26 March 2010

Alanis Morissette: Ironic

This week we go with the low-hanging fruit: a song that has been rightly mocked from the moment it came out for having some of the most bizarrely idiotic lyrics ever released on an unsuspecting populace, but that was also a pretty big hit.

Yes, that’s right, this week Lyrics, Weakly takes on Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic”, a song about how life is, in the words of the song, a little too ironic. And how ironic, you may ask, is too ironic? Apart from this song hitting #1 on the Billboard modern rock chart, that is? Well, it earned a Grammy nomination, for one. And how is that ironic? For that, we go to the lyrics.

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

You know, i actually have a soft spot for songs that tell stories, especially when they’re not telling thoroughly sappy, hyper-unrealistic stories. This is the sort of thing that could happen (and probably has happened) in real life—a lot of elderly people like to play the lottery, after all. I’m figuring that the guy was happy to go out that way—it’d finally worked for him, and he didn’t have to worry about any of the tax implications. (Not to mention that he was ninety-eight. If i make it to ninety-eight and no further, believe me, it’s better than i’m expecting—no complaints from me about not making it to ninety-nine!)

So hurrah! for Ms. Morissette, offering up a story that sounds sad, but is actually uplifting and happy. Given the tone of rest of the songs on the Jagged Little Pill album, this is a nice little break.

What? What’s that? That’s not how that little vignette was intended? Hmph. Guess a little more exposition would have been useful. Oh well. Nothing to see here. Move along, folks.

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay

You want to avoid this situation? Don’t drink cheap wine outside. See how easy that was?

It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late

This doesn’t actually happen these days, you know—there’s this amazing invention called the “telephone”, which, when combined with another amazing modern invention called the “clock”, makes it so that if someone’s is going to be pardoned from death row, the person doing the pardoning can make sure it’s all done well in advance of the sentence being carried out. Amazing, the stuff they’ve come up with these days.

Maybe it’s more amazing that Ottawa was still so remote back in the 70s and 80s (while Ms. Morissette was growing up) that they apparently still used pony express and sundials then, since that’s apparently the way Ms. Morissette thinks people communicate and tell time. I’d’ve thought Canada was more technologically advanced than that, but apparently i’d’ve been wrong.

(In fairness, and in light of the way i rip into this song in coming paragraphs, i should say that if this were in fact to happen, it would be an ironic situation. But given the rest of the song, i think this is actually a case of the way even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while. Or, given the video for the song, maybe it’s actually more a case of a nut finding a nut.)

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

To begin with, the grammar here is confusing. Isn’t it ironic? What is it, anyway? We’ve just been treated to three different items—does Ms. Morissette mean to ask if they are ironic? Not to mention that, as many, many people have pointed out, the level of irony here is actually pretty low.

(By the way, the last of those links is my favorite.)

Irony (from Wikipedia)

is a situation, literary technique, or rhetorical device, in which there is an incongruity, discordance, or unintended connection with truth, that goes strikingly beyond the most simple and evident meaning of words or actions…[Situations in which] a certain factual truth is highlighted by some person's complete ignorance of it, or belief in the opposite of it—however, this contrast does not occur by human design…Almost all irony involves commentary that heightens tension naturally involved in the state and fate of a person (in the present, or the past) who badly needs to know a given fact they could easily know but does not.

Well, none of the examples given actually mean the opposite of their literal meaning, and they certainly don’t involve someone who needs to know something they don’t, so that’s not what’s going on.

But wait! you say—the meaning of the word irony is changing, and now it more often means something like “incongruous”. Okay, fine. I can kind of see how the dude dying right after winning the lottery is incongruous. But an insect that’s fallen into a glass of wine? That’s not incongruous, that’s grounds for getting a new, clean glass.

Maybe the last line of that chorus is punctuated wrongly—maybe it’s supposed to be And isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think! After all, if anyone really thought about it they’d figure out that they’d just been presented with a lie, so it’s an attempt to keep people from turning off the radio in annoyance.

It worked, apparently.

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

More alleged irony—or, i should say, more alleged “irony”.

Rain on your wedding day isn’t ironic. It’s not even a problem, actually, unless you’ve planned on an outdoor ceremony—and if you planned an outdoor ceremony without a backup indoor location in case of rain, well, you deserve what you get.

And a free ride when you’ve already paid? Dude, if you’ve already paid, it’s not free. That one just makes no sense at all.

And not taking good advice is something that we all do all the time. It’s not ironic, it’s simply life. Get over it already.

And who would’ve thought it figures?

Every single time i hear this song, i’m struck by how much of a non sequitur this line is. Well, maybe not really a non sequitur, but that’s only because it’s so completely out of place, such a completely perfect and pure non sequitur, that you can’t tell enough of what it’s about to be sure it has nothing to do with what precedes it.

And then we get another story.

Mister 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?”


You know, this almost ironic (in the incongruous sense). However, certain details in the story are bizarre enough that it doesn’t quite reach that level, stopping instead at the level of stupid.

I mean, what sort of crazy detail is it to include that he waited his whole damn life to take that flight? As someone who’s afraid to fly (but is resigned to occasional air travel being part of my job), i can’t imagine saying “One day i’ll take that flight to Des Moines.” If you’re afraid to fly, you fly because you have to, not because you want to.

Oh—and of course he waited his whole life to take it. If he died during the flight (well, i suppose technically he may have died right at the unscheduled end of the flight), then that was the end of his life. Circularity of description, however, is not ironic.

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

Once again, what i think is that the punctuation is wrong.

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

I think this is supposed to be deep, or at least incongruous and therefore ironic. It isn’t, though—it’s merely incomprehensible in the service of stating the obvious. After all, all that this bridge is saying is that sometimes life goes badly, sometimes it goes well. All right, then, that was exciting. What’s next?

Oh. More “irony”. I shouldn’t have asked.

A traffic jam when you’re already late

Can somebody explain the irony here to me? This is the second-biggest puzzle in the whole song for me. (The biggest? Two lines down. You can’t miss it.) I fail to see any hint of any irony-like thing anywhere near this particular situation. A traffic jam when you’d otherwise be running on time? Sure—that may even rise to the classical definition of irony, in fact. This, though? Nothing even approaching irony of any sort.

A no smoking sign on your cigarette break

Given the restrictions on smoking these days, if you’re a smoker and you’re in the habit of not scouting out ahead of time where you’re going to be able to smoke, well, then you deserve to not be able to use your preferred nicotine delivery device.

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

And here it is—the dumbest line in this entire dumb song!

I mean, first of all, what are you doing with ten thousand spoons, anyway? If you’re dealing in ten thousand spoons at a time, you’d better be a caterer—and if you’re a caterer and you’ve managed to forget a knife, you’re going to get pretty negative reviews, and rightfully so. That’s not ironic, it’s poor business practice.

Well, either that or it’s a lesson in not getting the really big boxes of plasticware from Costco. Either way, though, still not ironic.

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

And that’s going to stop you? Wow, Ms. Morissette, you’re more mellow about relationships than some of your songs would lead us to believe.

And isn’t it ironic, don't you think?
A little too ironic, and, yeah, I really do think

Not only are these things alleged to be ironic, they’re alleged to be too ironic.

And y’know, ma’am, i’m not sure that you actually really did think. But so it goes.

My favorite part of all this, actually, is Ms. Morissette’s post hoc attempts to make the song deeper than it is.

For me the sweetest moment came in New York when a woman came up to me in a record store and said, “So all those things in the song ‘Ironic’ aren’t ironic.” And then she said, “And that’s the irony.” I said, “Yup.”

No, it only counts if you did it on purpose—and i don’t believe that you did it on purpose. Sorry, but there you have it.

Maybe the real irony is that i wasted this many electrons on this waste of a song—but at least i’m not alone in that.

(And yes, i am aware that “Hand in My Pocket”, from the same album, has received less mockery but is even stupider than this song. Maybe i’ll get to that one one day, too.)

19 March 2010

Buffalo Springfield: Mr. Soul

This week we travel back to the late 60s and visit a song that was never a big hit, but that remains one of the best-known songs of one of the greatest bands of the era: Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”.

“Mr. Soul” was written by Neil Young, a performer who’s rightly acknowledged as also being a great songwriter. Mr. Young built this song in an unusual (for rock, at least) structure—three verses of four rhyming lines each, and no chorus. Basically, the song is written more like a poem than an ordinary rock song. This means, of course, that this week we’ll be in for a real treat, a vision of perfect songsmanship. Right? Well, we shall see.

Oh, hello Mr. Soul, I dropped by to pick up a reason

See, what’d i say? Pure genius! Structuring a song in the form of a conversation between the artist and someone outside of the ordinary conversation between artist and audience, pushing us headlong into a world of pure metaphor, where reasons can be exchanged like candy.

For the thought that I caught that my head is the event of the season

See, once again, pure…erm…well…i guess this would actually be best described as incomprehensibility.


Let me try to parse this sentence. Maybe it means…well, no, not that. Maybe…no, that wouldn’t make sense, either. Essentially, this is not English sentence structure.

Well. Since we know Neil Young is a genius, let’s just chalk this up to bad transcription. Yeah! That explains it! Every single lyrics site out there is wrong, and if we could only decipher what Mr. Young had actually written, we’d all be sitting here stunned and slack-jawed with amazement at how amazing and beautiful this line actually was, instead of stunned and slack-jawed at how amazing and beautiful it…isn’t. Um.

In other words, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Why in crowds just a trace of my face could seem so pleasin’
I’ll cop out to the change, but a stranger is putting the tease on.

See? This is just absolutely…

Well, the best word would, i guess, be “nonsensical”.

But at least it’s actually English, so it’s got that going for it!

I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter
I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her

So which is it, Mr. Young? Were you down or raised? Or is it that the praise of the fan raised your spirits, after they’d been down? Probably that. Except that she also said you’d upset her, which only makes really mean people happy. So you’re a mean person, Mr. Young? Good of you to admit it, i guess.

And why would being brought a letter get you down? Most people like to get mail. Unless it’s bills.

Ooh! It makes sense now!

Mr. Young was delivered what he thought was a bill for his most recent hashish purchase, and he was sad about it, since he knew he’d either have to pay out a lot of money out or have his knuckles repossessed by the Bank of Guido. But it turned out that it wasn’t a bill, it was actually hate mail from someone who said he’d upset her, which made Mean Mr. Young smile.

Or maybe Mr. Young’s making a deeper point—that really deep stuff like good rock music can’t be tied down to ordinary, boring things like narrative structure. Yeah, man, that’s gotta be it! Genius!

Okay, i’ll let you stop rolling your eyes before moving on to the next lines.

Any girl in the world could have easily known me better
She said you're strange, but don't change, and I let her.

You let her what, Mr. Young? I mean, this being a rock song and all, normally i’d go for the unspoken sexual interpretation here, but with the line preceding it it’s just confusing. You’d let her know you better? Well, that makes sense, since you’d apparently let any girl in the world do so. But the most immediate possible antecedent is change, so maybe you let her change even though she asked you not to. I guess that’s a nice gesture on your part, so congrats on learning how not to be mean.

Or maybe this is simply semi-random words thrown together to create something incomprehensible enough that people will think it’s deep.

That gets my vote.

In a while will the smile on my face turn to plaster?

No, Mr. Young, the smile on your face, assuming there has been no plastic surgery and you’re not wearing any makeup, will remain made of various lipids, proteins, salts, and water—and even if you are wearing makeup or have undergone plastic surgery, you’re still in no danger of your smile turning to plaster, which is made of stuff like gypsum, calcium carbonate, sand, or cement, none of which appears in most readily available makeup or plastic surgery formulations. So no worries on that score.

But this song is from the late 60s, so i suppose certain, um, practices may reasonably have led to such paranoias. So i’m glad i could set your mind at ease, Mr. Young—it’s just a service i provide.

Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster
For the race of my head and my face is moving much faster
Is it strange I should change? I don't know, why don't you ask her?

This doesn’t even make enough sense for me to properly mock it.

You know what’s really sad about these lines? Back when i was seventeen and wrote lots of really, really bad poetry, most of it came out sounding like this.

And the scary thing is that there are people out there who have killed many, many electrons in an attempt to explain what, exactly, this song means. What do i think? I think there’s a much simpler explanation.

p.s. Jim Messina’s career was launched by being in Buffalo Springfield. I wonder if our old friend Susan will drop by again?

12 March 2010

Atlantic Starr: Always

This week we visit 1987, and we discuss the slow-dance song of that year: Atlantic Starr’s “Always”.

“Always” was an extremely popular song, hitting #1 on the Billboard charts. As a “first dance” type of piece (it even peaked on the charts just in time for June weddings!), i must say it was vastly superior to certain other options, but it suffered from a number of issues. Perhaps the greatest of these was that it is so sappily sweet that it’s dangerous for diabetics to be in the room when it comes on the radio.

You doubt me? Just look at the first verse:

Girl you are, to me, all that a woman should be
And I dedicate my life to you always
A love like yours is grand
You must have been sent from up above
And I know you'll stay this way, for always

Awww, isn’t that just so cute?

And, if you didn’t know, this song is a duet, just to up the cuteness quotient. What a wuvvable wittle song about such wuvvable wittle wuvvers!

And speaking of cute, if you look at the video, you’ll see that the male singer was trying his best to look exactly like Rick James for the occasion. David Lewis in the house, representin’ the Jheri Curl!

And we both know, that our love will grow
And forever it will be you and me

Up to this point, we have a fairly ordinary, even innocuous, love song. However, things start to take a strange turn soon.

Ooh, you’re like the sun
Chasing all the rain away

You know why it chases the rain away? Because it’s a gigantic nuclear furnace, so hot that it exists as plasma, too hot to even be in the form of gas. It’s one thing to say that your lover is hot, quite another to say that your lover casts out so much heat and radiation that he or she would destroy all life on the planet if millions of miles of distance and a layer of ozone didn’t stand between us and the object of your affections.

More seriously, the sun doesn’t even chase the rain away, the wind does. And yes, little meteorological gaffes like this really do bug me that much.

When you come around you bring brighter days
You’re the perfect one
For me and you forever we’ll be
And I will love you so for always

I’ve got nothin’ on this one, except to note my heroic attempts to stifle my gag reflex, again.

Came with me my sweet
Let’s go make a family
And they will bring us joy, for always

This one, on the other hand, i’ve got comments.

The let’s go make a family line is, to my mind, one of the squickiest lines in any song, ever. Now, i will readily admit that nothing here rises to Benny Mardones-level ickiness, but it’s still pretty wrong.

I mean, this just isn’t the sort of thing that i can imagine going over well. Let’s translate this into the way the song up to this point would go in a non-rhyming situation:

“Hey, baby, i love you, and i’ll love you for always.”

“I love you, too, baby, and i’ll love you for always.”

“So, my sweet, come with me and let’s go make a family.”


Really—is there any reasonable way to read this verse that doesn’t come across as a cheap, blatant proposition? Specifically, as some guy trying to use empty promises of commitment to work his way into a woman’s pants? No, no there isn’t.

Oh, boy, I love you so
I can't find enough ways to let you know
But you can be sure I’m yours, for always

But then we get the woman’s response, and she doesn’t really seem bothered by it. Why? Well, i have my suspicions—i think she’s actually a succubus sent by Lilith to harvest the guy’s soul. Therefore, his idea of retreating to an, um, more private place simply serves her own demonic ends.

Then we get the chorus with the accompanying destruction of all life on earth. Twice.

I’ll skip it to spare you having to read the horror again.

I will love you so, for always
I will love you so, for always
I will love you so, for always
I will love you so, for always

Irony department: Barbara Weathers, the female half of this duet, left Atlantic Starr for a solo career shortly after this song’s release. For always, eh?

05 March 2010

Bryan Adams: Summer of ’69

Today’s installment on Lyrics, Weakly is yet another overplayed song from the 80s (though this time it’s from 1985)—the Bryan Adams song “Summer of ’69”.

There’s been an interesting bit of controversy over this song, with Bryan Adams claiming that the song has nothing to do with the year 1969, and that it has everything to do with certain, um, physical activities. Jim Vallance, who co-wrote the song with Mr. Adams, says that that’s complete rubbish, and that the song is most definitely about the summer of that year.

My guess? It really is about the summer of 1969, but then Mr. Adams realized people had been doing the math (see my comments on the very first verse of the song), and so he decided to do some revisionist history.

Either way, though, it’s still a silly song.

I got my first real six-string
Bought it at the five-and-dime
Played ’til my fingers bled
It was summer of ’69

Yep, 1969—those halcyon days of the late 60s, when everything seemed possible, before the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, before the musical horrors of the 70s. Yes, the summer of ’69, back when Bryan Adams was a young, vibrant…erm…nine years old.

Now, this verse doesn’t press the bounds of reality all that far—one of my daughters started guitar lessons shortly before her seventh birthday, for example—but you really should keep this in mind for the rest of the song. Bryan Adams is singing this song about the summer he was nine years old.

Me and some guys from school
Had a band and we tried real hard
Jimmy quit, Jody got married
I shoulda known we’d never get far

Apparently Mr. Adams’s friends from grade four were pretty precocious in many ways, what with being in a band and getting married so young and all. Or maybe he’s boasting that his friends were older than him, and he should have been viewed as a prodigy along the lines of Stevie Winwood writing and singing with the Spencer Davis Group.

Either way, though, it was apparently good times, as we learn in the next stanza.

Oh, when I look back now
That summer seemed to last forever
And if I had the choice
Yeah I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Can this verse be any more depressing? For someone born in 1959 to say that the summer of 1969 held the best days of his life, well, that’s just wrong. I mean, you didn’t even have a good few months when you were in your mid-twenties or something?

Ain’t no use in complainin’
When you got a job to do
Spent my evenin’s down at the drive in
And that’s when I met you

Complaining about one’s job is a time-honored benefit of being employed—yeah, you’ve got income coming in, and that’s good, but you could be paid more and valued as more than just another drain on the corporation’s coffers.

And complaining on the job serves a useful purpose—it’s a stress reliever. So get down off that moral high horse, Mr. Adams, and mingle with the rest of us sometime.

Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me that you’d wait forever
Oh and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never

I don’t get this scene. Mr. Adams is standing on a porch with someone, and she grasps his hand, at which point it became now or never. Okay, fine—but now or never for what? I don’t know, and we never get told. Now or never for a relationship with the hand-holder, maybe? Entirely possible, but if you’re only to the hand-holding stage it doesn’t seem like you’d really be to the go-no go point yet, you know?

Those were the best days of my life
Oh, yeah, back in the summer of ‘69

More with the depressing reminder that time and youth are fleeting.

Man we were killin’ time
We were young and restless
We needed to unwind

So you’re young and restless, which generally means that you’re doing something (or at least planning to), and you’re killing time, which generally means you’re not doing anything (nor are you planning to).

This does not compute. It is a paradox. Would it be too much to ask logical consistency of your music, Mr. Bryan Adams?

Wait—sorry, i just realized i asked that question of someone who released, at age 36, an album titled 18 Til I Die.

I guess nothin’ can last forever, forever, no

The dark undercurrents of this song are only getting stronger…

And now the times are changin’

According to Bob Dylan, the times they were a-changin’ all the way back in 1964, even before the summer of ’69. Does that mean there is no change, since change is merely a constant?

Sorry, i’ve been talking with too many philosophy majors lately, apparently.

Look at everything that’s come and gone
Sometimes when I play that old six-string
I think about ya wonder what went wrong

My guess? You played that old six-string too much and ignored her needs. But then again, i’m not a licensed therapist, so you should take my analysis with a grain of salt.

Standin’ on your mama’s porch
You told me that it’d last forever
Oh the way you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life

Okay, i may be completely out of my depth here, what with not having even been alive in 1969, much less a world-weary musically and romantically precocious nine-year-old, but i don’t think holding hands really carried that much weight in the late 60s. Or maybe it’s all in the way she held your hand—except i’m having trouble figuring out how exactly one would go about holding hands in such an intensely meaningful way.

Ah, the secrets Bryan Adams keeps!

Oh, yeah, back in the summer of '69
It was the summer of ’69
Me and my baby in ’69
It was the summer, summer, summer of ’69, yeah

You know, all in all, Bryan Adams has a lot going for him—he’s been one of the most consistent hitmakers in music over the course of decades, he’s rightfully famous for his portrait photography, he does really amazing philanthropic work, and he seems such an all-around good guy that it seems a little petty to criticize him for a bit of poor songwriting. And yeah, it is petty—but come on, this song merits it.