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.)

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