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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alanis Morissette: Jagged Little Pill


1) All I Really Want; 2) You Oughta Know; 3) Perfect; 4) Hand In My Pocket; 5) Right Through You; 6) Forgiven; 7) You Learn; 8) Head Over Feet; 9) Mary Jane; 10) Ironic; 11) Not The Doctor; 12) Wake Up.

As of 2009, thirty-three million people worldwide have purchased this album (I'm assuming, of course, that nobody bought it twice or thrice). This figure means that hype and trend alone cannot be responsible for its success; that its formula had what it takes to capture the mindset of the ave­rage music consumer in 1995 and, apparently, has not quite lost its potency even today; and that, whether we want it or not, Alanis Morissette will feature on the pages of "alternative rock" histo­ry forever, no matter how many anti-Alanis crusades we may call for.

And I, of course, am seriously tempted to join an old one or call for a new one. Jagged Little Pill is one of those records that is not awful per se — merely unremarkable — but whose thoroughly inadequate reception makes it into an awful mass conscience phenomenon. To illustrate, let me quote a user review from RateYourMusic which dubs Pill a "Great, Important, Revolutionary Al­bum": «When Alanis Morissette emerged... in 1995, the world quickly sat up and took notice. This was the pre-Lilith Fair era, when women weren't supposed to make a scene in music. And then there was Alanis — combining harmonicas, catchy melodies, and nearly screaming lyrics that we couldn't get out of our heads.»

PRE — FUCKING — LILITH FAIR ERA? I can only hope this statement is not altogether typi­cal of the thirty-three million people who bought Jagged Little Pill, but if it is and the "female musical scene" is commonly associated with Lilith Fair in the popular mind, feminism should truly pack it in, because nothing whatsoever has shifted in the dominant male perspective over the last fifty years. But forget Lilith Fair, let us ponder a more serious question: what the heck made the world "quickly sit up and take notice" of Alanis and her "near screaming lyrics" in 1995, when, for instance, just two years ago the world could have just as quickly sat up and taken notice of — to quote but one of the many possible examples — Aimee Mann's Whatever, an album that objectively rocked harder, had unquestionably better lyrics, and far more depth than all of Alanis' efforts put together?

Actually, it is not difficult to explain. When Alanis Morissette decided, after a long period of in­ternal and external struggle, to make the transition from third-rate dance-pop chick to honest sin­ger-songwriter — a decision that, by itself, can only be welcome — she did not have a clue about two things. First, although endowed by poetic aspiration, she hardly knew how to write complex, multi-layered lyrics that would be "on the level", let alone over it. Second, she may be responsi­ble for (some of) the basic melodies, but she has let her collaborator Glen Ballard come up with the arrangements, and he gives it all the most normal, predictable, unimaginative musical backing that you could expect in 1995 — yucky compressed guitar sound, danceable, mechanistic percus­sion, post-adult-contemporary keyboard sheen etc. etc.

These two flaws — corny lyrics and bland sonics — have forever banned Morissette from the predilections of sophisticated music consumers, but, of course, it is exactly these two flaws that, from the perspective of the music buyer en large, represent her greatest advantages. It does not take much effort on the part of the average Joe/Jane to get what she is singing about, and it does not take much time on his/her part to get how "modern" and "contemporary" she is, either, what with the entire production style screaming '1995!' into the ear of the time machine constructor.

And, just so that there could always be some space left to argue, every now and then the average Joe will fall upon a mystical line or two — for instance, 'I'm consumed by the chill of solitary, I'm like Estella, I like to reel it in and then spit it out' — and come running and shaking his fist at cri­tics: 'You think you're cool, man, talking all that trash about Alanis, let me tell you now, she really knows her classics, that gal, if not for her, I'd hardly ever guess what that South Park epi­sode no. 62 was all about!' Or: 'Before Alanis came along, I'd have to google for Webster each time someone said 'ironic'. Now I have finally memorized that 'ironic' is like rain on my wedding day, or a free ride when I've already paid! Sure I'm too dumb to ever have a wedding day or a free ride offered to me by anybody, but at least I know what that word means now! Stop bashing Ala­nis, go and fuckin' sell thirty million records yourself and then we'll see!'

Not to mention the harmonicas. How cool is having the album open with a folksy harmonica note — washed away in less than a second by a ge­neric power chord — harmonica battling grunge guitar — say, isn't that what true art is all about?

In short, Jagged Little Pill unsettles and depresses me, but not for the reasons that are supposed by its creators to unsettle and depress me — rather for its gruesome inadequacy and unjustified pretense. It is far removed, musically and lyrically, from Alanis' dance-pop efforts, but not far enough to lose any connections whatsoever: just like those two, it attempts to bite off much more than it can chew, and would have ended up being unintentionally funny, if only the number of copies it managed to sell didn't make it all so unintentionally sad.

But now that I got it off my chest like I am supposed to, I must approach it from a different angle and say that, taken out of its social context, Jagged Little Pill isn't all that bad. One simply has to disre­gard the trite lyrics and run-of-the-mill arrangements and concentrate on its positive sides, not the least of which is Alanis' melodic gift — yes, she does have a gift for melody, and this is one of the, if not the only one, good reason why the record shipped so many clones. The hits are catchy — 'You Oughta Know', 'Ironic', 'You Learn', etc. all have fine catchy choruses that contain some emotional essence, and although few lines can be more banal than 'You live, you learn, you love, you learn, you cry, you learn, you lose, you learn', I have not the least doubt that they are delivered with unfaked passion by someone who truly believes that she is making a big, impor­tant, personal point here. I just close my eyes and imagine she is singing in Kiswahili instead, and it brings me some odd brand of internal happiness — and it's not hard to do.

Alanis' singing is a major point of contention. Some have accused her of masking her lack of sin­ging talent or vocal power with yelling and screeching; this is pure libel — please refer to her dance-pop era to ascertain that she does have a great set of pipes and that she is well able to stay on key whenever she wants to. The style she chooses on Pill, where many of the emphatic mo­ments are, indeed, characterized by excessive paranoid whining and yelling, is intentional and works on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, the same way one gets around Kate Bush's horny kittycat in­tonati­ons on The Kick Inside. I take it, and, in fact, think of it as the record's major asset; at least this is its only working element that won't ever allow you to confuse Alanis Morissette with any­one else. If only that yelling were set to better lyrics than 'Is she perverted like me, would she go down on you in a theatre, does she speak eloquently and would she have your baby?', I'd have even fewer problems with it.

Even the music, although generally boring, is rarely disgusting. Were it oversaturated with syn­thesizers, or capitalizing on three-chord grunge riffs, like a proto-Avril Lavigne, I would have screamed bloody hell; but it is simply unremarkable rather than awful — some semi-decent riffs, lots of simple, but un-annoying folksy acoustic playing, some electric 12-string stuff, none of it has dated as badly as the synth-pop arrangements of Alanis and Now Is The Time. No revela­tions — no unexpected bathroom calls, either.

In the end, I am quite unsure about any final judgement. A thumbs down rating would mainly be me decrying the sad fate of mainstream music and expressing pity for thirty-three million people who hardly have any business taking it from me. A thumbs up rating, on the other hand, would compromise any remains of integrity I still might be preserving somewhere. I guess it is just one of those albums where any fence-straddling type of rating would never satisfy anyone.

So, instead, I will leave you baited with a little bit of funny Internet trivia I have indulged in. Appa­rently, the Great Mystery of Alanis does not even begin with her music, it begins with the way you spell her family name. Quick, close your eyes and reply: How many R's, S's, and T's are there in the name Mor(r)is(s)et(t)e?

Now open your eyes and check the statistics in the next review to find out whether you form part of the intellectual Google majority and have won your prize — a lifelong supply of jagged little pills and a used copy of Great Expectations.

1 comment:

  1. I don't mind bad lyrics - remember Uriah Heep?
    I don't mind passionate screaming - I adore Ian Gillan in his prime.
    But I do mind a lack of musical ideas. The big hit You oughta know is a perfect example - there is that nice chorus, but if anyone ever pays attention to the instruments I would be very surprised. It's just musical wallpaper for Alanis' sermon.