Twenty years after anyone stopped caring, I intend to settle once and for all whether or not Alanis Morrisette’s ‘Ironic’ is actually ironic.
Yesterday I was watching VH1 in a hotel room in Lithuania. A smattering of forgettable pop was inoffensively making its way in and out of my ears before I was jolted away from The Script and Ed Sheeran and back to the late 90s, falling into the maniacal grasp of Alanis Morissette. In those halcyon days, whether a teenage girl was goth or grebo or geek or gorgeous, Alanis and her Jagged Little Pill would be as certain of appearing in a young lady’s music collection as tits and violence in Game of Thrones. It was a given. Any guy who is now between the age of 28-40, and who was lucky enough to have a girlfriend at the time, will also be familiar with the lyrical cocktail of love, Prozac and back-row cinema blow jobs that were stirred into Morissette’s seminal album. Most guys didn’t want to listen to it but they had to. Isn’t that ironic? Don’t you think?
Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t – that is what I am trying to figure out. Morissette’s signature tune ‘Ironic’ claims that a great many things are ironic, and it is hugely debatable as to whether or not they actually are. In fact, the song could well be the devil that spawned the frequent and mildly soul-destroying misuses of ‘ironically’ and ‘how ironic’ when applied to situations that are clearly not ironic at all, seeing it most frequently appearing when the words ‘coincidence’ ‘bad luck’ or even ‘inevitable’ should be applied e.g. My wife just left me for a richer, better looking, cleaner and more emotionally attentive younger man – how ironic. I intend to journey through the 3 types of irony and decide and award Morissette irony points for her success or failure.
Is It Verbal Irony?
Verbal irony is the most common form of irony. This is when someone uses a sentence or statement that is a direct contradiction of the truth, actuality or what they genuinely think or believe. This is your sarcastic mate who never delivers a straightforward meaning and exhales sarcasm as frequently as they do carbon dioxide.
So, this would be like Billy Ray Cyrus saying ‘Hey Miley, I just watched the VMAs and your video for Wrecking Ball – I’m really proud of the dignity, modesty and empowering feminist messages you’ve intricately woven into your lyrics and public performances, and I want to thank you for challenging the perception of our family as attention-seeking, sexually deviant white trash. You have truly mended my achy breaky heart.’ But does it work for Morissette?
Well – I think she scores one irony point here. When she sings about the character ‘Mr Play-It-Safe’ he is about to die in a plane crash when he thinks ‘well isn’t this nice.’ Unless he is a failed kamikaze pilot looking to make up for the flops of his past it is safe to assume that he doesn’t really think it is nice to die in a plane crash. Therefore, he has expressed the opposite of what he genuinely believes. The only grey area here is as to whether or not we can attribute verbal irony to a thought – but I’m giving Morisette the point. She deserves it. Or was I being verbally ironic?
Is It Situational Irony?
This type of irony involves there being a disjunction between what is expected to happen and what actually occurs. So, when the polar opposite of what should happen, happens, then we have a case of situational irony. Imagine if a virgin knew that they were going to have sex for the first time and they took Viagra to calm their nerves and make sure everything went smoothly, only to then discover that they had an allergic reaction to the drug that caused them to suffer from impotence, leading to their girlfriend laughing at their floppy genitalia after vowing never to have sex with them. That would be situational irony. But what about Alanis?
The 98 year old man who dies the day after winning the lottery. Zero irony points. Winning the lottery would not affect the longevity of the man’s life, and nor would it make him believe that he was any more or less likely to die. This is just bad luck for Alanis and Grandpa.
Black fly in your Chardonnay. Another irony fail here. Somebody not wanting something to happen, even though it has happened, is not ironic. The Chardonnay drinker would probably have given no thought as to whether they expect flies to land in drinks or not, and as a society we do not generally consider wine to be a fly repellent. This is no more ironic than me getting bitten by a llama.
A death row pardon two minutes too late. I will give half an irony point for this one, if only to express my faith and support for the integrity of the American legal system. We would not generally expect a condemned criminal to be innocent, least of all one who was in the middle of being executed for their crimes, therefore being punished for their indiscretion. A death row pardon would be a product of the convict’s innocence, however the convict had been the victim of guilt – which is the opposite of innocence – thus being, just about, situational irony.
Rain on wedding day. Unless the couple that Alanis sang about planned their wedding during summer in the Saudi Arabian empty quarter because it hasn’t rained there for 90 summers, then this is another dollop of irony muck – no points. We can all hope that our wedding day is sunny, but there is nothing about a wedding day that nullifies the impact of the weather, therefore nobody should expect that it won’t rain on their wedding day.
It’s the good advice that you just couldn’t take. Probably no points here. This is like when you go to a restaurant and they tell you not to touch the plate because it is too hot and you think ‘ooohhh how hot’ and then do it anyway and singe your thumb. Being defiant isn’t ironic. Also, the implication here is that the person did realise that the advice was good, but they actively chose not to listen to it – therefore if the advice did turn out to be good then it only reaffirmed what they already believed but were too obstinate to act upon.
Traffic jam when you’re already late/no smoking sign on your cigarette break. I would like to know why an employer would be sadistic enough to offer an employee a smoking break yet provide no space for the employee to smoke – that is just sick. I have also never met a smoker who wasn’t desperate enough to have found an alternative smoking venue – Morissette’s smoker is both lazy and unresourceful. As for the no-smoking sign, once again the personal desire of the smoker would not make the presence of a sign any more or less likely, which means no irony points. Equally, being late would not make the possibility of traffic any more or less likely, consequently, whilst the traffic jam may crush the tardy bastard’s hopes – it would not contravene the expectations about the situation.
Spoons/Man of Dreams. The presence of a multitude of spoons would not change the probability of a knife being present, and we don’t often stop to say/think ‘where there are many spoons there will also be many knives’ (if you do then you should probably seek psychiatric assistance/a new life) – zero points. Likewise, and sorry for any emotional suffering on this one Alanis, a man being the object of your dreams has no bearing on his marital situation: my ongoing fixation with Angelina Jolie has tragically not made her less married to Brad Pitt. We wouldn’t expect someone to be single just because of our desires, so zero irony points. (Also – does anyone else find it mildly nasty that it is when Morissette sees the man’s ‘beautiful wife’ that she thinks things are over – this surely intimates that if the ‘man of dreams’’ wife was a dog then Morissette would look to engage in a home-wrecking illicit affair – using her superior looks to get hound-features out of the picture. Bitch).
Is It Dramatic Irony?
In short: no. But I’ll explain what it is, just to complete the set. Dramatic irony is a form of irony whereby the members of an audience (who are reading or watching a film, book, play or poem) are aware of events or information that the characters are yet to discover. A complex example of dramatic irony would be in Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ when we know that it is Jafar’s parrot Iago who is calling Aladdin using Princess Jasmine’s voice as we have been privy to Jafar’s Machiavellian plotting (and if Princess Jasmine was calling, who wouldn’t go running?).
Aladdin, however, is entirely oblivious to Jafar’s treachery and thus, unlike us, he believes the voice beckoning him to genuinely be that of Jasmine. If only he’d known. Given that ‘Ironic’ is not a poem, play, film or novel, it is safe to say that the content cannot be classed as dramatic irony, but it was nice to think about Aladdin for a while.
So is it ironic? Well, only in part. If Guns N Roses can still be considered Guns N Roses because they have one tiny, watered down element of the original line-up intact then maybe Ironic is ironic. In truth the most ironic thing about the song is probably the fact that we would expect far more genuine examples of irony in a song that has the title and chorus ‘ironic’. However, Alanis should get credit for the 2 fully successful examples of irony that she managed in the entirety of her 290 word song and the 9 or 10 examples she attempted. Overall, like a barn dance that doesn’t take place in a barn, it is not ironic enough to warrant its title.