Rock History, What I Leave Out: Alanis Morissette

September 2, 2008

Alanis Morissette actually makes it into the syllabus every semester, but somehow she’s the first cut when I get behind, after showing too much of Gimme Shelter or Woodstock.  I then have to figure out what to cut, and Alanis inevitably is the first to go.

I have often wondered why I do so, since I think that she’s incredibly important in the revival of the female singer-songwriter in the mid 1990s.  Sure, you might argue that Tori Amos is a more interesting choice musically, or that she’d been doing it a lot longer than Morissette.  Or maybe you could say that Sarah McLachlan is more representative of a “singer-songwriter” sound.  Or maybe you want to see an  “indie” artist, such as Ani DiFranco, included in the syllabus, for her spirit and her contributions to a certain kind of punk-folk guitar playing.  Or maybe you’re into Liz Phair.  Or maybe you don’t like female singer-songwriters at all, in which case you’re like most of the boys in my rock & roll class.

But Alanis Morissette’s position is a little different than all of these, since she seemingly appeared out of nowhere (OK, Canada), and had the biggest selling debut album of any woman, ever, internationally.  And for that, I think she wins out, but she’s also worth talking about for other reasons.

For example, “You Oughta Know,” Morissette’s first single from Jagged Little Pill (1995), is blazingly autobiographical in its lyrics (or at least it’s meant for us to think so).  The lyrics are explicit in both meanings of the word–sexual and clear.  From the notoriously skanky line about going down on the dude in the theater, to the fact that the woman replacing her was “an older version of me” (rather than something more predictable, but still works, like “another version of me”), they set forth a portrait of an extremely bitter breakup.

But the lyrics, female subjectivity and all, are not what made Morissette’s debut song on her first international album the ginormous hit that it was.  No, it was Morissette’s voice, which was not at all what one would have expected from a former Nickolodeon star and Canadian teen pop princess: yelpy, growly, howly, at times filled with air, at times strategically double tracked for extra power and wickedness, it was a complex and confusing instrument of anger, the voice of a woman scorned.  Just as important and not to be lost in this discussion of lyrical content, it was the musical setting: like many rock songs of the time, it begins with relatively sparse instrumentation and a quiet dynamic and builds gradually with an extended crescendo to the chorus.  Nirvana (or the Pixies), anyone?

I would love to teach a class just on that idea alone: that, for all the hype about the “angry young women” in rock music, it was about damned time that they were there, not forced into the girly confines of acoustic guitar-playing or piano banging.  That, more than just equating the female singer-songwriter with feelings and emotion associated with cliches of womanhood, women like Morissette were taking on anger, that last bastion of maleness that always already characterized masculinity in rock music.

But then, the rest of the album–also megahits–moved away from that picture.  “Ironic” and “Hand in My Pocket” and “Head Over Feet” and “You Learn” gave an entirely different view of Alanis Morissette’s music.  It was darned optimistic, and at times charming, but at others seemed to be an apology for the brute force of “You Oughta Know.”  As in, you oughta know that I’m not really like that, see, I’m nice, and winning and a good girl.  And, while I don’t want to imply that one cannot both be angry and a good girl, or have many facets to one’s identity, I also don’t feel comfortable with teaching the wacky-free-spirit vibe, either.

In the end, I just don’t know how to reconcile Alanis Morissette’s whimsical side with her angry one in a way that can be encapsulated in an hour and a half class.  In fact, I think that I would find that to be the same problem with all of the women I mentioned above from the 1990s.  It’s a lot easier, for example, to talk about Green Day as the template for suburban punk and teen anomie in the mid-1990s than it is to talk about women singer-songwriters, whose lyrics, recording styles, instrument choices, etc., force a listener to consider autobiography and subjectivity a little too much.

Don’t get me wrong, female subjectivity is important–not to mention rare–in rock music.  It is frequently brought up as the salient characteristic of the female singer-songwriter, a gender-based genre that often straddles the line between rock music and pop, both stylistically and in terms of radio play (often losing out on both ends for that one).  But why does the question of subjectivity really only come up with women?   Is it because a male subjectivity is just assumed most of the time?  (Silly question.)

So, since I don’t like to make it seem like the only value for these women is a female subjectivity–a very specific white, middle-class, youthful subjectivity, at that–I continue to search for another paradigm under which to describe their contributions to pop music.  While I do think they are important, I’m not sure it’s an hour-and-a-half, easily encapsulated kind of important.  It might just be one of those Rock 202 discussions, rather than Rock 101.

Tune in next week, for the next installment of “Rock History, What I Leave Out”: Queen!

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10 Responses to “Rock History, What I Leave Out: Alanis Morissette”

  1. Agent M said

    You should have included an image of Dave Coulier in this post. Just so’s I can come home later and say, “Cut. It. Out.”

  2. Twyst said

    Wow, i havent thought of Alanis or Sarah McLachlan in a long time.
    I loved Sarah McLachlan (i lived in Nova Scotia, and therefore heard her when she was just ‘new’), but as i got older (Alanis came out when i was a prime target, 16ish), i gravitated towards the angry, viseral parts of her albums. I was sad tho, when her following albums sounded like therapy sessions that i didnt care about.
    And she stole Ryan Reynolds for a while.
    There was an article a little while where Dave Coullier (sp) spoke about being the focus of “You Oughta Know”.
    I think it’s difficult too, because a lot of Sarah / Tori’s songs have to go with pain, rape, loss, etc. They arent as easily packaged as their male counterparts/contemporaries.

  3. Matt said

    It’s always been interesting to me that the first time I heard “You Oughta Know” wasn’t on the local alternative station, although they played the hell out of it.

    It was on 103.5, the Blaze, in Chicago, long since dead–a format dedicated to “lite” metal, hair bands, hard rock, and the like. Black Sabbath, the Scorpions, Motley Crue, Poison…and Alanis.

    The song FIT, though.

    (found this thru Twitter–loving the site)

  4. badcoverversion said

    Good gravy! The Uncle Joey comments! 😉

  5. Alanis has always hung on a sort of teetering edge for me. Like you mention in your post, reconciling her angry side and her whimsical side is difficult, and a bit confusing when you go to mentally categorize or analyze her work.

    One thing that I have found either works, or does not work for her on a song by song basis is her unwillingness to compromise the lyrics to the song. She will force lines into place that just don’t fit rhythmically, or are too long and wordy instead of paring them to their essentials, as most song writers would choose to do.

    I am also irritated by the fact that most of the things mentioned in Ironic – aren’t, and that she didn’t really seem to grasp the exact meaning of irony.

    I am more of a Tori Amos fan. The depth of emotion in her work is more consistent for me, and rings with more truth. Got to hand it to Alanis, though, she sold a lot of records to a lot of very different people…and she made a mark.

    -DNW

  6. Twyst said

    On the topic of Ironic – was that on purpose? I never got it. Then i thought there was no way that she could think those things ARE ironic… right? :S

  7. badcoverversion said

    Hmm. It *would* be ironic if she intentionally wrote a song about things that weren’t ironic and called it “Ironic.”

    Oy. So meta! I think she just misunderstood irony, though.

  8. Twyst said

    yeah… i think so too. sigh.

  9. […] “researching” this post, I found this reading of the significance of Morrissette by BadCoverVersion; I so want to take her class. She reminded me of something, though. One part of the […]

  10. […] “researching” this post, I found this reading of the significance of Morrissette by BadCoverVersion; I so want to take her class. She reminded me of something, though. One part of the […]

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