Irony is one of those words you see misused all over the place. Most people think they know what it means, but they don’t. It’s irritating to those who care about the spirit of words, and has even prompted New York Times articles discussing the constant abuse the term endures at the hands of society. To spot, and utilize, irony, requires, as the paper puts it, “sophisticated writing” that the author “counts on the reader to recognize”. It takes skill. It is going to go over most people’s head a lot of the time.
Eighteen years ago, Alanis Morissette released one of the bestselling albums of all time, Jagged Little Pill, which managed to define the angst of a particular time for a certain generation. She was 21 years old when her 3rd, and most famous, album hit the market. Through it, she managed to instantly cement herself among the greatest singer-songwriters in history. Few musical endeavors have ever enjoyed the commercial success or personal resonance it experienced, and fewer have contained so many tracks that remain, nearly two decades later, instantly identifiable to such a large percentage of the culture.
One of the songs on the album is called Ironic. The genius of Ironic is that none of the lyrics are, in fact, ironic. That is the irony; amplified by the fact a large segment of the population wouldn’t get the joke. Having 10,000 spoons when you need a knife is not irony.
(Morissette tells a charming story about how a girl came up to her in a restroom at Barnes & Noble, and excitedly asked about the song, inquiring, “Is the irony of Ironic that none of it is ironic?”, to which Alanis remained silent, shook her head, and smiled. She said the girl began beaming and practically skipped out; and how that was one of the most rewarding moments to her, as a songwriter, seeing someone get her work and pick up on the joke.)
This nod-and-wink, along with the intelligence and mastery of subtext in the lyrics of Forgiven, immediately turned a then-12-year-old me into a fan of the Canadian import. This was not just a pretty girl with musical talent. She was smart. She had something relevant and interesting to say. She was seeking answers and understanding herself without accepting that which was fed to her without reflection by family, friends, culture, education, and institutions. For most people my age at the time, I got the distinct feeling the appeal was the anger, pain, and confusion in her music. For me, it was the fact that this was someone with whom you could discuss existential crises were you to ever meet at a party. There was substance.*
Around the Internet this week, you may have noticed a viral video in which Eliza and Rachael Hurwitz have re-written the famous piece, modifying the lyrics so they are actually ironic.
And that’s what gets me.
By making the song lyrics ironic, they destroyed the very irony that made it genius in the first place. It would be as if one attempted to pen a serious rebuttal to Swift’s A Modest Proposal, radiantly gloating over the deft turns of phrase employed to eviscerate the notion that the Irish should sell their children for food, expecting accolades for your wisdom, not realizing you are displaying profound ignorance.
We’re approaching Inception-level depth here. If the Hurwitz girls were unaware of their ignorance, which seems highly probable as they titled their remade rendition “It’s Finally Ironic” and the lyrics now include “we fixed it for you, Alanis, you’re welcome”, their literally ironic take on the song is in itself ironic because they didn’t get the irony of the original masterpiece.
This led me back to thinking about how often the word irony is misused. There are many forms of irony, but in the modern world (leaving aside differing forms of historical use), you are most likely to see one of four manifestations of irony:
- Verbal Irony – A word or phrase that is meant to address two groups; the first hears it and does not understand, the second, either due to better knowledge or experience, picks up on the hidden meaning. Used correctly, verbal irony can result in an author writing or saying one thing, and meaning the exact opposite of what he has written or said. Verbal irony can sometimes require a very high degree of social intelligence to pick up on; a person without it might walk away thinking he had been complimented when, in fact, he had been humiliated and eviscerated.
- Situational Irony – When the outcome or result of an action is the opposite of what was expected, desired, or intended. If a fire extinguisher somehow started a fire, that would be situational irony. Likewise, one of the most famous examples used to teach this in elementary school is O. Henry’s story The Gift of the Magi.
- Dramatic Irony – Used as far back as Greek tragedy, dramatic irony is a tool employed by an author or playright that puts the audience a step or two ahead of the characters on stage or screen. The most famous sub-category of this form of irony is probably …
- Tragic Irony (subcategory of Dramatic Irony), where the audience is aware that the actions or words of a particular person are leading to non-desired outcomes of which the character is not yet aware. An example is a serial killer in the television show Hannibal murdering a grown man who was the child of a woman with whom he had an extramarital affair decades prior. The killer wanted to secure his legacy, having no children, and yet didn’t realize that the son was actually his son, as the woman had become pregnant during the affair but chose not to tell anyone that the boy was not her husband’s child.
True irony, well-written irony, is a thing of beauty. True irony takes a certain artistic brilliance. Take the time to learn it, study it, and appreciate it because when it presents itself, there is a good chance that, if it is on the level of a masterpiece, few other folks in the room are going to realize what is happening. When utilized in works of art, it is one of the great unexpected joys in life.
* Footnote: There must have been something in the water around this time. There was a sudden burst of very smart, Canadian, female songwriters who came onto the scene telling stories and communicating some very heavy material. For example, a young Sarah McLachlan was becoming famous by singing beautiful, heart-wrenching compositions like Hold On, which she based on a true story; it is sung from the perspective of a wife whose husband gets HIV from a blood transfusion and she has to nurse him until he dies in her arms, while she herself is now infected. When the woman began touring schools and warning people about how to protect yourself, she received death threats because people wanted to remain ignorant to the possibility they might catch it. Shortly thereafter, America gave birth to her own iteration of this phenomenon, with singers like Paula Cole asking, Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?, which poses interesting questions about feminism, gender roles, and happiness. A few years later, the pendulum swung in the other direction and you had the rise of so-called “Sugar Pop” with Britney Spears becoming the foremost success of the genre. I always found that 1995-1999 transition period interesting as to what it said about us, as a nation, and what, if anything, could be extrapolated from understanding it.