Morissette, Alanis (1974—)

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Morissette, Alanis (1974—)

Singer Alanis Morissette was the first pop artist to tap into, articulate, and successfully commercialize the anger of young white women. It had taken surprisingly long for pop music to find its spokeswoman: Thirty years after Bob Dylan snarled out "Positively Fourth Street," nearly twenty years after punk's standard bearer Sid Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, rage in mainstream music was still just for guys. The breakthrough came in the final decade of the twentieth century when Morissette—who transformed herself from a Canadian Debbie Gibson to an angst-ridden Everywoman—generated the top-selling album by a female solo artist ever. And she did it through sheer ordinariness.

Morissette was born in Ottawa, Canada, on 1 June 1974, 12 minutes after her twin brother, Wade. Her father was French-Canadian, her mother a Hungarian refugee. From an early age, Alanis wanted to perform in front of people, and by the age of ten she had landed a role on the Canadian children's show, You Can't Do That on Television (later shown in the United States on Nickelodeon). She pursued a singing career, releasing her first album, Fate Stay with Me, in 1987 and appearing on Star Search in 1989. Two years later she landed a hit in Canada with her album called Alanis. Using her first name only, her enthusiastic dancing, big hair, mismatched clothing and synthetic, bubble-gum dance music placed her solidly in the mall-pop category with Debbie Gibson and Tiffany. Morissette lived up to her role as Canadian teen idol, obligingly belting out "O Canada" at hockey games and at the 1988 World Figure Skating Championships. Her next album, Now Is the Time (1992) was less successful, however, and she soon realized that changes in musical fashion had left her behind. In order to survive as an artist, Morissette would have to reinvent herself.

Meanwhile, in the early 1990s, American punk rock had given birth to the Riot Grrl movement, a loosely defined school of women playing underground rock and roll in the name of women's empowerment. Following in the "uppity women" tradition extending from Bessie Smith through Patti Smith to Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, Riot Grrl bands like Bikini Kill and Seven Year Bitch went further, venting outrage and confusion as they tackled feminist themes from date rape to incest to war. Though the movement stimulated a great deal of excitement and discussion among many in the fragmented punk mini-scenes, none of those bands ever found significant commercial acceptance: their music was simply too confrontational and political for the era. Female anger was purveyed somewhat more successfully by more mainstream, "critics' darling" acts like P. J. Harvey, Tori Amos, and Liz Phair; Phair's 1993 debut album, Exile in Guyville, with its acrimony toward past lovers and its graphic discussion of oral sex, closely parallels Morissette's breakthrough. Finally, the stage was set by Hole's 1994 smash success Live Through This, helped along by the massive publicity surrounding the suicide of Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love's husband. Hole blended Nirvana's grunge rock with a watered-down Riot Grrl sensibility, and found wide acceptance. (Love very publicly expressed her dislike of Morissette, who supplanted her as rock's premier Angry Woman.)

Morissette moved to L.A. in the early 1990s, hooked up with cowriter/producer Glen Ballard, and set about recycling the Riot Grrls' energy while dropping their feminist politics. Released in 1995 on Madonna's Maverick label, Jagged Little Pill was an immediate success behind the hit single "You Oughta Know," a diatribe against a former lover and his new girlfriend (an anti-woman attack no self-respecting Riot Grrl would have tolerated). The lyrics pushed the envelope just far enough (MTV edited the line, "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" but allowed, "Would she go down on you in a theater?") and suddenly Morissette was a star, not only in Canada, but in the United States and around the world. Other singles followed, less cathartic but equally evocative of a 16-year-old girl dressed in black writing in her journal: "Ironic" (which hinges on a popular though incorrect use of the title word), "Head over Feet," "One Hand In My Pocket."

Unlike many of the women who preceded her, Morissette didn't limit her audience by being too ambitious, too clever, or too creative. She didn't express any interest in changing the world, only in complaining about it; and she wasn't re-defining male-female relations, she just wanted her ex to hurt like she did. Record buyers looked at Morissette and saw themselves: her voice never soared so high you couldn't sing along, she wasn't pretty enough to be threatening, she was never hard to understand. To the extent that art is about expressing the thoughts and feelings of a mass audience, Jagged Little Pill is as effective a piece of art as rock has produced. In 1996 Morissette won four Grammy Awards: Best Album, Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.

The album sold 16 million copies in the United States, and 28 million worldwide. While Morisette toured and then took time off, a group of similar acts emerged and followed in her wake, among them Fiona Apple and Natalie Imbruglia. The second album of Morissette's second singing career, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, was released in late 1998, debuting at the top of the charts but falling below expectations. Unable to create further shock with her lyrics, she caused a mild stir by appearing nearly nude in the disc's first video, "Thank You." Whether history views Alanis Morissette as a canny self-exploiter (the new Madonna) or as an accidental superstar (the new Tiny Tim), her tremendous commercial success speaks for itself.

—David B. Wilson

Further Reading:

Cantin, Paul. Alanis Morissette: A Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Tomashoff, Craig. You Live, You Learn: The Alanis Morissette Story. New York, Berkley Publishing Group, 1998.

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Morissette, Alanis (1974—)

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