Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill (1995)



Upon releasing this earthshaking album in 1995, during an anomalous boom period for the music industry, Alanis Morissette probably earned enough capital to set herself up for life. And there's evidence to suggest that's what she wanted, being already a pop star and celebrity in Canada -- now came the calculatedly legitimate nest egg. But what Morissette never seems to have received enough of is respect, for being both an outstanding pop musician who was just what millions of people, a sizable proportion of them young and female, needed at a specific time, and for being a spectacularly intelligent businesswoman who got her career precisely where she wanted it in a very short time, using this record to pull in enough revenue for a lifetime of creative freedom. And don't bullshit me about how this is all Glen Ballard. You don't sell 33 million copies of a Glen Ballard album.

But you don't sell 33 million copies of a pop musician celebrating her independence and her contradictions, either, at least not before or since the '90s. You could make the case that Morissette was simply a dilution of the riot grrl movement fused with increasingly popular adult contemporary textures. There's no doubt Morissette and her cohort Ballard, if not their record label, were completely aware that they had struck gold with this music. But their savvy makes it no less impressive that there was a time when pop songs, however slick, that so outlandishly broadcast their eccentricities and emotional complexity could become as massive as Thriller.

Maybe it's shocking because we're trained to expect women not to do that sort of thing. Morissette certainly felt the bitter taste success can bring when confronted with the onslaught of rock journos and pathetic Joe Publics determined to break her achievments down. The willful misreadings of "Ironic" -- it isn't really ironic; what a dumb bitch! -- are actually more excusable than the tireless excavations and mockery of her pop past, as though a lite-disco career in her employment history somehow precluded any attempt to be taken seriously in the future, never mind that the woman whose open expression, emotional complexity, and popular appeal was taken most seriously in the ten prior years was Madonna, basically a disco singer. Besides, if you can't have a new beginning in rock & roll, what's the fucking point?

It's probably a coincidence that Madonna's label is the one that signed Morissette and launched her to international popularity, but it has feminist suggestions that are worth considering. For one thing, as we have seen with Kanye West in the modern era, it is impossible for many people to accept that any celebrity or successful person might have, like, emotional difficulties or, ew, issues. And should one dare to express such ambivalence in pop song form, well, how dare you. We all have bills to pay. So the miracle is that not only did an artist in 1995 record an entire album of high-class vulnerability, it was a woman. A nice-looking woman, yeah, but one whose sexuality was visited and explored no less on her own terms than Madonna's. Is this stylistic posturing? If it is, what of it? Why not form vague ideas of identity and sex issues, all the shit adolescents are expected to magically know how to conquer, in delectable pop form? But it's not -- we've seen from her subsequent career that Morissette is basically for real, and maybe the fact she could never quite strike this kind of lightning bolt again proves it.

So Jagged Little Pill is less an album now than an artifact, a piece of history that made hundreds of careers begin or stall in its wake, a blockbuster whose repercussions are still evident, a legendary album that was pushed relentlessly until it generated hits for nearly two years. The format is simple, and ingenious, so much so that one wonders if it was all known by the artist and producer to begin with even as Maverick remained skeptical -- we have twelve cuts here, six of them ultimately singles, five of them massive hits and one a minor airplay hit, spread out through the set so that the buyer's interest is continually piqued even as the singles burst out of the speakers like nothing around them. It helps that these are six of the greatest radio songs ever recorded.

The classics are nearly wall to wall. "You Oughta Know" blisters thrillingly, its ache and anger as captivating as they are potentially phony (who knows if they are?), and it introduces the Morissette motif of making specific, usually highly adult, problems and emotions universal. Whether "Oughta" is about Dave Coulier or no one, the point is its catharsis is universal. Maybe it sounds a little too perfect on the record, but blasting from the television or radio (in a mildly amped-up mix, naturally) it's a monster, a brilliantly executed summary of angst-rock slickly filtered. Though played far less, "All I Really Want" presents emotional nudity as person-to-person plea for contact, an impressive thing to hear on the radio. "Hand in My Pocket" is arm-waving hysterics, a meaninglessly happy and tough-minded list song -- it sounds like triumph. "Head Over Feet" has a stronger hint of bullshit but Morisette's vocal is so persuasive and charming, the melody so infectious, that its delivery finally comes across as just as sincere as "You Oughta Know," which we oughta know could easily be about the same dude. If you grew up in the '90s and the first notes of "Ironic" don't give you a chill, you've a heart of stone; the massive hit is all the more impressive given its almost suffocating sense of sadness, approached with the best humor that can be mustered, tearful misused word and all. The song is gorgeous because its challenge to face up to everything blowing up is so warmly, familiarly expressed. Whatever pretensions to fame Morissette already possessed, they disappear for these four minutes. Against everything else on adult-contemp radio at the time, it was like an earthquake, and a decade and a half later it can still choke you up.

If you must level the argument of "invented" individuality against Alanis (a common argument against Avril Lavigne, in which case I agree, though how funny that men never deal with this charge... what wasn't "invented" about Jim Morrison?), it's conceivable that "Ironic" is a moment designed for such corporate-sponsored navel gazing, but what of it? A corporate-sponsored piece of self-examining comfort to millions of people is still a self-examining comfort to millions of people. But if such heartless types can find nothing to please them in "You Learn," one of the best singles of the '90s, a thrilling moment of thoroughly uncommercial music hitting peaks on the pop charts, they're just obsessive contrarians. Giving somewhat generically uplifting but pleasingly clipped advice, Morissette offers a rollercoaster of a vocal performance that makes every coffee table book word seem felt and important. Musically, the song's wild shapelessness is a bald challenge to the Lilith Fair crowd that would rise in this album's wake, the self-provided call-and-response vocals and scat singing a knife against a bed of pleasingly anonymous noise. It's as if some California studio's notion of what would sell records in 1995 was somehow chopped up into unrecognizable fragments, ominous bridge and all, and set against an undeniably potent sentiment... and somehow the whole package becomes not just successful but personal, affecting, lovely. "You Learn" is and likely shall always remain Alanis' greatest moment, and very nearly the most valuable moment of highly charted pop music in the mid-'90s.

As for the rest of the album, the first half is consistently explosive -- the remarkable, largely improvised "Perfect," the lyrically clever and revealing "Right Through You," the starkly beautiful "Forgiven" -- while the second half stumbles a bit with likable but less ingratiating preachings like "Mary Jane" and "Wake Up," though "Not the Doctor" is quite the sneak attack. The record ends much as it began, as a conscious piece of product that nevertheless is outfront and honest enough to be genuinely moving, and often. Yeah, yeah, it's the studio album recast as radio product push, as greatest hits record, but I bet most people who bought it listened to the whole fucking thing, not that it would matter all that much if they didn't. It's not a criticism to say that Jagged Little Pill is less praiseworthy for what it is than what it became, especially when there's a decent chance the latter was by design, and I bet it's saved more than a few lonely lives over the years. Or at least made them a lot more bearable.

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