Most of us grow up without much understanding of how the game of life really works. We tend to accept various myths handed down to us by parents, educators and other authorities and then get pissed off when we learn that they were full of shit and there we are, up the proverbial creek without a paddle. We then blame those “experts” for our inability to separate fact from fiction.
We also choose what we perceive, and our selective perception leads us to ignore data that does not fit with our image of how the world should work. We ignore obvious warning signs and plunge ahead armed with the naïve belief that things will all work out in the end.
Musicians seem to be more susceptible to naïve world-views than most, despite the plethora of songs written by established musicians alerting wannabe stars to the dangers of the music business. “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” “Have a Cigar,” “For the Roses,” “EMI,” the entire Lola album . . . the list stretches on and on. They sign contracts without reading them. They trust management to handle all that accounting stuff. Not knowing dick about the economics of the music business, they are stunned to learn that a whole lot of shadowy figures have made away with a good chunk of their dough. “Robert owes half to Grenville/Who in turn gave half to Larry/Who adored my instrumentals/And so he gave half to a foreign publisher,” explained Ray Davies. His concerns were dismissed as entitled rock star bitching, but at the end of the decade, Pink Floyd almost went belly up because management had invested most of their money in venture capital schemes that didn’t pan out.
You would have thought that The Dark Side of the Moon alone would have set up those guys for life—the equivalent of a big lottery win. Sadly, the narrative of rock music is littered with management misdealings, most tragically in the case of Pete Ham of Badfinger. The statistics speak for themselves: of the billions earned in the music industry, musicians only pocket twelve percent.
However, it’s not all about the money. Many musicians have artistic yearnings and, as captured in the time-tested cliché “temperamental artist,” they want control over their music. They don’t want the suits to interfere with the creative process. Some artists sign with indie labels; others hawk their songs on places like Bandcamp. Though some indie releases manage to vault the many obstacles to success, the majority fall victim to the equation defined by Michael Crossley of French Letters (a now-defunct indie band): independent release = “completely independent of distribution, promotion and attention.” The challenges facing the indie musician can’t be understated: the big three record companies control 88.5% of the market.
One of the rare indie success stories is Ani DiFranco. She managed to avoid the suits and retain independence by starting her own record company at the age of nineteen. In a retrospective interview with The Guardian last year, she explained her rationale: “If only white men are the delivery system, the translators, the sellers, the definers of the expressions of these diverse human experiences, then something is lost.”
Her record company (Righteous Babe Records) was truly a start-up; the original releases were cassette tapes she sold out of the trunk of her car and at merch tables. She built her reputation by targeting the college market, hoping that word-of-mouth and the support of women’s groups would eventually work wonders. After the comparative success of Out of Range, she signed a distribution deal that ensured that her sixth studio album, Not a Pretty Girl, could be purchased in both indie record shops and the big chains.
Befitting a conservative-budget affair, Not a Pretty Girl features a grand total of two musicians: Ani on vocals, guitar and bass and Andy Stochansky on drums and percussion. Ani was criticized by Fred Goodman of Rolling Stone for not going “big” on some of the tracks (“It would be a shame if someone as breathtakingly talented as she is allows dogma to prevent her from giving her songs what they demand”), but Fred completely ignored the truth that sensitive subject matter is often best presented in an intimate environment. If Ani had gone “big,” the songs Fred mentions would have sounded more anthemic and hence, more dogmatic. As it is, Ani provides sufficient power through her innovative guitar stylings, alternate tunings and vocal layering without weakening the evocative power of the lyrics.
As reflected in the title, a good chunk of the album forms a rejection of the “sugar and spice and everything nice” paradigm historically attached to women, with a particular emphasis on the cultural definition of “nice-looking.” When Ani’s at her best, she presents the inherent disadvantages of womanhood in conversations with an invisible partner or with herself instead of political abstractions. Her tone encompasses many moods—sometimes biting, sometimes sweet, but nearly always tempered with a sense of vulnerability. Listening to Ani DiFranco often feels like she’s right there in the room with you, having one of those unexpectedly deep conversations that develop over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. The effect is intentional and has been an integral part of her music since she launched her career. “The songs came so unedited that they connected me with other beings like myself, even when there were only a few people in the room,” she recalls. “I did it human-to-human. Those moments were so healing that I’ve stayed in search of them ever since.” (The Guardian)
The feedback loop that opens “Worthy” reflects the feedback loop described in the lyrics: the head game connected to uncertain self-esteem. Ani nails it when she connects doubts about our worthiness with the urge to push the other person away; “I’m not good enough for you” really means “I’m afraid to get too close.” Ah, humanity.
you think you’re not worthy
i’d have to say i agree
i’m not worthy of you
you’re not worthy of me
which of us is deserving
look at the human race
the whole planet at arm’s length
and we don’t deserve this place
Based on the songs that follow, “we don’t deserve this place” is meant ironically, as in “What a dump!” In verse two, she slips back into internal dialogue, owning up to the façade she’d like to present to her partner and her inability to pull it off:
what good is a poker face
when you’ve got an open hand
i was supposed to be cool about this
yeah i remember cool was the plan
Though she claims that the world is too good for her because she’s “such a naughty girl,” that admission proves to be the way out of the couple’s dilemma: “but when we’re together/we’re too good for this world.” Keeping each other at arm’s length by hiding behind the “I’m not worthy of you” game leads nowhere. The music has a nice laid-back flow with a simple chord structure (A-G with major 7th variations in the verse intervals) that gives Ani a great opportunity to fill the wordless spaces with melodic and soulful scat. The lyrics to “Worthy” are a fine example of poetic economy, but I just love it when Ani leaves words behind and just riffs with her gorgeous, expressive voice.
Ani rejects the opportunity to allow the wry humor and appealing music of “Worthy” to set the tone for the album, instead opting for a 180º with a spoken-word poem called “Tiptoe.”
Then she proceeds to do anything but tiptoe around the subject of abortion:
tiptoeing through the used condoms
strewn on the piers
off the west side highway
the skyline of jersey
walking towards the water
with a fetus holding court in my gut
my body hijacked
my tits swollen and sore . . .
i could step off the end of this pier but
i’ve got shit to do
and i’ve an appointment on tuesday
to shed uninvited blood and tissue
i’ll miss you i say
to the river to the water
to the son or daughter
i thought better of . . .
It takes a lot of guts to talk honestly about abortion (or even admit you’ve had one), especially in the United States where (unlike in most of the civilized world), abortion is still controversial. In her fascinating autobiography No Walls and the Recurring Dream, Ani wrote honestly and thoughtfully about her two abortions as well as the experience of becoming the mother of two children. I think my regular readers know where I stand on the issue; for those dropping by for a visit, I believe in unrestricted reproductive freedom and a woman’s absolute right to make her own choices regarding her body. I’ve never had an abortion, but if you want to call me a “baby killer” for holding those views, go fuck yourself and your patriarchy.
I’d rather focus on the brilliance of the poem. Ani has to tiptoe through “used condoms strewn on the piers off the west side highway,” reminding us that the men who want to control women’s bodies have the right to kill millions of potential babies in their pursuit of baby-free pussy. The visuals that arise from those words also beg the classic question, “Would you want a kid to grow up in a world as ugly and as hypocritical as this one?” Her resistance to the “uninvited blood and tissue” should tell anyone with a brain that as much as she resents the intrusion, she is more likely to resent eighteen years of child-rearing even more, adding one more fucked-up kid to a society already full of fucked-up kids. There is a tinge of regret for what might have been, but Ani “thought better” and accepted the fact that she simply wasn’t ready for motherhood at that point in her life. The river, the symbol of life, fertility and perpetual change, reminds her that the flow of her life will change, providing another opportunity for motherhood when she’s ready to accept the responsibility.
Though the next song bears the title, “Cradle and All,” it has nothing to do with reproductive controversy; it is a painting of a restless, anxious woman longing for the relief of the baby sleeping peacefully in the cradle. The tension she feels comes from a combination of an unsatisfactory relationship, the endless cacophony of New York City (“the city that never shuts up”) and a longing to return home to Buffalo, a place suffering from Rust Belt decline but hey, it’s home . . . it’s family:
and i moved there from buffalo
but that’s nothing
the Trico plant moved to mexico
left my uncle standing out in the cold
said here’s your last paycheck
have fun growing old
Ani is absolutely stunning on guitar here, fingers flying over and beyond the fretboard, integrating what for many guitar players would be “mistakes” or “happy accidents of sound” into a cohesive and compelling guitar performance.
“Shy” earned Ani a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. I think the Grammy people stuck Ani in the rock category because they really didn’t know what to do with her, so her loss to Fiona Apple was hardly . . . criminal. As with many an Ani DiFranco song, “Shy” defies genre categorization, and of the five performances nominated, “Shy” was the least rocking of the bunch. You also have to remember that the Grammy people gave Alanis Morissette the award twice and Sheryl Crow four times, so what the fuck do they know?
“Shy” should have received the award for Best Example of Concrete Imagery in Song, but alas, no such category exists. Ani doesn’t establish her mental state by saying, “I’m neurotic, vulnerable, lonely and a goddamned mess,” but by painting a scene that communicates the meaning with far more impact, demonstrating how an alien environment intensifies psychological fragility:
the heat is so great
it plays tricks with the eye
it turns the road to water
and then from water to sky
and there’s a crack in the concrete floor
and it starts at the sink
there’s a bathroom in a gas station
and i’ve locked myself in it to think
and back in the city
the sun bakes the trash on the curb
the men are pissing in doorways
and the rats are running in herds
i’ve got a dream with your face in it
that scares me awake
i put too much on my table
and now i got too much at stake
She then goes into push-pull mode, “lost in-between,” mulling through a range of choices—flirting, hide-and-seek, “veiled invitations”—that all come down to fear of intimacy. In the chorus, she finally works through the internal noise to describe what she really wants:
and you’ll stop me, won’t you
if you’ve heard this one before
the one where i surprise you
by showing up at your front door
saying ‘let’s not ask what’s next,
or how, or why’
i am leaving in the morning
so let’s not be shy
Though she goes on to imagine intimacy under “the muscular motel light” where “the sheets are twisted and damp,” you get the sense that “you’ll stop me won’t you” means more than a request to prevent repetition of an old joke or story. If her “shyness” fails her, she hopes that the guy will give her an out. Ani captures the strained psychological state described in the lyrics by not overdoing it, restraining her vocal to a limited melodic range and avoiding excess emotion. Andy Stochansky follows her lead beautifully, always seeming on the verge of breaking out into bash mode but staying right on the edge throughout the song.
Andy sits out “Sorry,” as this is an intensely personal message from Ani to an ex better handled through voice and acoustic guitar. The essence of the song involves regret (“i’m sorry that after all these years/i’ve left you feeling unrequited and alone, brought you to tears”) and partial acceptance of responsibility for the hurting, tempered by the need to manifest self (“and i don’t know what it is about me/that i just can’t keep still”). It’s “nothing personal,” but it sure feels personal to the other party. Ani could have said, “I’m not responsible for your dreams about our beautiful future together,” but she has enough empathy to appreciate that under different circumstances the positions could have been reversed. The feel of the song is appropriately mournful, a mood established by Ani’s sensitive and varied guitar pattern. The repetition of the bend on the second fret of the sixth string (tuned to low D) is mourning actualized. “Sorry” is a beautiful, if agonizing, piece of music.
“Light of Some Kind” continues the theme of relational imbalance, expressed with greater agitation. Much of that agitation comes from the series of clipped, partially muted guitar picking that falls somewhere between the sound of a telegraph and electronic hiccups. Ani delivers most of the song in clipped phrases as if she’s out of breath and flustered by the situation she finds herself in, adding more significance to the opening line, “I wish I didn’t have this nervous laugh.” What she’s nervous about is being honest—and she’s pissed about being nervous:
’cause every time i try to hold my tongue
it slips like a fish from a line
they say if you want to play
you should learn how to play dumb
i guess i can’t bring myself to waste your time
’cause we both know what i’ve been doing
i’ve been intentionally bad at lying
you’re the only boy i ever let see through me
and i hope you believe me when i say i’m trying
and i hope i never improve my game
yeah i’d rather have these things weighing on my mind
and at the end of this tunnel of guilt and shame
there must be a light of some kind
there must be a light of some kind
The “tunnel of guilt and shame” seems to come from having to admit her bisexuality (“she came up to me with the sweetest face/and she was holding a light of some kind”) to her boyfriend. At first, she seems to be in denial of the impact on their relationship (“and I still think of you as my boyfriend”); shortly thereafter the guilt she feels encourages her to suggest he do the same “And maybe you should follow my example/and go meet yourself a really nice girl”). That is a very awkward piece of communication, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have landed well with a straight guy, who probably found the joke belittling. Well, don’t say she didn’t warn you—earlier in the song Ani admitted, “’cause every time i try to hold my tongue/it slips like a fish from a line.” As all of my female bisexual partners have initially felt guilt about their desire for a woman, the song rings true for me (though I only experienced guilt after openly admitting it and hearing my teenage friends call me “sick”).
The guilt lasted as long as my next girl-to-girl fuck.
“Not a Pretty Girl” rings so true for me I can hear the bell cracking. As one who has been classified in certain quarters as a “pretty girl,” I can completely relate to Ani DiFranco’s refusal to accept that tag. According to custom, pretty girls are expected to be nice, projecting pleasantry from their useless brains located in their empty heads. I have shocked hundreds of people of both genders by displaying behavior unbecoming of a pretty girl. I fuck girls. I’m kinky. I swear like a sailor. I smoke. I have a brain and expect to use it. And when I played baseball, I had no qualms taking out the second baseman to prevent the double play or resorting to a little chin music if a batter got too close to the plate.
The reaction to the disconnect between appearance and substance differs depending on gender. When women are confronted with the disconnect between my appearance and my true nature, they often seem confused, as if I make them unsure about who the hell they are. Men have been consistently disappointed to learn that I am intelligent and assertive because they don’t generally don’t feel comfortable with women who display those traits (ask Hillary). Men who think I’m hot want to save me from my sins, hoping that I’ll grow up someday and take my place in their trophy cabinet. I remember my mother telling me, “A man will gladly hold the door open for a pretty girl, but it’s usually the wrong door—the door that leads to dependence.”
Ani begins the song by rejecting the “damsel in distress” archetype and the notion that women are like kittens—sexual playthings who need to be rescued because they’re dumb enough to keep getting stuck in the tree. Where it really gets interesting is in the second verse, where Ani takes aim at the “angry woman” trope of the ’90s:
i am not an angry girl
but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled
every time i say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear
Many a protester against racism could sing those last three lines with conviction, over and over again. The music is ironically pretty, full of clean arpeggiated strums flowing nicely in 6/8 time. The simmering anger is expressed in Ani’s voice, and when she claims, “I have earned by disillusionment/I have been working all of my life,” her anger is the anger of those women who have found their voices squelched and their talents belittled by the workplace patriarchy.
My least favorite track is definitely “The Millions You Never Made,” largely because of the dissonant manic sarcasm of the last verse, but in part because I don’t think Ani achieved enough aesthetic distance to write about her personal battle for artistic independence in a way that the average person could relate to. This is one song that would have benefitted from a tongue-in-cheek third-person perspective. The following song, “Hour Follows Hour,” eschews the “big message” in favor of a vision of humanity as flawed but trying its best to make sense of the gotcha inherent in cause-and-effect: the truth that any “cause” initiated by a human being may not have its intended effect, so we need to forgive self and other for unpleasant surprises. It’s a gorgeous piece, soft, reflective and dominated by gentle, reassuring guitar.
As noted above, Ani DiFranco is a lousy fit for any genre you care to mention and she takes great pride in her individualism. That said, it’s not a “fuck you,” defensive individualism but a more inclusive orientation that respects another’s unique personality as well. She explores this theme in the deceptively sweet, partially tongue-in-cheek and cleverly written “32 Flavors.” The opening verse seems to be a response to a verbal abuser who has called her a dyke, a cunt, a godless feminist, an arrogant artiste or something along those lines. I love the way she refuses to turn the other cheek but instead chooses to disarm the intruder:
squint your eyes and look closer
i’m not between you and your ambition
i am a poster girl with no poster
i am thirty-two flavors and then some
and i’m beyond your peripheral vision
so you might want to turn your head
cause someday you’re going to get hungry
and eat most of the words you just said
She is not one cause, she is many causes; she is not one type, she is many types—so many that typification becomes meaningless. As she wrote in “Light of Some Kind,” “there’s a crowd of people harbored in every person,” so rather than attributing this phenomenon to some kind of personality disorder, it’s best to recognize that we all have our moods and that trying to define a person as “just one thing” is both silly and hurtful. The use of Baskin-Robbins’ 31 Flavors branding was a masterstroke; I estimate that at least half of the population in the United States would express shock and dismay if BR came out with a thirty-second flavor. Millions would be shouting “My brain hurts” in time with Michael Palin! The 32-flavors (and then some) may be beyond comprehension for many, but everyone understands the pop culture reference, making the meaning a bit easier to absorb.
In the second verse, Ani revisits the pretty girl/not-a-pretty-girl theme with a truism that reminds me of the weird experience of having people hate you for your genes:
and god help you if you are an ugly girl
course too pretty is also your doom
cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
for the prettiest girl in the room
It was bad enough that I was considered a stuck-up conceited bitch because I was pretty; what made it worse was a girl telling me, “I hate it when you smile.” I started feeling guilty about being pretty, but after thinking about it, I was just flat-out pissed because I HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. Mom and dad fucked one night and that’s what came out! Ani intimates that it’s only going to get worse once you pick yourself off the canvas:
and god help you if you are a phoenix
and you dare to rise up from the ash
a thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
while you are just flying past
“32 Flavors” isn’t all about defiance or preparing women for the worst. Ani sings about doing right by her parents and the kindness that she lavishes on strangers—kindness not often returned but instead meant with inexplicable rejection:
just the kindness i’ve lavished on strangers
is more than i can explain
still there’s many who’ve turned out their porch lights
just so i would think they were not home
and hid in the dark of their windows
till i’d passed and left them alone
Ani sings in an almost demure voice, contradicting the notion that power and passion equate to loud and aggressive. The disarming performance is further enhanced by melodic vocalizations between the verses, intensifying both the sweetness and the melancholy. The power of the song lies in the contrast between Ani’s soft voice and the power of her imagery; “32 Flavors” almost demands we reflect on the sheer unnecessity of mistreating and demeaning others.
Ani’s fingerpicking on this song displays her amazing dexterity and incredible sense of touch, the notes falling like gentle rain over wildflowers. The official blurb of the music business patriarchy could only find room for two women on their 100 Best Guitarists List (Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell, down in the fourth quartile); I would argue that Ani DiFranco should have been on that list even if Not a Pretty Girl was the only record she ever made. Fuck those guys at Rolling Stone.
“Asking Too Much” is a fascinating monologue delivered over a detuned, dissonant guitar background and a loping sway that call up images of dark alleyways and mysterious figures looming in the shadows. Ani uses this template to express both her specs for an ideal partner and her frustration in making herself understood. I love the way she soft-growls the second line in this couplet: “I want somebody who has a tortured soul/some of the time.” Tortured souls can indeed be worrisome! When she launches into the extended last verse, I just like to sit back and enjoy the barrage of words tumbling out of her mouth, all stabs in the dark that eventually lead her to a definition of what she really wants: “in other words i want someone/who’s not afraid of themself.” “Do you think I am asking too much?” she queries, to which I respond, “Hell, no!” “Asking Too Much” is quickly followed by one of the shorter pieces on the album, “This Bouquet,” a pretty little number about songwriting and its expressive limitations. I find it interesting that someone so nimble with words would also have the humility to admit the shortcomings of linguistic communication.
The last “big song” on the album is “Crime for a Crime,” an attack on the process of injustice that ends with the death penalty. Ani believes (as do I) that the death penalty is really “trading a crime for a crime” to give the fearful masses a false sense of security. Ani goes first-person here, playing the role of a condemned prisoner to give the message more immediacy:
the big day has come
the bell is sounding
i run my hands through my hair one last time
outside the prison walls
the town is gathering
people are trading crime for crime
everyone needs to see the prisoner
they need to make it even easier
they see me as a symbol, and not a human being
that way they can kill me
say it’s not murder, it’s a metaphor
we are killing off our own failure
and starting clean
Unfortunately, the United States has done virtually nothing to improve their “justice system,” though the worldwide demonstrations against police brutality in the States may signal an awakening in that regard. I tend to be on the gloomy side of predictions when it comes to my former homeland because the layers of fear and denial have been around for centuries and may take centuries to remove. Remember, Europe had to destroy itself twice before getting over the war fetish, and Americans haven’t had anything close to that sort of upheaval since the Civil War. As they do with the Dream Speech, people may nod their heads in agreement with Ani DiFranco’s indictment of American “justice,” but are unlikely to do anything about the travesties she describes:
now we’ve got all these complicated machines
so no one person ever has to have blood on their hands
we’ve got complex organizations
and if everyone just does their job
no one person has to understand
you might be the wrong color
you might be too poor
justice isn’t something just anyone can afford
you might not pull the trigger
you might be out in the car
and you might get a lethal injection
’cause we take a metaphor that far
“Not a Pretty Girl” ends with “Coming Up,” where Ani makes her guitar sound almost like a celeste while Andy Stochansky adds an Asian flavor through sticks and cymbals. This quirky background serves as a curiously-tense overlay of Ani’s indictment of the inequalities in the American economic system, a massive anti-democratic structure built by “our father who art in a penthouse.” As the rich, white god “swivels to gaze down at the city” filled with graffiti and opportunity for exploitation, we find Ani somewhere near the bottom of the ladder:
i in my darkened threshold
am pawing through my pockets
the receipts, the bus schedules
the matchbook phone numbers
the urgent napkin poems
all of which laundering has rendered
pulpy and strange
While Father is up there above it all, “the ice clinking in his glass,” he sends her “little pieces of paper” (money) to ensure survival and not much else. Father has chosen to distance himself from the reality of the people who live on the periphery, but Ani sees in both the graffiti and her own sense of humiliation that Father is in more danger than his cocoon would lead him to believe:
but i love this city, this state
this country is too large
and whoever’s in charge up there
had better take the elevator down
and put more than change in our cup
or else we
These last two songs certify that Ani DiFranco is not only a feminist but a songwriter concerned with all forms of social injustice; a person who feels tremendous empathy for all the disadvantaged (which pretty much includes everyone who isn’t a one-percenter and even a few of those folks). While I’m having a great time immersing myself in women’s music of the ’90s, I feel deep frustration in knowing that the powerful poetry and compelling music I’m writing about will be marked with an asterisk: *woman-created. The asterisk describes how we demean women artists of all stripes with the often unspoken judgment, “She’s pretty good—for a woman.” I want to abolish that demeaning distinction . . . and in doing my research for this series, I came across a ray of hope in that regard.
I found it while checking out a live performance of “32 Flavors” on YouTube that I would love to post here if it weren’t for their stupid content sharing rules. I will admit that Ani’s performance brought me to tears, but what really hit me in the gut was a comment entered by a gent named Andy Wolf, who is now my personal hero:
There has really never been an artist quite like her. Lyrically she is a great American poet in the stratosphere of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Dylan. As a vocalist she is among the angels. She has an underlying monastic chant that floats and flutters as if a dove finding wing. Her melodies are rich and layered. She makes me think of all the guitar gods as pawns to a queen. Her style is her identity and her commitment the purity of her identity; her muse has the whimsy of the minstrel and the courage of the troubadour. But no matter what I write it is all meaningless and she says it all so much better with reluctant pride: insecurity in this really good fucking piece of music.
Jagged Little Pill came out when I was on the cusp of turning fourteen, right before I entered high school. According to the historical record, it reached #1 on the Billboard charts a few months later, in October 1995. Because October is usually one of the two warm-and-sunny months you get when you live in San Francisco—and because Halloween was a huge fucking deal in The City by the Bay—I’m pretty sure that neither I nor anyone else in my inner circle paid much attention.
That inner circle consisted of a group of four teenage girls, each of us dealing with the I-wish-I-was-out-of-my-body experience known as puberty. We shared tips on zit control, debated the virtues of tampons or pads (while ridiculing the term “sanitary napkins”), monitored each other’s tit development and spent a lot of time classifying guys as either “cute” or “eeew.” Although we generally had good times together, the emotional hypersensitivity of puberty sometimes got the best of us, and seemingly harmless comments could trigger uncontrollable tears.
I know that we did eventually encounter Alanis Morissette sometime between November and March when the weather turns cold and shitty. During the truncated sunny season, we’d hang out at Dolores Park after school, but once the fog and rain took over we would take refuge in one of our homes and immediately turn on MTV or VH1.
One thing to note about the state of my psyche at this point in my life: my reaction to puberty involved developing a protective shell, so I wasn’t the outwardly opinionated bitch I am today. When my friends said or did something I thought was totally weird, I generally kept my opinions to myself and responded with a polite but noncommittal nod. If my emotions started to boil over while I was with them, I rarely resorted to tears but held my feelings inside until I got home and could inflict my rage on my parents.
My dad found my fits of anger very funny, insensitive prick that he is.
Back to our story, my inner circle watched music videos because that’s what teenagers did back then when we weren’t playing video games. I privately thought most of the music videos fell into the category of “overproduced and stupid,” but I kept those opinions to myself to avoid messing with the vibes. I remember there was a lot of Hootie and the Blowfish and Red Hot Chili Peppers (which always put me in a sour mood), the usual Madonna-Mariah Carey crap and more rap than I ever wanted to hear in a lifetime. The only video I remember getting excited about was the Foo Fighters’ “I’ll Stick Around,” where Dave Grohl spits out chess pieces while he’s singing. Meanwhile, my friends would chair-boogie to most of the videos, chattering all the while in girl talk—“He’s so cute,” “Love her cut,” “Do you think she’ll ever go back to Sean Penn?”—that kind of stuff.
But when Alanis Morissette popped up on the screen with “You Oughta Know,” my relatively normal girlfriends turned into raving maniacs, leaping out of their seats to dance and sing along with outsized passion, screaming the bleeped-out “FUCK!” with Richter Scale intensity.
For the record, this was my reaction:
I’ve always been amazed at Charles Schulz’s ability to express volumes with simple black lines.
That was also my reaction to Jagged Little Pill’s remarkable success. “Jagged Little Pill topped the charts in thirteen countries; with sales of over 33 million copies worldwide, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time and made Morissette the first Canadian to achieve double diamond sales. Jagged Little Pill was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, winning five, including Album of the Year, making Morissette at 21 the youngest artist to win the honor, a record she held until 2010 when 20-year-old Taylor Swift won with Fearless.” (Wikipedia) Jagged Little Pill was recently transformed into a musical, receiving rave reviews from theatre critics.
And after listening to the album deeply three times twenty-five years later, I remain absolutely baffled by it all.
Liz Phair and the Riot Grrl bands made it cool for women to sing angry. It turned out to be a good news/bad news kind of a thing.
There’s a fundamental difference between a trend and a fad. Fads tend to be short-term phenomena that we look back on and say, “Shit, what were we thinking?” Trends tend to be longer-term phenomena that sometimes lead to long-term culture change. The word “trendy” has taken on a dismissive connotation, but the problem is that people use “trendy” when they really mean “faddish.”
Sometimes a phenomenon can be both a trend and a fad. The Beatles represent the ne plus ultra of this dynamic. It’s funny to look back to the dawn of Beatlemania and see how the so-called experts completely missed the potential of dramatic culture change that the lads from Liverpool would initiate. In an unusual example of mea culpa in journalism, U. S. News and World Report published a retrospective on their original missed call:
What the Beatles Prove About Teen-Agers
Interview With a Leading Educator and Sociologist
In case you’re worried about the craze over those Beatles—Here are some reassuring words from one of the best-known sociologists in the U.S.
David Riesman, Harvard professor and noted author on social trends, was interviewed by “U.S. News & World Report.”
Q Professor Riesman, is the furor over the singers who call themselves the Beatles a sign that American youngsters are going crazy?
A No crazier than hitherto. In the first place, any large city will turn out a minority capable of nearly anything. One mustn’t exaggerate and attribute to the vast majority the reactions of the minority.
Q Would you say that the fad for the Beatles is a mania, then?
A It’s a form of protest against the adult world. These youngsters are hoping to believe in something, or respond to something new that they have found for themselves.
Q Will it last very long?
A No. No craze does. The way to describe a craze or fad is to point out that it starts out as a minority movement. It is self-fulfilling, self-nourishing for the minority that supports it, and every member of the minority is supposed to respond in the same way. As soon as the majority takes it up, it can no longer be a fad. Some new fad has to come along for a new minority.
Given the number of witless, short-sighted graduates from Harvard, it’s a wonder they’re still in business.
Though their founding principle focused on getting to the toppermost of the poppermost, The Beatles initiated several trends that wound up changing world culture. Men could grow their hair long and still be men. Pop music became a legitimate art form. Western societies loosened up a bit and tolerated greater non-conformism.
It’s equally true that Beatlemania spawned several fads. Beatle wigs. Collarless jackets. Beatle boots. And most important and relevant to our story, The Beatles opened the door to a slew of follow-the-money musical acts who tried to emulate the Fab Four, with varying degrees of success. Most of those Invasion bands failed to survive after The Beatles shifted gears and began offering more intricate music. It’s impossible to imagine Herman’s Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers or The Dave Clark Five coming out with anything close to Rubber Soul, Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. Though they cashed in on the craze by adopting the bright sounds and cheerful energy of the Invasion, they all lacked the depth, musical sophistication and songwriting talent of The Beatles to go much further. This talent gap should have been apparent to any music fan even during the heights of Beatlemania. Though early Lennon-McCartney lyrics were pretty much standard pop fare and the songs generally followed standard pop structures, the melodic range and harmonic complexity of some of their early creations clearly separated them from their competitors. Even within the realm of pop, they pushed the boundaries as far as they could (the Aeolian cadence at the end of “Not a Second Time,” the feedback that opens “I Feel Fine,” the metrical imbalances of “Any Time at All,” the unusual chord and key changes of “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”).
Key takeaway: What separated The Beatles from the rest of the pack can be summarized in a single word: substance.
Thirty years later, it was pretty clear that angry women using naughty language had reached the inflection point between fad and trend. Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco and Courtney Love (with Hole) had created enough buzz to earn the label, “cutting edge.” It’s when you get to “cutting edge” that other artists take note and begin to alter their style in accordance with changing tastes.
Enter Alanis Morissette.
Prior to Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette was a teen pop singer a la Tiffany. Her first album, Alanis, consisted of cheesy pop/dance numbers and was a modest success in Canada. The second album, Now Is the Time, was more ballad-driven and sold about half as well. Shortly thereafter, Alanis graduated from high school and moved to Toronto, where she learned how to play guitar and hooked up with a guy named Glen Ballard, who eventually produced and co-wrote the music for the soon-to-be-legendary Jagged Little Pill. The stylistic shift from dance-pop to “alternative rock with post-grunge influence” took her fellow Canadians by surprise, but the rest of the world had never heard of Alanis Morissette and considered her an exciting new voice. People all over the world heard this angry young woman spilling her guts out over the radio and bought the record in droves. “Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them,” wrote Stephen Erlewine of All Music, capturing the popular sentiment.
The most curious aspect of this transformation involved a decision to expunge the historical record. The transition from wannabe teen pop star to alternative rock hero also involved a change in record companies, from MCA to Maverick. Apparently, the marketing staff at Maverick took this repackaging assignment very seriously. From Wikipedia:
Executives at Maverick persuaded MCA Records to withdraw all copies of Alanis and Now Is the Time from circulation, and they did not mention either album in the promotional material for Jagged Little Pill. According to Spin magazine, Morissette’s transformation from “the Debbie Gibson of Canada” to an alternative rock musician made some Canadians skeptical. As with Alanis, Now Is the Time is no longer in print.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with an artist reinventing themselves when things aren’t working out, but that’s some pretty Stalinist shit right there. I couldn’t find any evidence that Rick Nelson demanded the removal of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet from syndication when he shifted gears to country rock.
Alanis is an alternative rock singer. Alanis has always been an alternative rock singer. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. We have the Coronavirus under control. Got it.
As far as Jagged Little Pill is concerned, my initial reaction to Erlewine’s comment was “What the fuck?” Upon reflection, though, I can see the truth in his observation. On Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette sounds like she’s twenty-one going on fourteen. Her anger is largely adolescent in nature; her tartness little more than smart-mouth whining. Of course my fourteen-year-old friends thought she was the bees’ knees—she expressed the anger and frustration of a young woman who failed to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As for the gazillions of older folks who bought the album in droves, I learned long ago that most adults get stuck in adolescence and never dig their way out. They continue to play silly head games. They view male-female relationships as a competitive sport: the battle of the sexes. And they always blame the other for their own fucking problems.
Combine an unflinching exploration of bourgeois emotion with heavy use of cliché language, “edgy” pop stylings and magnificent timing, and next thing you know, you’re the darling of the Grammies.
The album opens with the word salad of “All I Really Want.” Songfacts describes the song thusly: ” . . . a frustrated Morissette is in the midst of an argument with her significant other who refuses to engage in the ‘intellectual intercourse’ she desperately wants, preferring to distract himself from the problems in his life rather than face them. The singer is aware of her own shortcomings, and compares herself to Estella, the cold and critical socialite who captures the protagonist’s heart in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. She certainly isn’t aware of her own shortcomings in the area of communication, because if I’m that poor guy, I have no idea what the fuck she’s talking about:
And there I go jumping before the gunshot has gone off
Slap me with a splintered ruler
And it would knock me to the floor if I wasn’t there already
If only I could hunt the hunter
And all I really want is some patience
A way to calm the angry voice
And all I really want is deliverance
Alanis seems to delight in torturing the poor bastard because, in her superior judgment, he is obviously her intellectual and spiritual inferior: “I don’t like to dissect everything today/I don’t mean to pick you apart you see/But I can’t help it.” She then attempts to prove her literary cred by comparing herself to Estella of Great Expectations:
Do I wear you out?
You must wonder why I’m relentless and all strung out
I’m consumed by the chill of solitary
I’m like Estella
I like to reel it in and then spit it out
I’m frustrated by your apathy
If you’ve read Great Expectations, you may remember that Estella was a major league asshole who toyed with poor Pip and drove him to distraction. I don’t think Alanis admitting she’s an asshole qualifies as “admitting her own shortcomings.” Assholes, by definition, are not self-aware.
Musically, her distinctive voice drives me batty, especially her multi-syllabification of simple words and her fingernails-on-chalkboard ascent into soprano. Glen Ballard called her performance “feral,” so if you’re into howling cats, this song is for you! As for Ballard, he proved himself more than a match for Alanis when it comes to pretentiousness when he claimed, “I went into an Indian modality” when composing the music. Dude! You wrote a drone song! BFD!
Even more disturbing is the song that thrilled my teenage friends, the thoroughly disgusting display of childishness called “You Oughta Know.” Listening to the song as a relatively mature adult allowed me to give form to thoughts that my teenage self could not put into words.
This woman needed a fucking therapist.
Story: Alanis finds out a guy has cheated on her. She is obsessed with comparing herself to the other woman. She blames him for everything.
And I’m here, to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away
It’s not fair, to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me
You, you, you oughta know
Uh oh. The inability to accept responsibility is a common feature of a sociopath. This is not good. She’s not singing, she’s hyperventilating.
You seem very well, things look peaceful
I’m not quite as well, I thought you should know
Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?
I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
It was a slap in the face
How quickly I was replaced
And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?
I have three reactions to this despicable tantrum. First, the guy needs to get a restraining order—pronto.
Second, Alanis Morissette’s use of the word “fuck” has no credibility. Her tone indicates she’s likely filtering that word through Catholic guilt. She just threw that in there because Liz Phair and other women were using “fuck” in their songs.
The third has to do with something Alanis said when attempting to justify all this bullshit: “When I hear that song, I hear the anger as a protection around the searing vulnerability. I was mortified and devastated. It was a lot easier for me to be angry and feel the power from that anger versus the broken, horrified woman on the floor.” (Songfacts).
Clueless. Absolutely clueless. She gave up her power long before the break-up by making herself dependent on the guy, continued to piss away her power by making him responsible for it all and now she’s fucking stalking him! She has zero understanding of “anger can be power” because she’s bent on revenge, the ultimate dead-end street. Her anger is “ME-ME-ME” instead of “We.” I only have one thing to say to this petulant child: “Well, boo-fucking-hoo, bitch. Grow the fuck up.”
Sometimes Alanis kinda sorta seems to get it, as is the case with “Perfect.” Here she compares and contrasts parental expectations of boys and girls. Boys are viewed as having a shot at perfection if they try, while girls never seem to get anything right:
How long before you screw it up
How many times do I have to tell you to hurry up
With everything I do for you
The least you can do is keep quiet
The climax of the song comes in the bridge, and while the lyrics do a good job of indicting parents for using children to vicariously live the life they never had (“I’m doing this for your own damn good/You’ll make up for what I blew”), she lapses into hysterics while delivering the vocal, overselling her argument. Glen Ballard’s arrangement of strummed and arpeggiated guitars is predictable and intensely boring, failing completely in its attempt to establish a reflective mood.
“Hand in My Pocket” has the virtue of good songwriting construction with each stanza ending on a changing line depending on whatever Alanis decides to do with her free hand. The song would have been much more effective had she exercised anything close to restraint, but apparently she and Ballard believed that her ticket to fame was to oversing everything and emphasize the trivial and since she sold 33 million copies what the fuck do I know?
Alanis shifts back to whiny-moaner mood in the more-than-annoying, “Right Through You,” where she bitches about how a music mogul mistreated her. His sin was that he didn’t listen to her, which was indeed a very rude thing to do. As usual, Alanis over-reacts; her response to this grave insult is both infantile and predictable: REVENGE!
Oh, hello, Mr. Man
You didn’t think I’d come back
You didn’t think I’d show up with my army
And this ammunition on my back
Now that I’m Miss Thing
Now that I’m a zillionaire
You scan the credits for your name
And wonder why it’s not there
My response is equally predictable: Boo fucking hoo, bitch.
“Forgiven” features a ridiculously over-the-top arrangement full of drama and shades of darkness as Alanis reflects on growing up Catholic. There’s not a whole lot of insight here unless you didn’t already know that the Roman Catholic Church has been running one of the world’s most successful scams in history for about two millennia. I guess nobody told Alanis.
Next, it’s cliché time with “You Learn,” where Alanis makes no attempt to modernize the ancient adage, “live and learn,” but delivers this “wisdom” with her usual “passion” as if nobody told her that the saying had been around for about two millennia. In addition to the trite title, the song is loaded with other familiar references to life’s lessons, such as “biting off more than you can chew,” “sticking your foot in your mouth” and the cliché that spawned the album’s title, “a hard pill to swallow.” Maybe she guessed that loading a song with meaningless phrases would magically produce meaning.
I guess “Head Over Feet” qualifies as a love song, but it’s more revealing in terms of the misperception of Alanis Morissette as some kind of feminist hero. She’s not. The lines “You treat me like I’m a princess/I’m not used to liking that” and “You held your breath and the door for me” reveal her as a traditional (and rather insecure) female playing out the culturally assigned role while reserving the right to bitch aimlessly about men. Her anger was the anger of traditional women who have built their lives around the cat-and-mouse game and get pissed off when the game gets ugly. There’s nothing wrong with that; if a woman chooses a life where she plays the traditional role of taking care of hubby and the kids, she has the right to make that choice and no one has the right to stand in judgment of her. My point is that there is nothing “alternative” about Jagged Little Pill; the songs do not attempt to push society to respect alternatives to traditional relationships but encourage women to express their feelings within the context of classic male-female coupling. Like every other song on Jagged Little Pill, “Head Over Feet” is a pale imitation of alternative rock, using tropes like the Pixie-esque soft-LOUD dynamics and power chords galore, but sanding down all the rough edges. It’s music sanitized for the masses.
At least “Mary Jane” shows a bit of empathy for other women, though her description of Mary Jane’s plight is so skimpy we have no idea what event or situation led to her apparent depression. My main reaction to the song is, “My god, does she always have to sing so fucking loud?” The effect of her over-the-top performance is to draw attention to herself rather than the subject of her story.
Both Alanis and Glen Ballard have already taken a lot of shit for their misuse of the word “ironic,” so I’ll skip over that controversy and simply mention that when they make the shift from soft-to-LOUD on “Ironic,” I rip the headphones off my ears every time. You’d think that after nine songs I would have gotten used to that terribly grating voice but I guess not. I really don’t understand the people who go ga-ga over Alanis Morissette’s vocals; her phrasing is undisciplined, her sense of dynamics non-existent and her child-like whine aurally disturbing. Yeah, yeah, she’s “different,” but “different” doesn’t always mean “better.”
In “Not the Doctor” her phrasing and tone sound suspiciously like Ani DiFranco’s, so I guess she had enough sense to listen to someone who knew what they were doing, but in the end, she didn’t learn much from the experience. The album thankfully closes with a song called “Wake Up,” where she details several examples of automatic adolescent contradiction. She moans, whines and wanders over the slick production, ending up pretty much nowhere.
If you read the Wikipedia article on Third-wave Feminism, you’ll find this quote from feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans: “(the) confusion surrounding what constitutes third-wave feminism is in some respects its defining feature.” The Third Wave emphasis on individuality freed the movement from the dogmatic nonsense that caused people to grow weary of the first two waves, but it also meant that nearly any woman could claim feminist status and get away with it. I don’t know if Alanis Morissette considers herself a feminist, but I’m sure that millions do. To me, she was a hanger-on who capitalized on a trend, did little to advance the status of women in society and made a whole lot of money.
I mentioned at the end of my review of Exile in Guyville that I found it “ironic” that Liz Phair was opening for Alanis Morissette on the latter’s 25th Anniversary of Jagged Little Pill tour. If this were a just world, it would be the other way around.
I know I’m only one against 33 million, but I’m good with that.