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By Daniel Radosh

Like many people, I'm worried about what the kids are learning from MTV. Unlike many people, what worries me is not that kids will be enticed to tote guns, engage in premarital sex or use the word "sucks"as punctuation. Rather, I’m concerned that impressionable youngsters are being grossly misled in the use of rhetorical devices. Specifically, irony.
For those of you who don't watch MTV, the number one video for the past five weeks has been Alanis Morissette's "Ironic". That may not sound impressive, but in MTV time five weeks is a generation. Eight weeks after a song is first released, the artist is eligible for a "where are they now"segment.

"Ironic" is perhaps the first hit pop song devoted entirely to explicating a foundational element of Classical Greek drama. Given the usual tawdry subject matter of pop songs, this should be cause for rejoicing. Yet strangely—ironically, if you will—Ms. Morissette has almost no idea what the word "ironic" means.

Her opening lyric isn’t terrible. "An old man turned 98/He won the lottery and died the next day/...Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?" Well, sure it is. It’s a remarkably cheap irony that would get you laughed out of Freshman Comp, but it is irony. All too soon, though, problems arise.

"It’s like rain on your wedding day/It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid/It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take." It’s...a bummer, in other words. But is it ironic? Is there an incongruity between what is expected and what occurs? Is something revealed to the observer that remains hidden to the players, thus lending their words or actions a humor or poignancy of which they themselves are unaware? Is it something Socrates or Rod Serling might have said?
No, I don’t think.

By the way, what does "a free ride when you’ve already paid" even mean?

"A traffic jam when you’re already late/A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break." One begins to get the feeling that for Ms. Morissette, any unexpected situation qualifies as irony. A traffic jam when you would have been early otherwise? Man, that’s ironic. A no-smoking sign when you weren’t planning on smoking to begin with? How ironic can you get?

At its most irritating, "Ironic" relates the story of a man who has been afraid to fly his whole life, and when he finally does get on a plane, it crashes. "And isn’t it ironic?" Well, no. Ironic would be if he was so afraid to fly that he took a train and then the train crashed. But this? This is appropriate. This is the exact opposite of ironic.

Can the damage to young people’s education ever be undone? Will it take an MTV Buzz Clip of "Oedipus Rex" for children to learn what "ironic" really means? Perhaps not. Perhaps we just have to explain to children that Alanis Morissette’s anecdotes are ironic, but only if they know the parts she left out. For instance, when she says, "It’s a black fly in your chardonnay," what she really means is, "imagine you’re the world’s most famous exterminator and you’ve just rid the world forever of black flies and you pour yourself a glass of wine to celebrate and you look down and there in your chardonnay..."See, that’s ironic.

Originally published in The New York Press, April 17, 1996