Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill debuted in 1995, just as the first wave of Millennials was crashing into America’s high schools. Her music became one of the soundtracks for these critical years — for many of us, not chosen, or even necessarily positive, but unavoidable. Her distinctive voice, catchy tunes, and conspicuous distress aired nonstop on the radio and at the mall.
Other than her nasty little ditty “You Oughta Know” (we won’t rehearse those bitter lyrics here), her biggest song was “Ironic.” And it’s proved to be her most enduring, still playing almost two decades later, having reached a kind of classic status. If you’ve been in public at all in the last twenty years, you’ve likely heard it.
A Song We Can All Sing
In “Ironic,” Morissette, once crowned “the queen of alt-rock angst,” plays the part, it seems, of the observant but powerless nihilist, noting how “life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s okay.” It’s not just a clever and humorous celebration of irony, but it subtly begs the deeper question as it personifies “life.” At worst, it’s just a playful lament of life’s endless torrent of troubles, but at best it’s suggestive of something personal behind it all. Someone.
It only takes a few lines to catch the gist of “Ironic.”
A traffic jam when you’re already late
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife
It’s meeting the man of my dreams
And then meeting his beautiful wife
We’ll leave the debate to the critics as to whether Morissette really understands what irony is in its strict sense, or whether what she’s really lamenting is bad timing. But however that goes, the song’s wild popularity, and sticking power, is owing not just to the mesmerizing tune and her riveting mezzo-soprano, but to the fact that we all can relate to what seem like profound ironies in our lives.
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
Who would’ve thought it figures?
The Real Meaning of Irony
For those suppressing the innate knowledge of a Creator, noting the humor in the ironies is one small way of straining for some silver lining in the disappointments that come our way. But in the end, there’s no meaning to it for the nihilist. Making light of the irony, or the bad timing, is just one place to step your foot near the harrowing cliff of meaningless, right before sliding off.
But for the Christian, life’s ironies are pregnant with meaning. They aren’t just humorously coincidental and then ultimately empty. They are profoundly personal. They are pinpricks in the veil, little reminders that every moment and every detail are known and ordained by a personal God, who’s in and beneath all the minutia, working all things, even and especially life’s most tragic ironies, for our everlasting good (Romans 8:28).
Life’s ironies, whether advantageous or dreadful, make us freshly aware that our existence isn’t random, that everything coming our way has been lovingly sorted for our good, and that there is a greater goal, and deeper joy, than our comfort in the moment.
No Mere Coincidences
It’s not just the big details that are from the divine hand, but the small as well — “from him and through him and to him are all things” (Romans 11:36). Even the things which otherwise would seem most left to chance, like the roll of the dice: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33).
It is our God, personal and loving, the Father of Jesus, “who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Psalm 135:7). He’s the one behind the ironies and everything else. When a tree falls in the woods, and no human’s there, he’s still onsite in all his sovereign sway. And “not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). We conclude with John Piper, “If there is a God in heaven, there is no such thing as a mere coincidence, not even in the smallest affairs of life” (Desiring God, 37).
A Little Too Ironic?
For the Christian, the seeming ironies of life — whether they make us smirk, grimace, or weep — are not random, but the fingerprints of God, majestic mementos that the Absolute who rules the universe, down to every detail, is also Personal. And that he is loving toward us who are in his Son. Often we call them providences when we spot the fingerprints. It is the best of all worlds, when the one to whom we’re joined by faith is both sovereign and good.
Morissette hints at one point how suggestive life’s ironies can be. She asks, “A little too ironic?” and answers, “Yeah, I really do think.” Whether she would say more or not, the song contains no further clues. But at least it may make us wonder. Whether she will admit to it or not, she knows deep down that life’s many ironies are too evocative to be explained away every time with chance and coincidence.
Isn’t it providential, don’t you think?
More from David Mathis: