It was the summer of 1996. (Actually, it was almost certainly a different season, but this sounds better). Dad had just let me pick out my first CD album from Brash’s in Toowoomba. With previous musical purchases I had hedged my bets on 100% Hits compilations, but the old man assured me that true music fans listened to albums, not mixes.
The five hour drive back to St George, I cradled and caressed the jewel case, pawed the sleeve and committed to memory the lyrics. This was no impulse purchase – research had been done, singles carefully taped off the radio onto cassette, word of mouth canvassed among the more musically engaged of my fellow Year Sevens at St Pat’s. I was about to get a crash course in angst, feminism and the zeitgeist. I was eleven and I had Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill in my ragged little hands.
By the time mum had scanned the lyrics booklet and noted classic lines like “you took me out to wine dine 69 me”, it was too late; I was obsessed. I was no fool – even in my most strident renditions of “You Oughta Know” I considerately self-censored the f-word. They were heady days; Alanis-standard bum-parted long hair was attempted, lyrics to “Hand In My Pocket” were scrawled in diaries like philosophical mantras.
But surely Ms Morissette’s most lasting contribution to the pop cultural canon was “Ironic”: the smash hit single that saw a generation of teens struggle with Year Nine English when it turned out the definition of irony was not, in fact, “rain on your wedding day”. Or, indeed, a ninety-eight-year-old man dying the day after winning the lottery. Oh, Alanis; how you led us astray.
Which brings me to the reason for this meditation on mid-90s Canadian power pop… For, much as I would sooner staple things to my face than listen to Jagged Little Pill now, still I struggle with distinguishing between cosmic irony and just plain old bad timing. A current situation seemed to me to be textbook irony; but the more research I do, the more I wonder if I understand what irony is at all.
There are about as many different definitions of irony as there are incorrect examples in Alanis’ song. Etymologically the word has nothing to do with the metal, iron; irony comes from the Greek eironeia, which means dissimulation, deception or hiding the truth. Basically it’s an incongruity between what’s expected and what’s actually happening. Verbal irony is the disconnect between expressed and intended meaning; situational irony occurs when you’re led to expect a certain outcome and then the reality is the opposite. Or, per Wikipedia, “a discrepancy between the expected result and actual results when enlivened by perverse appropriateness”.
Cosmic irony then holds that some higher power (or fate) keeps tripping up we mere mortals, just to have a right giggle at our expense. Here the idea of coincidence enters the equation, and we begin to see where Alanis may have become confused… that, or she was actually being completely ironic by writing a song called “Ironic” full of alleged ironies that aren’t ironic at all. Hmmmm….
This has veered into rather esoteric territory… I’m no longer sure of what point I was hoping to make with this post, but you absolutely must read this article from the Guardian, written by Zoe Williams in 2003. It may make your brain explode, or just wobble a little, but in the most pleasurable way.
Also from the Guardian, the impressively articulate comedian and actor Simon Pegg argues that contrary to popular belief, Americans do get irony:
When Americans use irony, they will often immediately qualify it as being so, with a jovial “just kidding”, even if the statement is outrageous and plainly ironic. For instance…
A: “If you don’t come out tonight, I’m going to have you shot… just kidding.”
Of course, being America, this might be true, because they do all own guns and use them on a regular basis (just kidding). Americans can fully appreciate irony. They just don’t feel entirely comfortable using it on each other, in case it causes damage. A bit like how we feel about guns.
And of course, Alanis, we haven’t forgotten you. I’ll give Irish comedian Ed Byrne the last word. Is his resemblance to Alanis actually ironic or simply unfortunate/incongruous?