Some of my closest friends occasionally still ask me why I listen to Alanis nowadays. “Come on Rob, she made one outstanding album, that’s it!” Even more frustrating is how still today people like to pigeonhole her as That 90’s Angry Chick. Usually I just smile to such a cop-out statement, and at other times I like to point out that, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (1998) and Under Rug Swept (2001) were also great albums. In fact, I think that Junkie is better than its predecessor. It is filled with moody ballads and mid tempo tracks with the honesty and vulnerability Morrisette could only get away with.
On the subject of Angry Chick, I sigh and roll my eyes. But you know what? I understand why people say that. It’s a perception that has dogged her throughout her career all because she wrote You Oughta Know. She is far from being a man-hater. As an advocate of female empowerment, she is unapologetic and a proud feminist. And so she should be. I think that if you asked her about her views on men you would be surprised to hear that she believes men have a place in her world. Putting music aside, this is one of the reasons why I am interested in what Alanis is up to nowadays. But the occasional nostalgic blast from the past, by listening to my favourite Alanis songs, doesn’t hurt either.
Here below are six of my favourite Alanis Morrisette songs with honourable mention to Everything, Princes Familiar, Your House, Perfect and Forgiven, which I’d love to talk about some other time. Enjoy.
All I Really Want.
When we talk about the album Jagged Little Pill, songs like You Oughta Know, Ironic and Hand In My Pocket, always first comes to mind for most people. And that’s fair enough because they were huge radio hits. But I’m often drawn to the album’s opening track All I Really Want because it sums up to me almost everything that is adventurous, raw and beautiful about this album. At almost five minutes, with its funky grunge guitars and harmonica pulsing through your ears, you’d be excused if you felt emotionally drained at the end of it.
In a weird sort of way, when I’m listening to this song, I picture myself in the presence of an unapologetic Morrisette. She’s trying to measure me up, getting me to lift my game to meet and match her as her intellectual equal. “Do I stress you out?/ My sweater is on backwards and inside out/ And you say, how appropriate/ I don’t like to dissect everything today/ I don’t mean to pick you apart you see/ But I can’t help it.”
But as the song meanders forward you soon realise Morrisette is also obsessively expressing all her wants and desires, but all the while with an eye on the big picture. “Enough about me, let’s talk about you for a minute/ Enough about you, let’s talk about life for a while/ The conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretenses is falling/ All around, all around.”
In the end, in the swirling angst with everything that is going on in the song, my favourite verse of the song involves one of the best rock song pauses of all time. When I first heard that unexpected pause, my heart seriously skipped a beat. At the time it was one of the gutsiest things I had ever heard. Like an inquisitive therapist Morrisette asks, “Why are you so petrified of silence?/ Here can you handle this?”, before everything dramatically goes silent. Then, as abrupt as the silence is, Morrisette voice comes alive again, “Did you think about your bills, you ex, your deadlines/Or when you think you’re going to die?/ Or did you long for the next distraction?”
You Oughta Know.
I had just finished a degree in youth work, when “You Oughta Know” started getting heavy airplay on mainstream radio here in 1995. It was quickly being dubbed the “ultimate kiss off to an ex” song. Interestingly, by then I had become a Pearl Jam and grunge convert, but something about Morrisette appealed to me, especially her piercing vocals. It seemed Morrisette was truly putting on notice the boys club lack of sensibilities. Asserting herself into the mainstream, in the way she did back in 1995, still gives me chills. In short, I think it’s safe to say that she gave young women a booming and unquestionably proud mainstream voice.
Like US radio stations, Australian mainstream radio played “You Oughta Know” with different degrees of editing due, to its sexual innuendos. “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” and “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” were annoyingly butchered by inept broadcasters. Of course, it was understandable that this would happen with broadcasting rules of decency, but enough was enough I thought, as I made a beeline for the record store to buy the song and album, as it was meant to be heard.
I read once that someone said that only Alanis Morrisette could pull off a song like Thank U without it sounding cheesy and completely self-absorbing or pretentious. Personally, I’m not sure about that assessment. But what we do know is that it was definitely written in response to a trip Alanis Morissette took to India, where she finally took off time to truly relax and reflection upon her success after a torrid and relentless period touring Jagged Little Pill.
Thank U was the first single from the incredibly successfully album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. The song itself earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal and charted unbelievably well accompanied by a controversial music video with a naked Morrisette covered only by her long hair. Interestingly, a naked Morrisette bestowing gratitude upon the world, came to her in the shower, where Morrisette has explained over the years that it was “less about overt sexuality and more about the symbolism of being really raw and naked and intimate in all these environments where you’d seemingly need protection.”
The song itself is simple enough. It moves along in a mid tempo style filled with Morrisette’s verbal expressions of gratitude. “Thank you India/ Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment/ Thank you frailty/ Thank you consequence / Thank you, thank you silence.”
In between, the songs verses are filled with a series of prerogative questions to make us wonder about Morrisette’s spiritual journey and maybe our own in some ways to. “How ’bout no longer being masochistic/ How ’bout remembering your divinity/ How ’bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out/ How ’bout not equating death with stopping”.
Head Over Feet.
This is an incredibly beautiful song that has aged well over the years because of its raw emotionally charged integrity. I cannot think of anyone who doesn’t love this song. Its positive outlook on relationships and love is a testament to Morrisette songwriting abilities. It shows us her vulnerable side, the complete opposite to the ‘angry rocker’ tag she was dubbed with. “You’ve already won me over in spite of me/ And don’t be alarmed if I fall head over feet/ And don’t be surprised if I love you for all that you are/ I couldn’t help it/ It’s all your fault.”
The accompanying music video is also particularly clever with an uncomfortable and vulnerable looking Morrisette tracking forward and away with her eyes from the camera. I love all her nervous ticks and that relieved smile at the end where she fades away into the black abyss.
Hand’s Clean, from the album Under Rug Swept is as lyrically jarring as anything on Jagged Little Pill. It is often compared to You Oughta Know, as a quieter seething take about an unnamed lover. But the difference here is that she is telling a story about an alleged affair and relationship that happened when she was around 14 years of age with a much older man. Despite its controversial subject matter, its largely catchy acoustic framework found an audience once again in which young woman in particular could relate to.
In 2002, well prior to the Harvey Weinstein era of sexual abuse and the #MeToo movement, Morrisette was it seems even back then beginning to open up our eyes to a world most of us had no idea existed? “Just make sure you don’t tell on me especially to members of your family/ We best keep this to ourselves and not tell any members of our inner posse/ I wish I could tell the world cuz you’re such a pretty thing when you’re done up properly/ I might want to marry you one day if you watch that weight and keep your firm body”.
In the liner notes to the album Under Rug swept Morrisette explains why she wrote the song, “My intention in writing this song was to get to a place where I could be as truthful and as honest as I possibly could be about certain relationships in my past. It’s definitely not with the intention of seeking any sort of revenge for the person who is at the heart of the song that I’m singing about, but it was in my silencing myself to protect somebody else that I was ultimately completely abandoning myself. And any time I speak untruths in my life, and often-times I feel by not speaking the truth, by being silent, there’s an element of an untruth in that. Withholding the truth sometimes can feel just as horrible as a lie to me. So as I get older, I think I want more and more to introduce the bliss of speaking transparently and truthfully and as honestly as I possibly can, knowing that the truth in this case is my truth only.”
Uninvited in 1997 was Morrisette’s first new release following the enormous success of Jagged Little Pill. Often described as hauntingly beautiful, it is a song driven by four key piano notes, that eventually builds to an atmospheric orchestral-like crescendo. It’s interpretation and meaning has been debated for many years. Some say it’s a song about keeping fans or unwelcome hanger-ons at arms length.
Personally, I’m undecided about what it means, but as always I am totally fascinated by her use of lyrics especially with this song. “Like anyone would be/ I am flattered by your fascination with me/ Like any hot-blooded woman/ I have simply wanted an object to crave. /But you, you’re not allowed/ You’re uninvited/ An unfortunate slight.”
Photo credit: The header image of Alanis Morrisette live in concert in Barcelona in 2008 is used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license. I am not the uploader of You Tube clips embedded here.