Every time I listen to Alanis Morissette’s Ironic I can’t help but think of Faye’s university french prof who famously observed that “there is nothing ironic about the things in this song, they are just a bummer.” Every time that song comes on both of us cringe at the bad english accent running through our minds. But today, while listening, I looked up the definition of irony. The first definition of irony is:
the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.When you stop to think about the lyrics, this prof is correct. None of “Rain on your wedding day”, “a death row pardon, two minutes late”, or “a free ride when you’ve already paid” have any irony whatsoever. If you stop there, you’d think that poor miss Morissette, like many a highschool english student, completely misunderstood irony. But did she?
The definition of irony that I thought was most applicable was this one:
a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result. Think about writing a song, ostensibly about irony, entitled Ironic, whose lyrics are completely without irony. This seems to me to be the very definition of something that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects. And like all good comedy, there are two amusing layers here. The first, when you think it’s funny that someone could write a song called Ironic where none of lines was in fact ironic. The second, when you realize that perhaps that was precisely the point.
I’ve thought about that french teacher’s comments for years and it’s funny that it took me this long to dig beneath the surface. For years I’ve dismissed Alanis for missing the point. The third definition of irony is: a literary technique, by which the full significance of a character’s words are clear to the audience although unknown to the character. Perhaps it took a while for the irony to sink in, but I think that this member of the audience finally has it clear.