepecting to be able to smoke on your cigarette break, but are unable to do so.

At Sun Aug 14, 09:06:00 AM 2005, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

:has a link (which, unfortunately, is dead).

Oops! Try this, which is similar.

At Tue Dec 27, 07:41:00 PM 2005, Blogger soothsayer40 said...

I teach high school students and I plan to use this song to help them visualize irony. No, it's not perfect irony in all cases, but it does help students think about irony. Music is a great way to engage students. I believe academic elitists sometimes go too far.

At Tue Dec 27, 11:13:00 PM 2005, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Soothsayer, thanks for dropping by. Sometimes academic elitists can go too far - ironically, though, the elitist in this case was the journalist, not the academic (nor the educator).

At Fri May 05, 11:47:00 PM 2006, Blogger Not Sure Even Then said...

Rain on your wedding day has traditionally been considered good luck. That's where the irony resides.

If you get married outside, as many people do these days, and you stand amidst 150 invited guests in their best clothes who are being soaked to the bone by a torrential downpour, you're supposed to soothe yourself with the knowledge that this ruined, sodden day is a good thing. That's the irony.

So much of the song describes situations that are not ironic at all (the traffic jam is the worst of the bunch), but rain on your wedding day cannot be included in that non-ironic group.

It is pure irony, literary and otherwise.

At Mon May 08, 05:02:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Interesting take. I hadn't heard of the "good luck" interpretation of a rained-out wedding, but a little googling turned up a few sites that concur. Meanwhile it's also clear that the phrase "it's like rain on your wedding day" has become a catchphrase to comment on ironic or unfortunate situations.


Post a Comment

<< Home