Did Alanis Morissette Get Irony Right?

Alanis MorissetteMany people struggle with irony in their writing, despite the media fable that everyone born after 1965 lives a life so deeply entrenched in irony that we can’t handle a direct assertion. Many bloggers are sarcastic and snarky (nastier forms of irony generally intended to deride a specific person) simply because it’s an easy substitute for a fully developed writer’s voice. Irony is a bit more subtle, and that’s why it can cause people trouble.

When it comes to “not getting” irony, there’s one person who comes immediately to mind for many—Alanis Morissette. More than a decade later, her hit song “Ironic” from the 1995 album Jagged Little Pill is still the punch line of scores of irony-related jokes.

If you’re not familiar, Morissette’s song describes various life situations followed by the two questions “Isn’t it ironic?” and “Don’t you think?” The perceived problem with the song is that most if not all of the given examples do not constitute either situational or literary irony.

For example:

A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think?

Well, no, actually. Those are unfortunate situations, but they are not typically what one would define as ironic. Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife in the employee break room of a Henkels cutlery factory… now that would be ironic.

I mentioned irony and sarcasm in a recent post, and a reader emailed me bemoaning the inability of some to distinguish between irony and sarcasm. He went on to lament a lack of understanding of irony in general, “like that idiot Alanis Morissette.”

I wrote back:

Alanis may not be so dumb after all. If you discount the argument that some of her examples qualify as “cosmic irony” (which I think is rather weak), the song “Ironic” is devoid of irony in any of the illustrations she offers. That, in and of itself, is ironic, and justifies the entire song from an artistic standpoint. Ms. Morissette may have been playing a wonderfully perverse joke on all of us on another level.

I never heard back from the reader, so I’m guessing he didn’t like my theory. I decided to do a little digging to see if Morissette had ever validated that interpretation.

Hare’s an Alanis quote from Wikipedia:

For me the sweetest moment came in New York when a woman came up to me in a record store and said, ‘So all those things in ‘Ironic’ aren’t ironic.’ And then she said, ‘And that’s the irony.” I said, ‘Yup.’

One could certainly argue that Morissette simply recognized a saving grace and took it. Others might argue that the song does contain at least one or two examples of irony, which would invalidate the explanation.

Regardless, that’s not the point. The point is this—you may be absolutely brilliant, but if only really smart people and mystery lovers can figure out what you’re actually talking about, you’re a failure from a marketing standpoint. This isn’t a problem for pop stars, but it’s something to think about when you approach your own blogging and copywriting.

Isn’t it ironic that a genius communicator is someone who can express things as simply and clearly as possible? Dontcha think?

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter and Google+.

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  1. I agree with everything you said. Everything but the conclusion.

    “…but if only really smart people and mystery lovers can figure out what you’re actually talking about, you’re a failure from a marketing standpoint.”

    Success or failure for a marketer is determined by whether or not the product sells/ the idea spreads/ the people hear it, decode it, and then take some form of action. In that sense the difference between “good” and “bad” marketing hinges on its outcomes, and never on the message itself.

    To be fair, I agree that if the message is distorted to the point that its receivers can’t decode it (re: to the point that it has no real marketplace outcomes), then it’s poor. And the marketing sucks.

  2. the difference between “good” and “bad” marketing hinges on its outcomes, and never on the message itself.

    I agree completely. And what is the outcome if your message is ignored because you expected the prospect to take the time to figure it out?

  3. Well first off, shes a home girl, lives down the road (sort of), lets say in my community. Maybe her irony is that it isnt really ironic. Hence the definition of Irony :incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. Maybe she should have been saying “isnt it incongruous”.
    “The point is this—you may be absolutely brilliant, but if only really smart people and mystery lovers can figure out what you’re actually talking about,” Irony is wasted on the stupid then? hmm something to ponder over for sure!!!
    As it goes for marketing, im still quite convinced that marketers have figured out that their demographic, while adult have the mental capacity of 6 yr olds. It drives me nuts when I watch commercials and I see What passes for “a commercial” yet my six year old loves them!! Ok Im off to bed now
    Cheers and Beers From Canada
    Shane

  4. Good point, Brian. I tried to cover myself with the “to be fair” caveat. But I don’t like my wording. Thanks for the response.

    Love the post — gave it the Digg it deserves.

  5. Look, two shane’s and two Brians are posting here. Isn’t that ironic!

    Regards
    Shane

  6. I found you through Seth Godin, and am starting to love your writing. Thanks.

  7. Dang ! I thought I’d cornered the ‘market’ on pop stars and ‘marketing’ tie-ins.

    Yours is dang good.

    As usual.

  8. That’s funny. My friend and I were talking about this yesterday. I can’t wait to steal your thunder and tell her that the irony is that nothing is ironic.

    Thanks for making me look smart!

  9. Just to make this even weirder, I just got home from playing at an open mic. The last song I played? Ironic.

    That might be a little too ironic…don’t you think?

  10. I am so going to pretend like the “Ironic” reasoning behind that Alanis song is mine. Muahahaha!

  11. I’ve often wondered about that song, because despite everyone (including myself) taking the piss out of it, it’s one of my favourites.

    I worry though that I may be one of the many bloggers who “are sarcastic and snarky… simply because it’s an easy substitute for a fully developed writer’s voice.” Hmm.

  12. Now, this may sound like a question for an English Basics class, but then what really is ironic? Is it that incongruent stuff?

    How is it that the ‘irony’ of finding ten thousand spoons, given that you are looking for a piece of cutlery, and you have thousands of them, but the one that you do want, a knife, you don’t find that, but find thousand ‘cousins’ of the knife. Is not that ironic in itself? Does’t that pass the ‘incongruency’ test?

    I did a post about ‘Irony’ on my blog some time ago, with the opening line, “I have no doubts, that as far as definitions are concerned, nobody can more aptly define irony than Alanis Morissette.”
    (http://blog.momekh.com/2007/03/02/the-irony/)

    Well, what d’ya know, isn’t that ironic? Or just plain silly? O my English teacher, care to elaborate?

  13. VH-1′s Pop-Up Video did a great job of making fun of Morissette’s misuse of “irony.”

  14. Hey, wait a minute! You mean “ironic” does NOT mean, ‘made entirely of iron’?

    Brian, I found your blog… somehow, and I gotta say, I’m really learning a lot. ‘Course, now I have to start using what I’m learning.

    Amazing, isn’t it? 60 million bloggers, and hardly anyone knows how to actually write. Ironic, huh?

    Thanks, and keep it up!

  15. A little bit of irony, a lot of self-centric posturing, and that strangulated yodel thing she does with her voice. Yikes. But I did enjoy her performance in “Dogma”, a very under-rated Kevin Smith flick.

  16. Sometimes irony requires an understanding of the subject that the reader my not possess, for example:

    I wish I had the sneezlbat of Winkadeel, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.

    Without understanding what both sneezlbat and Winkadeel mean the irony is lost. However change the sentence ever so slightly and you get:

    I wish I had the morals of Paris Hilton, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.

  17. Look, the woman sneaked into her ex-boyfriend’s house and took a shower, so you shouldn’t entirely trust her with anything, hey.

  18. Ironic? I always thought she was singing “ebonics.”

    That makes much more sense now.

  19. Intentional irony for humor is hard to pull off because it depends so much on the audience’s ability to get it. But when it works, it makes the audience feel like “insiders” because they’re in on the joke. There’s a lot being written these days (particularly with Word of Mouth marketing) about the importance of treating influencers and evangelist customers as insiders. So if you can figure out how to do irony for humor , there’s a chance you can enrich and deepen your relationship with your audience.

  20. This brings up two of my favorite terms to describe irony…. “Alanironic” and “Non-Alanironic”.

    I mean, they’re just so fun to say.

    –SMOKES

  21. Dave Ripley :

    Oh, come on. Seems to me that she decided after-the-fact that her examples of irony were in and of themselves ironic just to save face. I don’t believe for a second that it was her artistic intention. Listen to the performance and you can hear the earnestness and lack of detachment.

  22. Ed Byrne, an Irish comedian does a wonderful little skit on this song… it includes the bit about being in a cutlery factory when needing a knife

  23. Dave, I did note that possibility (just before I said that wasn’t the point). ;)

    Chris, I don’t recall Ed Byrne doing one about cutlery… I thought I made that up. Here’s one he did that was spot on:

    “A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break, that’s inconsiderate office management. A no-smoking sign in a cigarette factory – irony.”

  24. Oh my gosh…

    I so totally agree. The last sentence got me! I’m still in college. And you know there is always “the question-kid” someone who always has a last question. Furthermore, there’s the one who always has to say something smart. I guess he knows that his explanations are rather long than short, his very first sentence is always “to put it in a nut shell….”

  25. “Sometimes irony requires an understanding of the subject that the reader my not possess, for example:

    I wish I had the sneezlbat of Winkadeel, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.

    Without understanding what both sneezlbat and Winkadeel mean the irony is lost. However change the sentence ever so slightly and you get:

    I wish I had the morals of Paris Hilton, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.”

    Greywolf you hit it home. I know a few artists that have personal encodings to their writings, and unless you know the specific personal encodings it won’t make sense to you.

    We don’t really know the ironies of this song, since we don’t really personally know what she meant, but one thing is clear. Considering that those are life situations, there are many more things about them that we don’t really know, most personal in nature. Those are the invisible …’s to each of those situations and unless you interview her you won’t really know what they are and will never know. Given those facts, I can definately see how many people can become confused about ironies.

  26. I’d like to also add that I agree with Brian Clarke’s assertion of marketing.

    Even though we don’t really know what the ironies are, we understand some of the implications of the life situations as they sound provokative, and that’s all that matters when you’re trying to sell a product.

    Without the additional information we don’t have about each verse, we won’t know the actual ironies. And since it is a song about Irony it is ironic we don’t know the ironies that exist.

    That seems ironic to me unless i got it wrong.

  27. Oh yeah, the moral of this blog post reminds me of how reading ‘tested advertising methods’ saved me from making websites, that probably wouldn’t have worked out.

    The principle ‘Forget about clever copy (if only you get it wont help much..or so)’ made me realize, that whereas many of the ideas, I had were (imho) really creative and thoughtful…but were probably a bit too complicated to digest for somebody and to understand it right away w/o any background knowledge on the topic…

    Sort of like ‘just because you like it doesnt mean other people will like it, too’.

    It also helped me realize, that people couldnt care less how ‘creative’ my domain names are as long as they can remember them lol.

  28. I remember in college saying the most ironic thing about the song was that she didn’t know what the word meant . . .

  29. The irony of this song is that it is the most famous song about ironic situations, but contains next to real examples of irony. That is not only ironic, it’s even recursive irony, can’t beat that!

    Actually, if she would have limited herself to plainly list real ironic situations, would:
    - the song still be ironic in itself?
    - you still remember the song, though slightly frustrated

    It really is a piece of art.

  30. I once knew a DJ in Salt Lake who made a parody track of Alanis’ “Ironic” by making it ironic.

    Alanis: “It’s like raaaaiiin on your wedding day.”
    (scratching record)
    IF YOU’RE A WEATHERMAN!
    Alanis: “A freeee ride when you’re already there.”
    (scratching record)
    IF YOU’RE A TAXI DRIVER.

    Cheers

  31. Without knowing the personal situations and feelings associated with the things in Ironic, the song will seem like it contains few actual ironies. For example rain on a wedding day is not literal irony, but if you think about what she means by wedding day, a wedding day is supposed to be your perfect day.

    So the revealed irony is Something imperfect (rain) happens on a day that is p

    My perfect day was perfect as
    But out of most of the people in this thread

    Sadormbo got it right in his post that I’ll just needlessly reiterate: ”
    “Sometimes irony requires an understanding of the subject that the reader my not possess, for example:

    I wish I had the sneezlbat of Winkadeel, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.

    Without understanding what both sneezlbat and Winkadeel mean the irony is lost. However change the sentence ever so slightly and you get:

    I wish I had the morals of Paris Hilton, because then every one would realize what a truly great person I am.”

    Greywolf you hit it home. I know a few artists that have personal encodings to their writings, and unless you know the specific personal encodings it won’t make sense to you.

    We don’t really know the ironies of this song, since we don’t really personally know what she meant, but one thing is clear. Considering that those are life situations, there are many more things about them that we don’t really know, most personal in nature. Those are the invisible …’s to each of those situations and unless you interview her you won’t really know what they are and will never know. Given those facts, I can definitely see how many people can become confused about ironies. “