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, Im concerned that impressionable youngsters
are being grossly misled in the use of rhetorical devices. Specifically,
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 strangelyironically, if you willMs. Morissette
has almost no idea what the word "ironic" means.
Her opening lyric isnt terrible. "An old man turned 98/He won
the lottery and died the next day/...Isnt it ironic, dont
you think?" Well, sure it is. Its a remarkably cheap irony
that would get you laughed out of Freshman Comp, but it is irony. All
too soon, though, problems arise.
"Its like rain on your wedding day/Its a free ride when
youve already paid/Its the good advice that you just didnt
take." Its...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 dont think.
By the way, what does "a free ride when youve already paid"
"A traffic jam when youre 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, thats ironic. A no-smoking
sign when you werent 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 isnt 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
Can the damage to young peoples 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 Morissettes anecdotes are ironic,
but only if they know the parts she left out. For instance, when she says,
"Its a black fly in your chardonnay," what she really
means is, "imagine youre the worlds most famous exterminator
and youve 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, thats ironic.