What's the REAL Irony of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic"?

Alanis Morissette in the "Ironic" video
Photo Credit
video screenshot/Maverick Records

Almost since the day Alanis Morissette's iconic "Ironic" first appeared on the charts, people have been dissecting its actual use of irony. Is that the point?

Co-written with Glen Ballard, the producer of Alanis' blockbuster breakthrough Jagged Little Pill (1995), "Ironic" helped the album smash all expectations well into another year of release. "You Oughta Know" established her distinct musical perspective that year, netting her four Grammy Awards in 1996, including Album of the Year, Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song. Released as a single only weeks later, "Ironic" peaked at No. 4 on the pop charts in America and would earn a Record of the Year nomination that next winter.

For Alanis, who'd struggled with producers who didn't understand her sound in the earlier parts of the decade, "Ironic" was a sign of how quickly and smoothly her and Ballard's collaboration came together, becoming the third song they wrote together. "Our process began with lunch at Emilio's Trattoria over chopped salads and iced tea," Ballard later told Spotify about the origin of the track. "I recall her saying something like, 'Wouldn't it be ironic for an old man to win the lottery and die the next day?' We were fresh with this thought when we walked into the studio 10 minutes later. This was the beginning of the true magic between us."

But from hacky stand-up routines to know-it-all record store guys, rarely a year goes by without someone suggesting that the lyrics to "Ironic"...aren't all that ironic. Alanis, for her part, was never bothered by it much. "[It] wasn't a traumatic debate," she said. "I'd always embraced the fact that every once in a while I'd be the malapropism queen. And when Glen and I were writing it, we definitely were not doggedly making sure that everything was technically ironic." (Ballard, whose college degree was in English, would tell SongFacts, "I understand that the way we used irony was a much more conventional use of it and it wasn't technically right, but I think it's wonderful that everybody sort of jumped in on it and wanted to really define it as a literary term...I think it's really funny and I just enjoyed the hell out of it, for sure.")

In recent years, her embrace of the irony of the lack of irony(?) has made the song all the more enjoyable. In 2013, she appeared alongside musical comedy troupe The Lonely Island to sing the hook to their song "Semicolon" before pointing out the incorrect grammar and breaking into her own song. Two years later, on The Late Late Show with James Corden, she offered a tongue-in-cheek rewrite offering actual ironies while commenting on the perceived lack in the original.

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