In Defense of Alanis
I had a friend who once got down on her stomach and rolled around on the floor at a nightclub in order to demonstrate the playing style of Van Connor of the Screaming Trees. The guy she was showing waited until she got up and then said, "Goodbye, embarrassing woman!" As he backed away from her, a sheepish grin appeared on his ugly mug.
You know that kind of laughter that hurts your middle and brings tears to your eyes? I laughed like that the rest of that night, but I was laughing at him, not her. I guess I took the phrase "Goodbye, embarrassing woman" as a compliment -- which may be why I, seemingly alone among critics, am a fan of Alanis Morissette.
Morissette has been mocked for her confessional lyrics since the day she released her hugely successful debut album, Jagged Little Pill, in 1995, but I think that such mockery is actually a secret tribute to her talent and sincerity. Morissette isn't afraid to write mawkish songs about her bad relationships, revealing (and possibly reveling in) her own mistakes, rolling mentally on the floor like my friend. She isn't afraid to look like an idiot. That may be embarrassing, but it's also honest in a field like rock & roll, which hardly knows honesty when it sees it, and makes fun of it when it does.
Morissette's latest, Under Rug Swept, is as embarrassing as anything she's ever written, and that's saying a lot. The opening track alone -- "21 Things I Want in a Lover" -- scans exactly like the Alanis Morissette Lyric Generator Internet site (www.brunching.com/toys/toy-alanislyrics.html), even using six plural nouns to describe the subject sentence, but that doesn't make it a bad song or this a bad album. Under Rug Swept is that rarest of items, a well-produced hard-rock album by a woman who sings and writes her own music. How embarrassing -- not.
Granted, the album is as confessional as all get out. "Hands Clean" is as catchy as "You Oughta Know" and just as titillating. Morissette sings from the perspective of an older man having an affair with a much younger employee. "I might want to marry you one day if you'd watch that weight and keep a firm body," sings the man, with Alanis chiming in (presumably as herself on the chorus), "Ooh, this could be messy, and, ooh, I don't seem to mind." It's an odd form of narrative, but it makes its point: the male outlook sounds sickening in anyone's mouth, male or female. And if Alanis is writing autobiographically, she's more to be pitied than vilified.
As that song indicates, Morissette's grammar and syntax can be a little confusing. It's as if she's translating everything from the French, especially when she goes negative. ("Do you not play dirty when engaged in competition?" she sings at one point and, worse, "Are you not addicted?" rather than the more straightforward "Are you an addict?") But since when has smooth syntax been a big part of rock & roll brilliancy?
"Dear Momma's boy," she sings on the next track, "I know you've had your butt licked by your mother / I know you've enjoyed all that attention from her / and every woman graced with your presence after." The syntax is horrible, but Morissette writes like people think and talk, and she writes about the things we think and talk about. The fact that those things tend to be shallow and petty is more of a comment on our brains than on her songwriting skill.
Incidentally, even when I don't agree with her portentous take on men, I like her production sound, her sweeping vocals and the courageous way she beats up on her old boyfriends. But there's another reason I like Alanis Morissette, and it has nothing to do with music. It is merely that, alone among million-selling female artists we hear on the radio, she is the only one who doesn't do it with her looks. She isn't pretty, and she doesn't dress provocatively. She may be an embarrassing woman in verse, but she's got a certain amount of physical dignity, and that, in my opinion, is more important than being seen and not heard.
Gina Arnold writes frequently for the Metro Silicon Valley, where this article originally appeared.