Breaking Down “Irony” With Alanis Morissette
by Jeff Czum - posted 1:23 pm, February 19, 2015
Let’s talk about Alanis Morissette.
For all you neon-fanny-pack-wearing, Legends of the Hidden Temple watching, Topanga-crushing, Beanie Babies-collecting ’90s kids who witnessed the rise of angry/feministic/rock first hand, I’m sure the song, “Ironic” holds a very special place in your hearts.
When I was in 10th grade, my English teacher was somewhat obsessed with teaching the class a list of “literary devices.” As you know (at least you should), one of these devices is irony.
I can’t remember the exact definition she used with the term, but I’m pretty sure that it was close to how I would define sarcasm: the act of someone meaning the opposite of what they say.
To give our class a prime example of the concept, my teacher gleefully handed out copies of the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic.”
We read through the song, line by line, tasked with identifying which lines, if any were “truly” ironic. What a totally “cool” and “hip” teacher we had.
Now I’ll admit, I struggle with identifying anything as “truly” anything, so the experience was a little traumatizing. I still can’t listen to that song without picturing my teacher slowly shaking her head with disappointment while saying “try again, Mr. Czum.”
Before we start picking apart Morissette like most of her ex-boyfriends did in the 90s, let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word:
A state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected; an outcome cruelly, humorously, or strangely at odds with assumptions or expectations.
This accurately and uncontroversially describes almost all of the song’s situations. For everyone I know, rain on one’s wedding day would indeed be cruelly, humorously, and strangely at odds with expectations.
This sort of irony is usually called “situational irony” and while I’m somewhat opposed to breaking irony apart into discrete kinds, the phrase works pretty well here to describe the many ironic examples that Alanis describes.
Both that 98-year-old-man and Mr. Play-it-Safe possess fates that are truly ironic; they struggle to create a meaningful narrative in the face of a world that thwarts their intentions.
The only moment in the song that doesn’t easily fit into this definition of irony is one of the last, with the “man of my dreams” and “his beautiful wife.” There is certainly a contrast there, but it doesn’t seem to be one of expectations. In general, though, the song evokes the disparity of meaning that comes from the difference of expectation and actuality.
Just because no one is being sarcastic doesn’t mean the song isn’t ironic.
Maybe I’m looking way too far into this, or maybe (just maybe) Alanis has a much deeper, more radical, and philosophical concept of irony.
It seems to me that Ms. Morissette is remarkably well versed in the theories of irony from Erasmus to Paul de Man; if she hasn’t read their works herself, then she has certainly internalized much of the theory of irony not only as a trope but as a question of philosophy.
For example: “It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take.” This is the vaguest line in the song, and it seems to pose a challenge to the ironist. Actually the situational irony here is that the listener didn’t expect the advice to apple, whereas it did after all. But why didn’t ‘you” take that advice?
It’s possible that you thought the advice-giver was being ironic, and didn’t intende for you to heed the advice. Or you simple thought that the advice wasn’t “good” when it was; either way you don’t take it “seriously”.
The Irony here is one of misinterpretation.
Paul de Man addresses this difficulty of interpretation in his essay “The Concept of Irony.” He states: “what is at stake is irony is the possibility of deciding on A meaning or an a multiple set of meaning or on a controlled polysemy of meaning.”
Doesn’t Alanis provide the perfect example of living in a world where we’re unsure of what to take seriously, and what not to? And who, if anyone, would have though it figures?
So, what is “Ironic” really about, anyway? Let’s take a look at the bridge/outro: “Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you/ Life has a funny, funny, way of helping you out.” How is life helping you out?
It seems that this songs, like many of the other songs on Jagged Little Pill, is describing the wistful emotional reflection that a Gen-Xer feels when distanced from their own experience.
Take a look at the music video. It features three Alanises taking a road trip: Alanis sees herself from the outside. That 90’s attitude can be labeled as “the meaningfulness of meaninglessness.” Similar to every T.S. Eliot poem you’ve ever read.
So, was it ever plausible that she could have successfully written a song which would not have created such mockery? Could the song have ever identified truly ironic situations? Does anyone actually agree on a good definition of irony anyway?
We’ll just have to leave this one up for interpretation.