I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pop Deconstruction: "Ironic"

1An old man turned ninety-eight
2He won the lottery and died the next day
3It's a black fly in your Chardonnay
4It's a death row pardon two minutes too late
5And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?
6It's like rain on your wedding day
7It's a free ride when you've already paid
8It's the good advice that you just didn't take
9Who would've thought? It figures
10Mr. Play-It-Safe was afraid to fly
11He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye
12He waited his whole damn life to take that flight
13And as the plane crashed down he thought
14"Well, isn't this nice."
15And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?
16It's like rain on your wedding day
17It's a free ride when you've already paid
18It's the good advice that you just didn't take
19Who would've thought? It figures
20Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
21When you think everything's okay and everything's going right
22And life has a funny way of helping you out when
23You think everything's gone wrong and everything blows up
24In your face
25A traffic jam when you're already late
26A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
27It's like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
28It's meeting the man of my dreams
29And then meeting his beautiful wife
30And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?
31A little too ironic and, yeah, I really do think
32It's like rain on your wedding day
33It's a free ride when you've already paid
34It's the good advice that you just didn't take
35Who would've thought? It figures
36Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you
37Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out
38Helping you out

The song "Ironic" by Alanis Morissette is a whimsical, bitter-sweet reflection on life's funny ways. Verses 1-5, 10-15, and 25-31 tell individual stories that seem incredibly tragic, punctuated by the question, "Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?" Verses 6-9, 16-19, and 32-35 make up a thrice-repeated refrain, presumably listing some of the more ironic things of life and how little it makes sense ot the human mind. Finally, verses 20-24 and 36-38 give an observation about life, that it "has a funny way" to it, but that these "ironic" roadblocks often end up helping you out in the long run. Perhaps the man of Alanis's dreams (verse 28) may not actually be the right man for Alanis to end up with.

The concept of irony has been an incredibly important part of popular culture since the early to mid-90s. In the 1994 film Reality Bites, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) is asked at a job interview to define "ironic." She putters and mumbles but nary a definition of ironic is displayed. When she sees her friend Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke), an intellectual, in the elevator, she asks, "Can you define irony?" But, you see, she asks the question in a tone that portrays her belief that her question has no satisfactory answer, or rather, no answer at all. Troy, matter-of-fact-ly, responds, "It's when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning." Lelaina's assumption of no answer met by the ease with which Troy gives an answer is, by most definitions, ironic. It is not just in film that the concept of irony became important. In the Indie/hipster movement, which is often traced back to the band At the Drive-In who released their first album in 1996, harsh criticism is given to the sorts of things you like or do not like. An ex-girlfriend of mine once got heavily criticized by all of her friends for having an Aerosmith song on her Last.fm playlist, and yet she denied it vehemently. To like Aerosmith un-ironically thus became something unheard of. The fashion trend that came from this group of people is t-shirts that you get from Good Will or Salvation Army which have a particular meaning to the original wearer but not to you and hats with phrases on them that don't make sense in your particular context. Irony became its own method of criticism as hipster culture spread from Manhattan and Brooklyn to the rest of the world.

By 2000, however, the world changed their perception of irony. I remember what brought this about, too. It was the publication of the book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. After reading what felt like hundreds of pages about why almost everyone on the planet has no idea what irony means, I felt like I was one of the select few who would never overuse the word. But then I realized that almost everyone had become Egger-ites, and that Alanis Morissette's "Ironic" was one of the most besieged songs I had ever encountered. "None of that is ironic," people would say, exasperated, trying to make conversation at a party or a bar. One of the unfortunate side-effects of Egger's book is that almost nobody really knew what irony was. We had an idea of what it was not. In fact, we believed that every public use of the word was wrong, and that we were smart for knowing this fact. But what is irony?

I believe that this definition from Reality Bites involving sharp distinctions between expectation and perception, or in Troy's words, "the actual" and "the literal" is good enough to start with. After reviewing the song "Ironic," I think that all of the examples actually are ironic if you just think about them for a couple of seconds. Let us take some of the more prevalent ironies of the refrain. "It's like rain on your wedding day" (vv. 6, 16, 32). On your wedding day you have an expectation of perfection, both in the events that occur and the weather outside. Presumably, we are speaking of an outdoor wedding, but even an indoor wedding can be spoiled by rain. People have to walk in and out of the building, after all. Your wedding is supposed to be the happiest day of your life, and if it is spoiled by rain it can quickly turn into the saddest or most annoying day of your life. This is ironic. "It's a free ride when you've already paid" (vv. 7, 17, 33). How can something be both free and paid for? These concepts are directly in opposition. This is ironic. "It's the good advice that you just didn't take" (vv. 8, 18, 34). This is the crux of the song, because it is probably the most difficult to make fit the concept of irony. I think that the problem most people have with this song is that many of the examples of irony have a hidden middle premise. In this case we have something of a Socratic supposition that a person ought to take and obey good advice in much the same way that knowing the good, a person will always perform the good. If one knows the good but does not perform the good, this is ironic, because it goes against an assumed nature.

I do believe that, with a little thought as to what Alanis Morissette is trying to express, the examples of irony in "Ironic" are decidedly ironic. However, an argument could be made to the contrary, or rather that it doesn't matter. Much of this song is spoken in a very common and incredibly cliched manner. In verses 5, 15 and 30, we hear both "Isn't it ironic?" and "Don't you think?" which we understand to be common interjections in conversation. In verses 9, 19, and 35, we have both "Who would've thought?" and "It figures." Perhaps these aren't the most common interjections now, but I remember hearing them a great deal in my childhood. Perhaps it doesn't actually matter that the song is ironic. Perhaps the song is actually about how people perceive the world around them. Funny things happen around us and we say, "Isn't that ironic?" Regardless of whether or not we are using the word correctly, we are still saying, "Isn't that ironic?" Part of me thinks that Morissette's use of the title "Ironic" is what gets her into trouble. Part of me believes that a more accurate title would be "Life has a funny way." In the end, the song is not about the definition of ironic; it's about those little things that cause people to say, "Isn't that ironic."

1 comment:

  1. Great analysis. It makes me nostalgic for the great music the 1990's spawned. I can't tell you how many gatherings I've been to during which this song has sparked the "define irony" debate.