One Moment in Time: Evaluating Alanis Morissette’s 18 Months in the Sun
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 23, 2010
Did you catch Beyonce’s cover of “You Oughta Know” at the Grammys a couple weeks ago? Maybe not, since it was wedged in between two halves of a bizarrely militaristic and somewhat terrible performance of “If I Were a Boy,” but nonetheless, I found the choice of cover fairy interesting (although naturally, not as interesting as if she hadn’t skipped over the “Would she go down on you in a theater?” line–boooooo.) It had been such a long time since I could remember a popular artist willingly invoking the memory of Alanis Morissette, and to see such a pop music tastemaker as Beyonce covering her in such a high-profile gig, it got me to thinking about a question I never thought I’d actually contemplate. This June, it will be 15 years since Jagged Little Pill was released back in 1995–is it finally time to objectively re-evaluate Alanis’s place in pop history?
Before doing so, one has to remember just what a cultural force of nature this woman was once upon a time. For the 18 months between Jagged Little Pill‘s release in 1995 and the end of 1996, Alanis Morissette simply would not be denied, taking over MTV, radio and the general pop discussion like probably no other solo artist of the last 20 years. I was ten years old at the time, and the impact that she had on my age group at the time was comparable only in the mid-late 90s by the onslaught of Titanic. Girls wanted to be her, and boys…well, they weren’t sure what they wanted to do with her exactly, but at they very least, they were intrigued with her willingness to use words like “fuck” and “shit.” JLP sold over 16 million copies in the US and twice as many worldwide, generated a half-dozen hit singles, and won a whole bunch of Grammys (and even more Junos). Overexposure doesn’t even begin to cover it–growing up, I could barely even picture a day in which Alanis Morissette was not considered the be-all, end-all of popular music.
Of course, that day did come, and a lot sooner than most of us probably expected. About two years after the Pill onslaught finally started to die down, Alanis released a video where she sat naked on the New York subway, followed by an album with a long and confusing title. Almost instantly, it was like America was snapped out of its hypnosis, and realized what an odd choice of idol they had been worshiping. After all, Alanis never really fit the superstar bill. Her voice was kind of shrill, she never looked particularly attractive (and occasionally seemed downright frightening), she wasn’t part of any particular scene and critics seemed to have no clue how to approach her. I guess that you could argue that America just needed something to keep itself occupied in between Nirvana and the Brian Setzer Orchestra, but no matter how you looked at it, Alanis was about as unlikely a megastar as we’ve seen in the last quarter-century.
It was an aberration that once realized, America was somewhat merciless in correcting. Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold about a fifth the copies of JLP, and it was diminishing returns from there, with Alanis charting only one top 40 hit thusfar in the 2000s. What’s more, it was a little bit like the country agreed to erase Alanis from their cultural memory–for someone who was, in her day, the most popular musical artist on the planet, when was the last time you heard an Alanis Morissette song? Alt-rock radio, which believe it or not, once embraced Alanis as one of their own, has since given her the all-purpose shun, and even the eternally forgiving Adult Contemproary demographic seems to still think the wounds are too fresh from ’95-’96 to be revisited just yet. Nobody talks about her, nobody thinks about her, and aside from Mrs. Carter just recently, nobody covers her. No doubt, this was part by Alanis’s own design–she always seemed a little uncomfortable with her celebrity, and you don’t include songs like “Baba” and “The Couch” on your breakthrough’s follow-up if you want to keep selling in the Diamonds–but it goes to speak of just how huge she once was, to witness how thoroughly she needed to be shooed away once her moment was over.
But what of the songs themselves? Well, to listen to breakthrough single “You Oughta Know,” three things stand out. One is the intro–a drops-you-right-into-the-action, bass-rooted bit which sounds surprisingly creepy and cool to listen to today. Second is the song’s beat–which is an unexpectedly shuffling, borderline-funk backdrop, a much groovier number than you probably remember. And third is just how damn unafraid Alanis is to make herself seem like a total psycho. Really, she just sounds totally unhinged throughout, a vindictive, possibly homicidal spurned lover who makes the Carrie Underwood of “Before He Cheats” sound like Tammy Wynette singing “Stand By Your Man” by compaison. If it was a dude singing this song, it’d make Nickelback sound like model citizens and respectable boyfriends by comparison, but for whatever reason, to hear a woman singing the song, it just sounded raw and real, and imminently relateable for a generation of wronged young females.
“You Oughta Know” was almost unlistenably intense for a breakout pop single, so Alanis was probably smart to follow it up with a song as determinedly casual as “Hand in My Pocket.” A song where she offered numerous different uncommitted conclusions as to what it “all boils down to,” “Hand in My Pocket” posited Alanis as something of a slacker–or if not a slacker, than just a general observer of human nature, flicking a peace sign and lighting a cigarette as the parade of life went on around her. Recently, Sporcle released a quiz about naming the things that Alanis’s other hand (i.e. the one not in her pocket) was doing over the course of the song, and I was surprised not only at the number of the song’s lyrics that I remembered, but how much it made me smile to think of all of them. It was just a nice, unassuming little song, and one that ended in a harmonica solo, no less. How can you not like a song that ends in a harmonica solo?
Of all Alanis’s hits over her 18 months of fame/infamy, none resonated quite as resoundingly as third single “Ironic,” her biggest chart single to date (#4, though to be fair, YOK and HIMP were never officially released as singles) and MTVs #1 video of the year for 1996. The song would be a discussion topic for kids of my generation well into our middle school years, as we learned the true definition of irony and discovered that most of the events discussed in the song were indeed not particularly ironic, but rather simply coincidental or merely unlucky. More notable than that now-tired criticism, I think, is this: Why the fuck did anyone care in the first place? Who just writes a song about a bunch of situations that may or may not be ironic, without much of a statement actually being made about the significance about all these occurrences? It was a totally illogical subject matter for a hit single, or for a music video that featured Alanis and a bunch of her sweater-color-coded alternate personalities spazzing out in joy over listening to the song on a car trip. Yet something about it struck a chord with audiences, no doubt inspiring thousands of prospective english teachers in the process.
The final three singles were even more idiosyncratic than the first three. “You Learn” was a blandly motivational track that encouraged listeners to walk around naked in their living room, and whose video included Alanis apparently committing suicide by jumping off a high wall, only to end up bouncing back to get her ass kicked in a boxing match. “Head Over Feet” was weirdly free-form in its appraisal of a loved one, including such matter-of-fact salutations as “You’re so much braver than I give you credit for” and “Thanks for your patience,” and featuring a one-shot music video so unadorned in its simplicity (Alanis occasionally just stops lip-synching, for no particular reason) that I often suspect it of secretly being brilliant. And “All I Really Want” might’ve been best of all, a folky, singer-songwritery statement of intent which featured one of the best fake endings of all the 1990s in Alanis’s “Why are are you so petrified of silence? Here, can you handle this?” pause.
So what does it all add up to? Well, fucked if I know, really. Alanis was so inconsistent in tone and personality from one single to another that it was almost impossible to get one definitive read on her, and every one of her songs that had two really good things about it probably had two other bad things about it that came close to canceling it out. But in retrospect, I can’t help but respect just a little how much of an individual Alanis Morissette was–someone so focused on representing herself in the truest sense possible that she couldn’t be concerned about how precious, desperate, or downright nutso she sounded at times. Her lyrics were singular, her songs were unforgettable, and her personality still slaps you with a splintered ruler even a decade and a half after the fact. Does that mean I’m encouraging you to go out and give Jagged Little Pill another listen? Not really. But in a period of pop music where the success of our most decorated pop artists feels decidedly calculated–Ke$ha and Lady Gaga, I’m looking in your generation–we can at least give Alanis her propers for being one of the last true pop stars to make megastardom completely on her own terms, still too young, too naive and too Canadian to know any better.
Anyway, it was either this or a 2000-word re-appraisal of Cracked Rear View. Don’t tempt me, by the way–I’ve already come around to “Only Wanna Be With You” something fierce.