"Well, life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything's okay and everything's going right. And life has a funny way of helping you out when you think everything's gone wrong."
- Alanis Morisette, "Ironic"
- Alanis Morisette, "Ironic"
My 11th-grade Honors English teacher opened class discussion one day with a question: "What is irony?"
A blond girl sitting on the front row immediately shot her hand into the air. "It's, like, you know, rain on your wedding day," the girl said. "It's, like, you know, something not good that you didn't really expect." The teacher, in response, paused just a little too long, blinked several times, made a non-committal murmur, and called on someone else: a boy on the back row with a reputation of reading during his free time.
I write this not to be critical of my classmate: irony is a difficult thing to articulate, but rather, I would like to take this opportunity to criticize the source of the girl's confusion: the song "Ironic," by Alanis Morisette. Thanks to "Ironic," a generation of pop-culture consumers have now concluded that ironic and surprisingly unfortunate are synonyms. Given my eleventh-grade classmate's definition of irony, as based on what she had learned listening by to Jagged Little Pill on continuous repeat for weeks on end, the following things could be considered ironic: Tornadoes. Tipping over a glass of milk. A flat tire. Drive-by shootings. Saran wrap stretched over the toilet bowl. Stubbing your toe. Diarrhea.
I love Alanis. Don't get me wrong. If it weren't for the song "You Outta Know" I may not have made it alive out of a devastating breakup at age 19. I was more than a little bummed when Alanis found inner peace and happiness and stopped producing her satisfyingly angst-laden albums. But every time I hear the song "Ironic" playing on the radio, I have the urge to reach in through the speakers and give the woman a good shaking. The worst thing about "Ironic" is that some of the situations described in the song are ironic and others are not. Were she even simply consistently wrong about irony, it might be easier to cast aside the whole song as a bunch of literarily incorrect nonsense-- but because the song contains some bonafide ironic moments, listeners get all confused and start thinking it's all irony, which, as I will show below, it is not.
So let me make this clear: Rain on one's wedding day is not necessarily ironic, neither is good advice that you just didn't take, nor is a free ride when you've already paid. And because I am an excessively nerdy person, and to help clear up any 1990s-induced confusion that might still be lingering in my own mind and among the minds of you, my faithful readers, I have analyzed each situation laid out in the song and assessed it for ironic content. So, without further ado, I will lay before you the fruits of my inner strangeness.
1) An old man turned 98. He won the lottery, and died the next day. My assessment: unfortunate, but not ironic. Ironic if the old man had spent his whole life saying, "When I win the lottery, I'll do this and this and this and be happy, but until then, I'll just plug along in my own meaningless, boring cesspool of a life." And he finally won the lottery-- but by then it was too late to redeem the wasted moments, days, and years that he had passed waiting for blind luck to change his fortune.
2) Rain on your wedding day. Unfortunate, but not ironic. Unless, perhaps, you (the person getting married) are a haughty meteorologist who predicted a sunny day.
3) A free ride when you've already paid. Unfortunate. Irony might be introduced into the situation if there had been some struggle preceding the payment for a ride, a pride conflict that ended with someone finally submitting that they were wrong, there were no free rides, and laying down the payment, only to have a free ride arrive just moments later.
4) A black fly in your chardonnay. Gross. Ironic if someone has just finished lecturing about the cleanliness of the establishment at which the chardonnay was served.
5) A death row pardon two minutes too late. Ding, ding, ding! Irony.
6) Mr. Play-it-Safe was afraid to fly. He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye. He waited his whole damn life just to take this flight and as the plane crashed down, he thought, "Well, isn't this nice." This one is my favorite. Not only because the situation is ironic but also because of the verbal irony inserted at the end.
7) A traffic jam when you're already late. Frustrating, but not ironic. Unless you're the engineer who planned the traffic lights.
8) A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break. Ironic!
9) Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife. Ironic!
10) Meeting the man of my dreams...and then meeting his beautiful wife. Oh, the irony.
So what is irony? I'll tell you: I don't know. Like romance, irony is difficult to describe and will be defined differently by different people. I could be wrong in my assessments of the irony in the above-described circumstances. But just as there are some things that are decidedly unromantic (farting), there are some things that are decidedly not ironic (rain on one's wedding day)-- and I have taken it upon myself to stop people from calling farts romantic and rain ironic.