|"Isn't It Ironic?" Yes, Actually It Is
by Deems D. Morrione
Alanis Morissette has taken a lot crap for the substance of her song "Ironic" from her 1995 smash hit album, Jagged Little Pill. Mostly, the hoopla surrounds the claim that none of the examples of irony in the song are actually ironic. Yet, her re-recording of Jagged Little Pill in the 2005 gives those of us who always thought we saw a different kind of irony at work in the song a boost.
Not long after Alanis broke big on the pop culture scene, the mocking of "Ironic" started. I saw one circuit comedienne on Comedy Central lecture the writer/singer of "Ironic" in her half-hour special by remonstrating, "Alanis, these things are unfortunate, not ironic." Perhaps. Who could argue with her? Dying after winning the lottery, experiencing a rain storm on the happiest day of your life, and getting a nasty insect in your glass of brisk white wine are certainly unlucky occurrences, but they are not in and of themselves particularly ironic. (For those of us who don't like Chardonnay, this situation is neither ironic nor unfortunate--it is luck; who will expect you to finish a glass of wine you don't like when a bug lands in it?) It would seem that the comedienne's amusing condescension had trumped Alanis Morissette.
But what if there was another way to view the irony of "Ironic" (i.e., that none of the examples of irony qualifies as ironic)? Consider that by its very nature, irony is unstable; the hitch on which it turns shifts as the contexts which produce it change. It is also has many levels. The circuit comedienne was pointing to what I think of as Level 1 Irony--it is very New York Times in its orientation: it concetrates on the j'accuse! moment one gets from confronting the fact that the lyrics of the song fail to deliver what the title suggests. As with most things, there is more than one level of meaning in "Ironic." I would identify a Level 2 Irony available in the text of the song; perhaps we could think of it as a Hollywood Reporter kind of irony--it takes the song as is, like one does with a John Waters film. It assumes the irony produced in Level 1 and asks, "Wasn't that the point?" (This level of irony is for those who enjoyed Dynasty not simply because one could see sequined Nolan Miller gowns each week, but because they could also see them get torn to shreds.) If one sees the song as commentary on the fact that people in general have little understanding of even obvious irony, this makes sense.
Fast-forward to 2005. The new recording of "Ironic" may offer at least one clue as to Alanis' disposition on irony. Instrumentally, the song (like all the newly recorded music on the album) is simpler and slower, but the lyrics are basically the same. Well, the same except for one line. In the originial version of the song, Alanis sings: "It's like meeting the man of my dreams/And then meeting his beautiful wife." In the 2005 version, she changes it to "It's meeting the man of my dreams/And meeting his beautiful husband." Now, one could argue for some level of actual irony here considering that gay marriages are still not legal, but since so many same-sex couples refer to each other in marital terms, I would argue that the irony is not in this aspect of the wording.
The irony here appears to lie in the context and framing supplied by the new lyrics. Alanis does two things here which flout the lyrical consistency of the song. First, by substituting "husband" for "wife," she disrupts her own rhyme scheme ("wife" is meant to rhyme with "knife" from two lines earlier), causing an ironic shift in the structure of the song. Second, she creates irony by offering a substitution of words that fans of her music will not expect. Ah, but aren't flouted expectations an example of "the unfortunate" rather than "the ironic?" Yes and no. In Alanis' framework, expectations hang on what she would like to have experienced; the comedienne was right--irony doesn't happen just because you didn't get what you wanted. Yes, it sucks to win the lottery and then die, but there is no substantive or even logical connection between life, death, and the lottery, so the expectation to retire to Palm Springs and live a life of luxury does not demonstrate irony when it is not fulfilled. However, performing a song which is already known (and not just known, but nearly culturally ubiquitous) and offering abrupt changes does produce irony.
Perhaps that sly Alanis Morissette is onto something even larger than the point that most people misrecognize (or fail to recognize) irony these days. I see at least two other themes one can pull from "Ironic." First, the point that any notion one might have that irony itself has a kind of universality to it is destroyed. (Unless one holds to the idea that one shouldn't expect this in the first place. For example, the 1959 film Some Like it Hot generates humor around the irony produced at various levels by two musicians in drag hiding from the mob. However, the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert does not produce irony simply by showing men in drag--rather, quite the opposite; it's a movie about drag queens who make a living doing drag on stage, so we're actually just seeing these men in their very sparkly work clothes.) Second, maybe Alanis is showing us something ugly about ourselves as Americans; maybe she's showing us that only extremely narcissistic people think that not getting what they want produces some kind of irony. Maybe she expects better from all of us. There may even be irony in that.
So, yes, Alanis, I really do think it's ironic (as you say, "...a little too ironic..").