It’s been a decade since Alanis Morissette released her fifth single “Ironic” from Jagged Little Pill and people are STILL nitpicking about the song’s incorrect usage of the English language. Sherman Alexie recently referred to her as an “illiterate Canadian” and well-known Irish comedian Ed Byrne, whose stand-up routine on the song has been widely distributed, are two examples of the ongoing critique. Byrne remarks:
“There’s nothing ironic about being stuck in a traffic jam when you’re late for something. Unless you’re a town planner. If you were a town planner and you were on your way to a seminar of town planners at which you were giving a talk on how you solved the problem of traffic congestion in your area, couldn’t get to it because you were stuck in a traffic jam, that’d be well ironic.”
“Rain on your wedding day is ironic only if marrying a weatherman and he set the date.”
“A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, that’s inconsiderate office management. A no-smoking sign in a cigarette factory – irony.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines cosmic irony as follows: “as if in mockery of the fitness or rightness of things”, which many instances in Morissette’s song can be attributed to, such as “a death row pardon two minutes too late.” Most of the situations she describes, however, are merely unfortunate, as critics everywhere attest to, though having a chorus that laments, “doesn’t that suck?” doesn’t really have the same ring to it as what made the final cut.
Cosmic irony aside, one can argue that the song is completely ironic because it contains no irony. The incongruity between writing a song called “Ironic” that has nothing to do with irony is pretty fucking ironic, don’t you think? Instead of applauding Morissette’s paradoxical genius, she’s perpetually slandered in classrooms and bars alike. But if we’re really going to stringently apply the rules of English diction to pop songs, would anyone really come out clean?
In the song “Take the money and Run,” The Steve Miller Band wrote:
“Billy mack is a detective down in texas
You know he knows just exactly what the facts is”
And if you want to talk about subject-verb agreement, Country music as a whole would have to be gutted. For instance, Shania Twain’s song “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”
Country music typically has a bit more leniency in their diction, but it’s pretty ironic (ooh, another irony reference!) that in a song where she’s criticizing and finding faults in her prospective partners that she can’t even get her subjects and verbs to agree.
In The Beatles song, “Run for your life,” John Lennon says:
“I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man.”
This is so close…but the verb “to be” changes the context of the sentence to implicate the subject in homosexual relations with men. See it? Nobody gave John Lennon shit for this faux pas.
Also, Justin Timberlake has taken to combining nouns to make words that don’t really belong together. For example, “FutureSex/LoveSounds” the title of his latest CD and the first single, “SexyBack.” Before I heard the song, I thought “SexyBack” was an exciting new addition to the cultural lexicon, something like “camel-toe” maybe. I was sadly mistaken. There should just be a space between the two words. In the guise of flashy marketing and creating an “edge,” we seldom pay attention to linguistic missteps or strict definitions of literary terminology. And why should we? It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is an excuse to sing in the shower.