Either an astute bandwagon jumper with exquisite timing, the sharp-tongued mouthpiece for calculating commercial interests or a maturing young artist clumsily finding her creative purpose after two premature hack jobs (or all three), Ottawa-born singer Alanis Morissette helped define the mid-’90s by downloading all the ethernet enthusiasm music-buyers had developed for stand-up women like Chrissie Hynde, Madonna, Sophie B. Hawkins, Liz Phair and Courtney Love and, with Jagged Little Pill, galvanizing it. At just the right cultural moment, putting a slickly commercialized spin on the trendiness of youthful angst, Morissette made herself the lightning rod for polar sympathies, offering a potent but misleading combination of cheap fantasy thrills and the illusion of female empowerment. Basically, Morissette — who sings in a piercing yet throaty warble that some find unendurable — owes her stardom to the supposed shock/titillation value of “You Oughta Know,” a petulant post-breakup song that crudely asks “Would she go down on you in a theater?” and “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” It’s amazing how little it takes to get people off these days.
The Canadian began her career as a ten-year-old TV star on You Can’t Do That on Television; turning to music, billed under her first name, she made Alanis at sixteen. Formulaic electronic dance tripe co-written by the precocious singer and produced by Leslie Howe (“for Ghetto Records”) in obvious imitation of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson, the debut does actually presage Morissette’s future in the independence of “On My Own,” the determination of “Too Hot” (“You gotta go for gold and you’ll make it baby”) and the o.p.p. provocation of “Jealousy” (“Jealousy — some girls have it rough oh baby”).
The second album musters a smarter breed of dance music, leaving the Tiffany young-adult section of the style library to borrow ideas from Madonna. Quaint in its obviousness but not altogether horrible, Now Is the Time (also produced by Howe) begins with the announcement, “We play the game with determination/We don’t give a damn ’bout our reputation” and includes such pointed songs as “No Apologies,” “Give What You Got” and “Big Bad Love,” in which Morissette ineptly muses on the incomprehensible (“I wonder why I am so unrelentless”) and loses herself in block-that-metaphor confusion (“I don’t believe your blood is bad to the bone”). The sexual bravado of “The Time of Your Life” clues into the aggrieved, mildly politicized, self-examining persona Morissette rode to fame: “In a world that does not recognize women are victimized/What does that symbolize/Why do I want the things I usually criticize/It may be self-destructiveness, or maybe it’s the emptiness inside.”
None of that, of course, amounts to anything more than a couple of mildly embarrassing outfits left hanging in a teenager’s closet when she moved out and entered the adult world. The 20-year-old who made the multi-platinum Jagged Little Pill in collaboration with producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Glen Ballard (the studio hand behind Wilson Phillips’ hits and a onetime Michael Jackson songwriter) is a distinctly different creature, a cocky deep thinker determined to be the most mannered singer since Eartha Kitt. On crafty pop-rock songs that make deft use of contemporary trends in sound, she cycles haphazardly through a display case of borrowed voices — all of them reeking of the self-righteousness that drives her clunky, jammed-in lyrics — with a freewheeling sense of pitch and ever-varying timbre. When she isn’t spitting out the lyrics to “You Oughta Know,” she’s keening like Sinéad in “Hand in My Pocket,” cooing “Perfect,” deadpanning like a wan artiste in “All I Really Want” or making like a new-fangled folkie in “Right Through You.” At least she knows what she’s doing, as “You Learn” acknowledges: “I recommend biting off more than you can chew…I recommend sticking your foot in your mouth at any time…You live you learn.” Although inexplicably hailed as a role model by those incapable of independent thought, Morissette is a paradigm for our time: 96 channels on and nothing but angry me-me-me talk shows.