Wednesday, February 04, 2009

I Oughta Know (Volume 9)

I get mail from literally handfuls of women saying, "Why don't you write more about female artists? Women make music too, you know!" And you know what? They're absolutely right.

Good thing Volume 9 of my 96X Anthology features Alanis Morissette's breakthrough single, "You Oughta Know." I've been itching for years now to write about Dave-Coulier-inspired chick-rock anthems, and when "You Oughta Know" broke in 1995, I told myself, "fourteen years from now, I'm going to write a blog about this." "What is a blog," myself asked. "Nevermind, go watch Baywatch," I said. And I did.

"You Oughta Know" made Alanis Morissette arguably the biggest artist in the world. Unlike Sheryl Crow, Alanis was grunge-friendly: more angsty, less predictable, heavier guitars, stranger vocals, etc. This single took all the mainstream, moody appeal of alt-rock at the time and gave it an irrepressible woman's sensibility. In 1995, this was a song that was hard not to like...and downright impossible to avoid.

Of course, Jagged Little Pill eventually showcased several more hit singles, and became one of the highest-selling albums of the 90's. Even I (as a rock-greedy, misogynist middle schooler) liked this record, which should speak to its achievements. If you want to make a case that Alanis Morissette was the biggest female artist of that decade, I won't argue much.

What's interesting is how small her influence is among singer/songwriters in 2009. Pop starlets Britney and Christina have a healthy dose of Gwen Stefani in them, but (obviously) no Alanis. Avril Lavigne is a braindead, Disney-friendly echo of Courtney Love (my brother's line) in terms of image and attitude, but not artistic vision. And among actual female singer/songwriters (Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, Fiest, etc.), I hear more Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and (yes) even Lisa Freaking Loeb than Alanis Morissette.

So what gives? Why is the most popular female artist of the 90's the least influential in the 00's?

I have a theory that often the highest-selling records of a particular decade age the worst. This is not to say, of course, that the records aren't good, or that the singles aren't worthwhile. But sometimes a record is popular because it is so quintessentially of that time and place, and hearing it outside that time and place obscures its meaning and impact.

For example, in the mid-60's, Dylan saw "topical folk" as a current trend that was popular at the time, but wouldn't be popular later. He abandoned it. In the late 60's, he saw psychedelia for the passing-hippie-craze that it was, and dodged the proverbial bullet, opting instead to make records of classic Americana that still sound relevant today. The Stones have survived and stayed fresh not by following each passing trend but by trusting their own strengths, and making music that's universally appealing regardless of the current climate. U2's least-successful period (critically and financially) was in the mid-90's when they chased the alt-rock bunny ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me") instead of being the anthemic pop-rockers they had really become.

Of course, there's nothing wrong following the current trend if (like with Alanis) it really matches who you are as an artist. Alanis Morissette made an uber-pop record with every GenX overtone imaginable. "You Oughta Know" was the perfect hit at the perfect time for pop music fans anxious to hear a girl join the boys and piss vinegar on Grunge Radio. But, for me anyway, many of the angst-ridden, alt-rock gems of the mid-90's just don't quite translate to the new milennium. They're still good songs, they just feel like they don't currently matter.

I could be wrong. Sara Bareilles' next single could be an angry love letter to John Stamos. Fiest could break-out in her next record and write Alanis-inspired rhetoricals like, "Are you thinking of me when you f*ck her?" It could suddenly become fashionable for pop starlets to litanize irony instead of spelling the word "banana."

After 1998's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Alanis Morissette waited 7 years until her next major release. Seven years and an entire pop-cultural lifetime later, American music had changed. The Boy Band Era had died, and the Age of Me (emo, moody/cutesy singer/songwriters, etc.) was just beginning. So what did the Pop-Princess of 90's Angst release after seven years' silence, in the fall of 2005?

The Collection: Remastered Recordings of Jagged Little Pill.

Some things, I guess, are better off in the 90's. Thank God.

Mr. Duplicity,
CM

11 comments:

Foard said...

I've been reading your blog the last couple weeks - this 90s kick got me going. If I were a superhero, my kryptonite would be alt-rock nostalgia. Your commentary is always dead-on and I'm enjoying it, but why is (was?) every critic afraid to touch "Junkie"? Everyone just glosses over it - and gets away with - simply b/c it wasn't a commercial success and had that creepy letter song about her ex-boyfriends.

Chris Milam said...

Foard! Glad you're reading...

So many follow-up records were quickly ignored...Razorblade Suitcase (Bush), Infatuation Junkie (Alanis), Whatever the One After Cracked Rearview Was Called (Hootie), etc. Those albums are usually good for some hidden gems, if not monster singles.

The real question is (and I should tackle this at some point), did anyone in the history of rock make less sense than Gavin Rossdale?

your Chattanooga friend said...

After seven years of silence? Come on, Chris. You can overlook So-Called Chaos. Alanis does not make great music when she is happy. You can even possibly overlook Feast on Scraps (due to quanity of songs, not quality). But you cannot overlook Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Under Rug Swept. I know that I am not a music expert, but I loved Under Rug Swept as much as Jagged Little Pill.

Michael said...

I just spent 2 days geeking out over jagged little pill cause of this blog.

Thanks for making me look extraordinarily cool.

Chris Milam said...

It is what I'm here for...overlooking records I arbitrarily decide "don't matter" and fighting the war to make geekdom cool.

I don't know which Alanis from the "Ironic" video made those two forgotten records...which one was the "crazy" one? Green sweater Alanis? Had to be her.

friend from Chattanooga said...

I like the "crazy" Alanis. She's fun to blast in the car. I have very fond memories of blasting Under Rug Swept while driving from Burbank to Santa Monica.

Don't listen to "Foard." "Unsent" was hilarious and far from creepy.

Foard said...

"Chat-town", Everyone likes crazy Alanis (or pretended to, afraid of the consequences). That's why she became famous. Going down on you in the movies, then recriminating you for the sex in gritty female rage rock = crazy, but somehow that's hot; stringing lyrics out of love letters = creepy, and I don't want to know that sort of girl.

Chris, incredible. I think about the Rossdale conundrum on a daily basis. The only part I get is that he saw the same thing I did when Gwen Steffani held up that orange in the Don't Speak video.

Foard said...

I just googled - he's a descendant of the Rosenthals?! I guess that would've slipped past me when I was 14.

Lady M said...

ok, I'm sorry, but has everyone forgotten the actual *meaning* of irony? the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning Having a shit load of crap ass coincidences does not irony make. Personally, I can't stand Alanis Morrisette...give me Merideth Brooks' "Bitch"...at least she had her definitions right and didn't mislead and entire generation in literary vocab.

ross k. said...

I never pretended to like Alanis. I hated her and my friends did too. We just wanted her to go away.

Chris Milam said...

That was the intellectual trump card in 7th grade: "these things aren't ironic, you know."

My point was how much irony was a part of 90's pop culture...so, as an artist in-and-of the 90's, Alanis wanted to write about it...accuracy be damned.

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