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November 2009



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Friday Five: Five Songs of Irony

The Oxford English Dictionary defines irony as "a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result."

For example: A grocery store near my house had these old debit machines which barely worked. The swipe parts didn't work at all and the cashiers had to swipe debit cards. When they finally installed new machines, they were slow to process the customer's information so they could input their PINs. This endlessly annoys customers, while there was barely any complaining about the fact that customers couldn't really use the old machines properly. Despite being old, their speed bested the new machines, which is ironic, because it's the complete opposite of what you would expect. Technology is supposed to improve over time, new machines are expected to be fast, not slow, and people aren't supposed to complain about them.

Another example would be David Byrne from the Talking Heads headbanging like crazy on stage and then walking over to the side of the stage and drinking from... a juice box. You would expect Jack Daniels à la Jim Morrison or some other kind of hard liquor, not juice, and especially not from a box.

Let's keep this idea in mind lest we confuse irony with merely unfortunate circumstances (*cough* artist below *cough*). Okay:

Alanis Morrissette
Appears on Jagged Little Pill
Released June 13, 1995 on Maverick

Okay, you had to figure this one would show up. Sure, next to nothing about it is actually ironic, but whatever. This still remains one of the most successful singles ever released by a Canadian artist and defines what the mid-90s post-grunge sound was all about. It's the rage which ensued after the comedown from Kurt Cobain's death in 1994. Even if, you know, none of the lines (except the "Mr. Play-it-safe was afraid to fly" stanza) are actually ironic.

The Kinks
Appears on Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One
Released Nov. 27, 1970 on Pye

It's a familiar story in the annals of rock: A guy heads out to his local bar/pub/club in swinging London, has a few drinks, starts dancing, and then finds himself becoming very friendly with a girl on the dancefloor. Being a rock star, he gloats over his prowess and how awesome the girl is, has an awesome time with her, and maybe takes her home.

That STARS here, but the end of the story becomes very different. He starts wondering about Lola's sexual ambiguity: "I can't understand why she walked like a woman and talked like a man," Ray Davies sings, before intoning "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls" and "I'm glad I'm a man and so is Lola." Do I sense double meaning in that last lyrical phrase?! Why yes! It would appear Lola is actually a transvestite. How ironic.

I just hope it didn't end up the way it did with Frank Begbie.

Led Zeppelin
"The Fool in the Rain"
Appears on In Through the Out Door
Released Aug. 15, 1979 on Swan Song

A man goes to meet his girlfriend at a pre-arranged spot. It's pouring rain, and he waits and waits for hours, but she doesn't show up. He despairs, brings forth six minutes of depressing metaphors, thinks this means she's dumped him, and wonders how he is ever going to survive this blow to his ego. (Hopefully he won't catch pneumonia or a cold on top of that from waiting in all that damp.)

Then he has his eureka moment and realizes... he's waiting on the wrong corner.

Andrew Bird
"Fake Palindromes"
Appears on Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs
Released Feb. 8, 2005 on Righteous Babe

It begins and finishes with a raga rock part, built around an ostinato which then repeats itself BACKWARDS (it's a palindrome). Other than this, there are no actual palindromes in the song, nor is it about them, nor can they be found in the lyrics.

It simply starts off as a love song and ends with the girl murdering the song's protagonist. Unexpected, and done in a very strange way: by drilling "a tiny hole into your head." I suppose murders kill in all sorts of weird ways (and dispose of bodies in similarly bizarre fashion), but it's still not what you would expect.

The Velvet Underground
"Who Loves the Sun?"
Appears on Loaded
Released September 1970 on Atlantic

With its upbeat melody and the ringing arpeggio used in the verses and chorus, you would hardly expect Lou Reed's lyrics to be as bleak and depressing as they are.

Most break-up songs are quiet, downtrodden, not very poppy and certainly not as upbeat or jangly as this one. Yet Reed ironically intones, "Who loves the sun? Who cares that it is shining?" over a very sunny melody.

The poppy material on Loaded is another ironic twist when you consider The Velvets had previously released such experimental and nearly atonal classics (misunderstood at the time) like "Heroin" and "Sister Ray." Further, when they were recording this record, Atlantic asked the band to produce an album "Loaded with hits," so this was the result. None of the singles from this album made the charts.