Morissette, Alanis (Profile 2005)
TEN YEARS AGO, Alanis MORISSETTE arrived on the music scene (for the second time) with serious rocker hair, a banshee voice and bitter lyrics about oral sex. This year, that anniversary can be celebrated by anyone waiting in line to buy a Starbucks biscotti and cappuccino. With the announcement that the Ottawa native is going to release an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill and sell it exclusively in the coffee chain for six weeks starting on June 13 (it'll hit regular record stores on July 26), long-time Alanis-bashers are rejoicing. This bizarre move - turning her only seminal, edgy album into a decaf soundtrack for yuppies - may prove to be the final nail in the lost-credibility coffin. Certainly, it's already caused traditional record store retailers to turn on her.
Morissette has never made any bones about being a mainstream, commercial artist. But this scenario smacks more of desperation than selling out. Each of the three albums she's released since Jagged Little Pill has sold substantially fewer copies than the previous one. While many artists have found themselves in this position, rarely do they re-record their biggest hit album. Morissette explained her reasoning in Billboard magazine: "Turning 30 has really inspired me to have a retrospective of my life and honour it. I've breezed through every other passage from menstruation to buying my first house to making money to moving to a different country."
But hasn't Alanis honoured her every hiccup - dissected every life passage - in song? Is the reason to go back at least partly because she's out of new things to say, new things to be?
For all of her perversely addictive singles over the last decade, Morissette's self-reinventions have grown increasingly tiresome. And each one has resulted in her acquiring a new one-dimensional label (pop princess, angry chick, spiritual flake) - all of which really tick her off. But she's made herself such an easy target.
Consider her reincarnations. In the 1980s, Morissette is a successful child actress/singer, with a role on the Canadian show You Can't Do That On Television, an appearance on Star Search and a slot opening for Vanilla Ice. Then, in 1991, the perky, moderately sexualized 15-year-old releases her debut, the cheesy dance album Alanis, just months before a disgruntled generation finds its voice in the sawing guitars and angst-ridden lyrics of Nirvana's Nevermind. Morissette's second teenybopper album, out the following year, makes little impact. The singer falls off the radar, but not before starting a romance with Uncle Joey (a.k.a. Dave Coulier) from Full House.
She re-emerges in 1995, an angry pseudo-feminist babe in leather pants and a pirate shirt, to capitalize on the tail end of grunge, selling 30 million copies of Jagged Little Pill (a U.S. record-setting "debut" for a female artist). The album connects with some key demographics, mainly 12-year-old girls hungry for their first rotten boyfriend. But a number of guys are also intrigued by Morissette, who calls herself "perverted" in You Oughta Know. And there was something refreshing about the 20-year-old's depth and vocabulary (excusing her misunderstanding of the word "ironic").
But the arbiters of who's real and who's not cry phony - pointing to the singer's not-so-distant-past of perms, spandex and bubbly pop. Morissette and fans say she just grew up. (Later Avril Lavigne will say the same about her transformation from New Country to skate punk.) And fair enough, we all graduated from Wham! to Smashing Pumpkins seemingly overnight. The problem is, from here on out, Morissette becomes a personal-growth exhibitionist.
After the frenzy of Jagged Little Pill, the 18-month world tour and her first four Grammys, she retreats from fame, goes to India and comes back to write an album full of daily affirmations, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) - and roams around nude in the video for Thank U. At this point her hair is still long, but she's more hippie than headbanger. And she gives off a nurturing vibe - forgiving past boyfriends, deifying her mother and distancing herself from all that anger - a result of her recent spiritual journey. People in their 20s often have an inflated idea of the importance of their thoughts and perspective - and in Morissette's world, every journal entry can be a hit song.
"Alanis was an angry failed teen pop star who came to L.A., had some sexual experiences, and all the rage came out in a record," says Bob Lefsetz, author of the must-read music industry e-zine The Lefsetz Letter. "And Jagged Little Pill is a brilliant record. Then she got freaked out by the fame - as anybody would. It would have been cool if she gave it up forever. Instead, you get nude in a video and say you love everybody. Are we supposed to buy that you sold 30 million records and all of a sudden you have some great insight that we don't have? She looked kind of fake and she completely lost touch."
With the backlash in full effect, Morissette produces her next record, Under Rug Swept, on her own. While she impressively comes up with one groove, for Hands Clean, that's as strong as anything her early collaborator/ producer Glen Ballard could provide, there's no one else in the studio to keep her lyrical indulgence in check. By now Morissette is completely enamoured of her unique form of poetic licence, inverting phrases and overloading on syllables. And she seems to be convinced that the expression of inner growth equals artistic growth. The one-time poster girl for female aggression starts admitting in interviews she'd like to write a self-help book.
Working this hard at betterment, Morissette was bound to finally find herself. And last year, with the release of So-Called Chaos, the latest version of the "real" Morissette is unveiled. Newly shorn, she no longer hides behind her hair. Newly engaged, she considers herself a feminist who can write love songs. And versed in "shadow therapy," she's on a path to wholeness - accepting both her strengths and weaknesses. In the song Everything, she calls herself an asshole yet wise, withholding and kind, moody and brave, funny and dull. Her detractors might also add, banal and obvious.
This year, she plans to actualize her funny side. She's creating a mockumentary TV show for Comedy Central in which she'll lampoon celebrity, herself and others' preconceived notions of who she is. But even this is part of a bigger self-improvement plan. "I feel like I've always been transparent," she told me while discussing the new TV show earlier this year. "This is just the next step in my evolution of sharing."
But first, with Morissette's unplugged Jagged Little Pill, we're supposed to go back to the beginning - one hand in our pocket, the other one shelling out $15. Maybe a few million of those latte-chugging easy-listeners will buy in, but the writing's on the wall - today Starbucks, tomorrow Vegas.
Maclean's April 25, 2005