Susan Wise Bauer
I listen to alternative rock when I get the chance. I'm not a CD buyer, so I mostly listen in the car. And now I have kids, so my radio time has been severely curtailed. ("Mommy, what does 'I was afraid of your seduction' mean?" "Hush up and eat your Chicken McNuggets.")
I know two Alanis Morissette songs, though, so when BOOKS & CULTURE asks me to watch her HBO concert, an hour-long promotion for her latest album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, I say yes. When I get the tape, I curl up on the sofa to watch it. I have the words to the new album so that I can follow along (not the typical Alanis-concert experience). My husband wanders in, so I watch Alanis with someone who loves me (also not ideal).
Alanis is chattering to a video DJ in a preshow interview, and the talk is vacuous, personal, simpering, and inarticulate; all gestures, facial expressions, and body movements. She's playing God, I discover, in Kevin Smith's forthcoming movie Dogma. The movie is a comedy of sorts, and she treats her appearance lightly. The camera cuts to her fans, waiting in line. "We're all a family!" shrieks one girl, before others jostle her aside to get on camera.
The camera shifts to the Rosemont ballroom in New York. Alanis is pacing up and down just offstage while the band whips the crowd into screaming, standing chaos. When she's ready, she charges into a roar of approval and band noise, checkered by flashing strobes and constantly moving spots. I don't catch any words to the song until halfway though the first verse. "I've watched them leave their families in pursuit of your nirvana," Alanis sings, walking backwards, bent double. "How much will this cost, guru? How much longer 'til you completely absolve me?"
I find this song on page 2 of my lyrics. Alanis is dissing Eastern mysticism, which is a nice departure from the alternative standard. "I've heard them rotely repeat your teachings with elitism," she bellows, still walking backwards. "I've seen their upward glances in hopes of instant salvation." Apparently they shouldn't be looking upward at all; prescription is buried in the middle of the song ("I've seen them overlooking god in their own essence"). Watching the faces of the audience, I wonder whether they can discover inner essence in a place where the music, the dark, the noise, and the strobing lights create something close to an altered state. They are mesmerized by the crash of music and the keen of Alanis's voice.
At least she's walking forward now, fitting her mike into the stand at the front of the stage before launching into a happy song full of contradictions and reassurance. I actually know this one from the radio. "I'm broke but I'm happy, I'm poor but I'm kind. … And what it all comes down to my friends, yeah, is that everything's just fine, fine, fine. Cause I've got one hand in my pocket and the other one's hailing a taxi cab." (Incomprehensible, but interesting.) For the next song, Alanis picks up a guitar (it's the first time I've seen her play any instrument at all) while she sings, "Are you still mad that I focused only on your potential? Are you still mad that I compared you to all my forty-year-old male friends? Of course you are. Of course you are."
"Look," my husband says, "she can't play the guitar. She hasn't moved her hand the whole song. It's all one chord." Apparently one chord is about her limit, because she puts the guitar down for her next song and doesn't pick it up again. (Leslie Howe, a former collaborator, once told a reporter that Alanis auditioned for MCA with a video clip rather than a live performance, because her music was created with "keyboards and computer-sequenced, programmed rhythms.")
She does play the harmonica, though. The next song, which features a long harmonica solo, isn't on the Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie lyric sheet. I can't understand a single word of it (except for the phrase "how inappropriate," which keeps popping up like raisins in rice pudding). Half way through, Alanis hunches over and goes into her harmonica riff, swaying from foot to foot with her hair over her face. This makes me squirm, even on my own living-room sofa; she's baring it all for them, acting out some sort of breakdown. When she straightens up and launches back into the words of the song, the crowd goes wild.
They scream for five solid minutes before the band can transition into the next tune: a pretty, haunting melody, very traditional and structured, like a ballad. The words are a deliberate contrast, wandering and incoherent ("Zen-like," one reporter calls them, kindly), never meeting the tune at the same place twice. "As we were talking outside it was cold, we were shivering yet warmed by the subject matter, my wife is in the next room, we've been having troubles you know … and I said I haven't been eating chicken or meat or anything and you said yes, but you've been wearing leather and laughed and said we're at the top of the food chain and yes, you're a fine woman and I cringed, I was hoping, I was hoping we could heal each other."
"Eh?" my husband says.
I decide that this is a good time for an ice-cream break; I can hear the nice traditional tune and chord progression from the kitchen, and the words (which I can't understand unless I follow along) are apparently irrelevant. I'm still scooping cookies and cream into a bowl when the band goes into Alanis's soundtrack song from City of Angels. The melody is hauntingly beautiful, and when I come back into the living room to watch, the camera is panning over the girls in the crowd; they sing along with her, their faces twisted into absolute ecstasy.
I didn't go to see City of Angels because angel-come-to-earth movies annoy me. (Beautiful actresses playing heart surgeons annoy me even more.) But these girls aren't crying because of the theological resonance of the lyrics; this is the song of a woman with a gorgeous man at her feet, a woman who can choose to love or turn away. "Like anyone would be, I am flattered by your fascination with me … I don't think you're unworthy, I need a moment to deliberate." One college-age woman, sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders, is weeping hysterically; by the time the song ends, she is gasping for air. It's so weird, so compelling, that I rewind the tape and watch it twice more.
Alanis now introduces the band, a group of sweaty muscular guys who occasionally hawk and spit into the wings. I try to watch this process with an outsider's eye, and I see, not just a band, but a team of supporting players working in almost complete harmony, a crowd of men focusing all the light and glory onto one young woman at the center of the stage. No wonder all those girls go wild. "Sometimes on stage I'm like a mirror," Morissette says. "My music becomes less about me and more about what the audience sees in me that reminds them of themselves." The weeping girl is still sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders; he's starting to stagger a little under her weight.
But now it's time for something really big: the performance of "You Oughta Know," Morissette's unbelievably platinum song of hatred and revenge. The crowd sings every word, even the obscene ones, identifying with every twisted emotion. "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? … It was a slap on the face how quickly I was replaced."
"You Oughta Know," according to Alanis herself, was written "from a desperate, dark, almost pathetically sad place within my subconscious, a conversation I was having with my own psyche." This song is emblematic of Alanis's style, which one critic calls "ripping your guts out and holding them up for the world to see." The myth behind this song is well known; Alanis wrote it after a long, emotionally devastating relationship in her late teens, "for the sake of my own release."
Watching the crowd, I can see that release on their faces—the joy of saying forbidden words in public, the relief of saying that yes, you really would like to boil the rabbit of the guy that dumped you. They think they've escaped, stepped outside the bounds of polite society. They think they've reached a place where total honesty and openness rule. They think they're flying.
But I'm feeling cranky now, irritated by garbled lyrics and the late hour (I have to go to work in the morning) and Alanis's moaning over her destructive adolescent relationship. (We all had one. Get over it, Alanis.) Her hair and dress look disheveled, but this carefully calculated spontaneity recurs in exactly the same form, concert to concert to concert. The songs seem so open, so unscripted, so natural and conversational; yet the show is packaged and produced to within an inch of its existence. The HBO camera angles are carefully arranged to seem random, their axis continually tilting, yet somehow Morissette always remains at dead center.
Even the pain of lost love, seemingly so real, is a ploy. Morissette, according to the bios I've culled from various news reports, was recording songs with words like "While you left me, I was thinking aloud / Would there be no end to my sorrow / Would I make it through tomorrow" at the age of 12 (this one she sang at a local Canadian Tulip Festival, in a bright yellow dress). She started in Canada as a child TV star, transformed herself into a pop princess with big hair and lots of makeup, and put out two albums. The first, Alanis, went double platinum; for the second, she jetted off to Rome to make a video, which promptly went to the top of the charts. When the second album didn't sell as well as the first, she found a new manager: Scott Welch, who had just finished remaking L.A. Laker cheerleader Paula Abdul into a dance star.
Welch suggested that Morissette begin reinventing herself by moving to Toronto, getting "a really crummy apartment, just like most of us did when we were 18, and [living on] macaroni and cheese." Out of this "typical" teenage experience, Morissette wrote "You Oughta Know." (In these "typically deprived" years, she was also financially supported by MCA so that she could write songs full-time, and collaborated with over 100 different composers in an effort to come up with a breakthrough album. We should all be so lucky.)
After lots of unsuccessful collaboration, a stint hanging out in Nashville, and numerous trips to Los Angeles to work with music-industry luminaries ("All those things normal kids growing up go through!" enthuses manager Welch), Morissette found Glen Ballard, who had already worked with superstars from Aretha Franklin to Barbra Streisand. MCA moved her to Los Angeles, where she spent months writing angst songs. ("Finally I had this opportunity to be honest, in many ways for what seemed like the first time . …I had been repressing it for so long.")
This album full of honesty sold megamillions of copies. "All I can say is I am going to be honest with where I'm at. And that will never change," Morissette said, bravely, facing the tribulation of a follow-up record that would sell as many copies as Jagged Little Pill. Her trademark scripted honesty is stamped all over that follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.
On my TV, Alanis has just segued into the main track from Junkie, a long paean to disillusionment called "Thank U." If "You Oughta Know" is about pain, "Thank U" is (surprisingly) about grace. "I gained, realizing I didn't have to gain anything," she told an interviewer recently. "Disillusionment with what I had been taught over the years from society, from my upbringing, disillusionment from fame, status; realizing that that which it had promised to give, wasn't given . …I realized I didn't have to run anywhere or reach anything and I stopped." The song's lyrics ramble through her discovery: "How bout me not blaming you for everything? How bout me enjoying the moment for once? How bout how good it feels to finally forgive. … Thank you, disillusionment. Thank you, frailty."
Of course, Alanis found grace in the wrong place; as she ungrammatically remarks in another interview: "I realized that I had idealized the east and its philosophies and there is nothing outside of ourselves that can have us realize who we are as much as just stopping and going within." The song (friends tell me that Alanis is stark naked in the video, which I have fortunately missed) lectures this swaying, twentysomething crowd: "How bout remembering your divinity?" They are largely unimpressed, but when Alanis sings, "How bout unabashedly bawling your eyes out?" they all scream at the top of their lungs. Credits start to roll up the screen as she launches into a final song from her first album, the crowd singing along.
Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, according to USA Today, is a "probing, shrewd, sensual, and fearlessly autobiographical exploration of being young and female in the '90s." I ceased to be twentysomething over the summer, but I have certainly been young and female over the past ten years. So what have I learned? Apparently, that the voice of the common man requires a lot of time and other people's money to be heard; that, Betty Friedan not-withstanding, the anthem of young women of the nineties is still one of rejected love and revenge; and that even Alanis knows she needs grace. And that if I'm going to see a concert, I'm better off watching in my living room, where I can see its essence: one vast, technologized attempt to sweep me off my feet and hypnotize me into finding my own divinity. Not in myself, but in lights, noise, movement, and incomprehensible, corporate-sponsored streams of words.
Susan Wise Bauer is the author of two novels; she teaches literature at the College of William & Mary. Her book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, written with her mother, Jessie Wise, is forthcoming from Norton in August.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.