Irony is much easier to point out when we stumble across it than it is to define in the larger sense. In fact, so difficult is it to explain that oftentimes we wind up worrying out a response to the question, without ever coming up with a satisfactory conclusion. The best example of this (in my opinion) is Alanis Morissette's more than a little bold attempt to write an entire song about irony. Indeed, what could possibly be better than writing a song about paradox wherein you provide countless examples which are not actually paradoxical at all? I want to believe that this is a stroke of genius, and that Ms. Morissette really thought to herself; "It is too difficult to come up with a bunch of genuine examples, so instead I'm going to create a masterpiece of humor and irony by creating a song without any irony at all." Probably not what she intended, but you never know. The point is irony is a little bit bi-polar and thus very difficult to pin down. It usually involves two truths that don't ordinarily hang out much together, but for one brief moment do. Sounds like the beginning of a good barroom joke.
1. Alanis Morissette - Thank You
In this hall of ironic mirrors, I thought I would begin with an Alanis Morissette song not called Ironic. Once again, she must be a genius, because clearly she is capable of putting ironic things in a song, but she chose to do it in a song which doesn't go by that name. It figures. Anyhow, this particular piece appeared on Ms. Morissette's second album, and seems to be a kind of ode to personal and spiritual liberation (though in the video I think she liberated herself a little too much). In an interview, she discussed the popularity of her first album, and how she feared what life would be like when she stopped touring. Would she be able to endure the silence? Would she be able to write any more music? However, instead of finding misery once she got off the road, she actually discovered that facing her personal demons was ultimately the key to true peace; "Thank you India/ Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment/ Thank you frailty/ thank you consequence/ Thank you thank you silence… The moment I let go of it, was the moment I got more than I could handle/ The moment I jumped off it was the the moment I touched down". I remember the first time hearing this song and thinking how weird that she begins the chorus by thanking "India." What an odd non sequitur, and yet not only is the rest of the chorus the same, but all of the examples she uses seem to be rather odd things to "thank." Thank you "nothingness", "disillusionment", and "terror?" What's she going to thank next... Burundi, 9/11, and Charles Manson? By itself, what she is suggesting either seems to be a contradiction, or something flat out depressing, and yet observed against the larger context of what she is getting at, there is a profound wisdom here, a recognition that while she was able to gain the world through pop success, she felt as if she herself were losing her soul. And conversely, when she "let go of it", she actually "got more than she could handle" pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing in her lap.
2. John Waite - Missing You
File this under the "Me thinks the lady/dude protesteth to much" category of songs. This theme appears quite often in love songs, but I chose John Waite's song because I think it is the most emotionally compelling of the bunch. Anyone who has ever felt the pain of unrequited love can relate to the opening line; "Every time I think of you, I always catch my breath…" There is a very distinct pain that comes with feeling intense emotion for another, and knowing that, for whatever reason, that same emotion and commitment is not reciprocated. Indeed, the mere mention of that person's name can cause heartache in you. What Mr. Waite (and others) are trying to communicate here is a desire to put all of the pain behind them; to accept the cold reality that no matter what they do they cannot "bridge this distance". The relationship is never going to work and that's all there is to it! "I ain't missin' you at all, since you've been gone away. I ain't missin' you, no matter what my friends say." There's something of the Tell-Tale Heart in this common narrative, the idea of the buoyancy of the truth. No matter how deep the secret is buried, and no matter how much we can "lie to ourselves", the reality will eventually bubble to the surface. Hence, Mr. Waite seems very aware of the fact that this "message that he's sending out" is not only ironic, but tragically so, one in which he spends the entire time trying to convince everyone how insignificant this person is to him, while simultaneously talking about her incessantly and obsessively… "you don't know just how desperate I've become." We do now.
3. Howard Jones - No One is to Blame
If the song "Hotel California" had a sequel about what life has been like since the guests arrived, this song would be it. Ironically, when Howard Jones wrote this song, he too was in California; "You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat. You can feel the cushions, but you can't have a seat. You get a view by the pool, but you can't have a swim. You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin." Part Twilight Zone, part Dante's Inferno, what you have here is something straight out of the hell of ironic punishments. It is not uncommon (unfortunately) for one married man to say to another; "I can still look at the menu…" However, in this Howard Jones piece that particular sentiment is given a sulfurous undertone, for who, when hungry, would want to exacerbate their appetite by looking at a menu, especially one from which it is impossible to order. At the Hotel California, the prisoners want to be prisoners, and "checking out" is permitted, but "leaving" is not. Well, if that is the overall condition of the souls in hell, then this song must be a description of what their day to day life looks like; "You can build a mansion, but you just can't live in it. You're the fastest runner, but you're not allowed to win… You've got the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit. Doctor says you're cured, but you still feel the pain. Aspirations in the clouds, but your hopes go down the drain." This ironic punishment, in classic Dantean style, consists of the basic failure to see the paradox in life itself. Our desires clamor for something, but because of our fallenness, they can lead us the wrong way down a one way street. Subsequently, as we pursue these misguided impulses, we run into one of the greatest conundrums of all, which includes being filled with desires that either cannot be satisfied, or more perplexing still, are satisfied, but still only serve to make us more unsatisfied.
4. Passenger - Let Her Go
Confession: I dislike this song… intensely. That said, it is very popular, and more importantly, it employs irony. It is easier to describe health when you can contrast it with sickness. And as St. Thomas Aquinas once pointed out, you cannot in any positive sense ultimately describe God. In other words, it is easier to say what God is not, rather than what He is. Thus, the song "Let Her Go" is an apt example of this intellectual, as well metaphysical, difficulty. We learn about goodness from encountering it, yes, but we also learn about it from its absence; "Well you only need the light when it's burning low/ Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/ only know you love her when you let her go…" One particular paradox that also happens to be a platitude is the expression "you don't know what you've got until it's gone." We've come to accept this saying as commonplace, but what it suggests is quite arresting. How can it make sense to say that we can recognize something better when it's gone, but not at all when it's right in front of us. This would seem to be a contradiction, but for one small matter… it just so happens to be a fact. The only thing that can explain this in a satisfactory fashion is the doctrine of original sin. When we possess something for a period of time, no matter how great it might be, presumption informs us that it can never be taken away, and so it is taken for granted. Only when the thing is taken away from us are we once again able to appreciate how necessary it is. For example, when you live in a culture that guzzles gallons of water a day it is easy to view this magical substance as negligible, but when you are dying of thirst in the desert, you realize that it is in fact everything. Thus, it is oftentimes a tragic, if necessary, element of redemption that these things must first be taken from us so that we, like the prodigal son (or any son for that matter), may one day receive them back again for the first time; "Only know you've been high when you're feeling low/ Only hate the road when you're missin' home/ Only know you love her when you let her go… and you let her go."
5. Rupert Holmes - The Colada Song (Escape)
This song is the epitome of the kind of romantic schlock that came out of the 1970's. A guy living with his lady for far too long (according to him) decides he's bored and wants a little adventure. So where does he look? In the personal ads of a newspaper of course! Are you seeing rainbows and unicorns yet? If you do, be forewarned, these are the type of unicorns that will murder you with velvet pillows; "I was tired of my lady, we'd been together too long. Like a worn out recording of a favorite song. So while she lay there sleeping, I read the paper in bed. And in the personals column, there was a letter that read…" Familiarity has bred contempt, and so as Mr. Holmes puts it, he and his "old lady" have fallen into the same old pattern of dullness. However, in the process of reaching out to another woman in infidelity, he actually discovers the secret to fidelity. You see, they both had placed an ad in the newspaper for the same reason; "So I waited with high hopes, then she walked in the place. I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face. It was my own lovely lady, and she said; "Oh it's you"(sounds like a ringing endorsement). And we laughed for a moment, and I said "I never knew… that you like Piña Coladas/ And getting' caught in the rain/ And the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne/ If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape/ Then you're the lady I've longed for, come with me and escape." One of the great threats to any enduring relationship is the challenge to stay both interested and interesting. In other words, you have to both care about the thoughts and dreams of your "old lady," while simultaneously seeking to grow as a human being yourself, otherwise you become that painfully awkward silent old couple, staring at each other across the gaping abyss with absolutely nothing to say.
6. XTC - Dear God
If you are looking for a little atheist irony, the song "Dear God" certainly provides it. I have often wondered whether atheists- like Sasquatch or the Missing Link- actually exist. "Dear God" certainly lends credence to this sneaking suspicion to the fact that they don't. For it is a song which essentially both denies the existence of God, while simultaneously repudiating that non-existent Creator for all of His supposed failings; "I won't believe in heaven and hell/ No saints, no sinners, no devil as well/ No pearly gates, no thorny crown/ You're always letting us humans down/ The wars you wage, the babes you drown/ Those lost at sea and never found/ It's all the same the world around/ And if you're up there you'd perceive/ that my heart's here upon my sleeve/ If there's one thing I don't believe in it's you!" Apparently only God is responsible for bad things- we of course are completely innocent of it. The truth is the angry atheist does believe in God, but he is a lot like the child who is infuriated at his parents, and so will only allude to them as if they were some inanimate object unworthy of their gaze. And yet for something so unimportant as they intimate that God is, it is incredible the level of passion and derision they bring to the table on account of this non-existent being. I may dislike some individuals more than others, but I have no feeling whatsoever about a vacuum. A blank canvas only mildly displeases me. In fact, there is probably nothing that anyone could do to get me to invest my rage against the open air (though the wind annoys me at times). Even the thought of Thor or Zeus provokes very little emotion in me. Consequently, the the truth is, the writer of this song does believe in God, he just so happens to not "believe in him". In the same way that there are some people who I do not trust, or "believe in", so also the lead singer of XTC believes that God exists, but nevertheless does not believe that he is worthy of his admiration and respect.
7. Carly Simon - You're So Vain
8. Garbage - I'm Only Happy When it Rains
Ah, 90's grunge/alternative/metal spares nothing as it relates to self-loathing. From a Christian perspective, humanity is made for immortal gladness... not immortal sadness. However, according to the lead singer of Garbage, what brings her true happiness is when you "pour your misery down". Certainly this is meant on some level to be sardonic, but there is nevertheless truth to the suggestion that artists often make a living on the sorrow they have experienced (or are experiencing) in their lives. From Sting to Alanis Morissette (I have heard them both say it), many artists actually fear unmitigated happiness, for indeed many of their best songs arise out of that aforementioned misery. Of course, depending on how one looks at it, this can either be a positive or a negative form of irony. If one looks at it in the right sense, they recognize that there is something potentially redemptive about their suffering, something which may ultimately lead to true wisdom and happiness. On the other hand, if they seek out misery, that's is an entirely different story altogether. Strangely enough, some individuals (including myself at one time) create an idolatry out of misery, and instead of making true happiness their aim, they worship, and actually come to prefer melancholia.
9. Maroon 5 - Misery
One of the greatest mysteries about suffering is just how often people sing about it. Now when I say they sing about it, I am not referring to what may be referred to as "misanthropic death metal", which is really not a form of singing at all, but rather the sound of music choking on itself. What I am referring to is the type of singing which is the mark of hope even amidst the most adverse of conditions. For example, why did the African slaves sing despite being put in chains, and how did St. Maximilian Kolbe turn a starvation bunker in Auschwitz into a church replete with song? This is a mystery that the soul and heart understand even while the mind cannot completely comprehend it. Yet we see such displays all the time, and think nothing of the irony that attends such behavior. One of my favorite examples of this is Maroon 5's song Misery. There are any number of songs I could have selected to express this idea, but the upbeat nature of the song is so at odds with the title that it epitomizes this idea in a way that few others could. Adam Levine may have been in "misery" when he wrote this song, but if his misery in any way reflects the spirit of the song it is an incredibly appealing form of poverty. When I am in misery, I generally want to nap and/or curl up in the corner in fetal position, but his Misery apparently makes him want to cut a rug, and in the meantime inspire everyone else to do the same. Hence, it is one thing to sing a sappy self-pitying ballad, and quite another to declare that no one can comfort you, all while comforting everyone else in the process.
10. Michael Bublé - I Just Haven't Met You Yet
If Howard Jones teaches us about the type of irony that one finds in Hell (the place where "no one ever is to blame"), then Michael Bublé introduces us to a more heavenly brand. Most human beings spend their entire lives attempting to accrue as much material wealth as possible. Therefore, it might strike us as a little bit odd when someone declares that they want to "give so much more than they get", as Michael Bublé does in this song. It is one thing to give because you feel it is your duty, and quite another to do so because it is your absolute joy and pleasure to do so. Indeed, so pleased is Mr. Bublé to toil on behalf of his beloved, that he behaves, not as one who is being burdened with some task, but as one who has won the lottery. Interestingly, recent studies have shown that there is a definite correlation between happiness and giving. In fact, according to these findings, the more sacrificially one gives the happier they tend to be, lending scientific credence to that old "quaint" old Biblical saying; "it is better to give then to receive."