As much as you may want to deny it, Alanis Morissette, with all of her gusto and theatre-driven fellatio, ushered in a mainstream wave of vocal and unapologetic female singer-songwriters. Sure, the venue was ripe for someone like Morissette to come along and be adored by the masses, and you could argue that Courtney Love was angrier, Tori Amos more raw and poetic, PJ Harvey more insane, Björk more creative, or Sarah McLachlan was more lovelorn, but it was this ex-Canadian pop songstress who seemingly shocked an entire population with unabashed confessions and raw intensity. And now, she has a life-long career for as long as she wants it.
Unfortunately for her, she made a name for herself when confessional and opinionated music was widely accepted — this was before the Dixie Chicks proved that to speak against their conservative president meant a massive career derailment. Soon, politics and social commentary would have no place in mainstream music. Soon, the pop-star who deigned to feature burning crosses and a black messianic figure in her music video in the late ’80s would be editing her current work for fear of crossing the rubicon of social acceptance. Soon, the biggest disaster on this North Western side of the world would effectively curtail any possibility of being popular and socially conscious. Music made a massive left-turn and the people (ironically) vocalized their purchase power and put to bed those artists that did not give them what they wanted. This is of course over-simplifying the situation, but nonetheless leads us to the current state of music that Alanis finds herself in: listeners don’t want to hear about your whining and complaining, unless its masked in some grandeur pretense that cannot be easily discerned.
But Alanis rages on with confessional pop music in an opportunistic manner to achieve some semblance of therapy. We may not have completely seen this when Jagged Little Pill debuted in 1995 and the airwaves were dominated by “You Oughta Know”, because honestly, that album was pretty great. But then she became increasingly more and more annoying at every turn: naming her follow-up Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie like that means something; standing naked in her music video as people touch her suggesting that they understand her difficulty with money and success; trying to inject deep insight into fairly banal understandings of rather complex situations; naming her third album Under Rug Swept; purposefully mispronouncing every freakin’ syllable; naming her fourth album So-Called Chaos; naming her child Ever Imre (ok that last one is a plague amongst all celebrities and not specific to Morissette). Yes, the evidence keeps piling up against poor Alanis relegating her to a guilty pleasure much like Sophie B. Hawkins or Lisa Loeb — you may listen to their music, but you’ll never freely admit to it. However, in her defense, Morissette is working in a very specific genre of music — the self-confessional singer/songwriter concerned more with the construction of the lyrical song as a means of self-progress than with genuine musical and artistic innovation. Each album may have a distinct veneer, but underneath, each song is constructed in almost precisely the same manner. So, by now you probably know what you’re in for with her latest effort havoc and bright lights (spelt with purposefully lowercase).
Beginning with the relatively pleasing “Guardian”, havoc is nothing new for Alanis. It reeks of every standard trope and failing that a Morissette album has come to have ever since her stellar debut. There is the angry pseudo-feminist rants within “Woman Down” that feel trite, but are ultimately true. On it she sings: “First woman down was your mother / She did condone how you behave / All you could see was your father / His disrespect was in her face / Next woman down was your sister / Her silence did corroborate / She took her cues from the climate / And never knew another way /Who do you take me for / Calling all woman haters / We’ve lowered the bar on the behavior that we will take.” It’s not untrue, but it does feel rather over-simplified and obvious.
Alanis is not pointing to anything new or earth-shatteringly shocking, especially in the way she did back in ’95. On “Celebrity” she sings about the vacuous and obsessive drive that so many have in regards to achieving fame and fortune — always strikingly easy for someone who has achieved these things to comment on. On “Lens” she points out the irony in trying to muster common ground between two individuals who come from such varied positions, each seeing their “humble opinions” through a different lens — see what she did? However, she offers this commentary without any semblance of a resolution. Perhaps her aim is simply to call attention to this situation with a catchy and preachy tune, but considering this has been a topic of discussion for decades now “Lens” does nothing more than provide proof that Alanis has recognized that a problem exists — good for her. It may have been braver to come charging out of the gate with a strong position than to merely call attention to the fact that we all have (save for Morissette) a strong position.
It’s hard to rip Alanis apart because everything she sings is sung with a genuine sincerity as if to suggest that she really is the first person to come to such universal conclusions. And she does it in a way that isn’t entirely unpleasant. As derivative as “Spiral” is, it still has a nice catchy pre-chorus where she sings: “And once again in my shame spiral / I’m sucked into it again.” “Empathy” may be embarrassingly uncool, but it has a nice piano riff and is so sincere especially when she sings: “But you come along and invite these parts out of hiding / This invitation is one that I’ve stopped fighting.” It’s not the kind of stuff that the apathetic music-downloading public gravitates towards, but I’d rather my young and impressionable niece and nephew listen to her new record than any obtuse new indie craze or impossibly shallow pop tart sensation.
And here you have it, the ultimate target demo of Alanis’ audience: the young impressionable pre-teen generation that is still struggling to find in others pieces of opinion and thought that they can cling to. It’s not an unworthy choice to make on her part, but definitely alienates her from a maturing population who is waiting for her to catch up. And while it may be a difficult task to get through all 12 psycho-babble-filled tune on havoc, it’s not entirely a wash or without merit. Ultimately, if you’re not into hearing someone use their artistic expression to vent their frustrations and contemplate fairly uneducated meanderings on the current social state, or you’re not struggling with your own identity lacking the mental capacity to understand your surroundings, you need not apply. But Alanis continues to charge on, singing about what she wants to and while I may not agree with her most of the time, I respect her sincerity and wish her all the success in the world… again.