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!