|It was Janis Joplin who once quipped that "behind every great song there's a great pill," a fact Joplin's heir-apparent, Alanis Morissette, made crystal clear with the release of her caustically cutting breakthrough stunner, Jagged Little Pill.
Ironically, the term "breakthrough" barely hints at the propulsive boost JLP provided Canada's reigning screecher-preacher grrl who delivered her loud-and-proud manifesto laced with an attitude oozing a c'mon-get-gone sexuality suffused with a belligerently moxified message to the effect that nobody but nobody fucks with you know who.
Fittingly, Madonna's Maverick Records released JLP during the summer of 1995. Less than three months later, the exquisite little masterpiece had racked up sales of 12 million in the US, two million in Canada and, by the time Al's jagged little jab had dieselled its way into Top-Ten lists around the globe, a couple million more copies of the all-time best-selling recording by a female vocalist had changed hands.
By now, you oughtta know that as the disc's lead-off vid-single muscled its way into mega-rotation on MTV — easily the most influential visual vehicle on the planet — it concurrently lifted its savvy singer-songwriter out of the alternative-radio ghetto and paved the way for her unprecedented mainstream success with follow-ups "Hand In My Pocket" and "All I Really Want."
So, isn't it ironic that Faith Hill's travestatious cover of "A Piece Of My Heart" topped continental country charts right around the time Morissette took up the torch and fanned the flames concerning her burgeoning reputation as the rightful and righteous successor to Joplin, the quintessentially derisive diva of desecration during the late sixties?
Not nearly so ironic, given the youthful age and attitudes of the bulk of Morissette's fiercely loyal following, is the fact many failed to make the Janis-Alanis connection despite the pointed titular homage JLP pays to rock's prototypical queen of beseech 'n' screech. After all, the majority of Alanis's fans hadn't even been born when Joplin overdosed on heroin in a Hollywood hotel in 1970; and, although her posthumously released Pearl secured her hard-won immortality in rock's male-dominated domain, not many Alanis fans own Joplin's three-CD retrospective set of essentials, Janis (Columbia, 1993), for example (even though most know the trailblazer either by name or reputation).
Released a day before Grammy night 28 February 1996, "Ironic," of course, cemented Morissette's reputation and resolutely positioned her in the forefront of a new breed of female singer-songwriters coming of age in the dying days of the millennium. "Ironic" would not only go on to become Al's sig-song, it would also become something of an anthem for the disaffected post-boomer generation to and for whom Morissette spoke so eloquently, her rasp-grating wails and heart-withering declamations striking a chord with millions of like-minded spirits who believe, like their anti-goddess, that everything's ironic, irony inclus.
The first Canadian to pick up four Grammys — including Record and Album Of The Year — performed her history-making acoustico version of "You Oughta Know" with most of the civilised world on hand to witness the ground-breaking event Grammy Night 1996. In the midst of the media controversy raging over the tune's "fuck," Morissette performed a gorgeously intense version of "You Oughta Know," yielding to neither the censorious detractors nor the chorus of disdainful critics who hysterically minced and bleated about the grrl's vocal abilities (or lack of same).
Crisp, professional, and remarkably composed, Morissette delivered the sublime silencer to all such detractors when she nailed "You Oughta Know" to the wail. (BTW, for those who simply gotta know, Full House's resident narcissist, Dave Coulier, recently outed himself as the individual who oughtta know. Quel fromage!) Pas de sweat. Its success signalled a milestone moment in the history of contemporary music which firmly opened both minds and doors for more militant artists Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Sleater-Kinney, and indie-sensation Ani Difranco, well-known for her off-the-cough remarks. Morissette rose to the occasion (despite the fact uptight American broadcasters bleeped the "fuck" out), handling the attention with dignity, grace, and her trademark kiss-my-ass class in a way that most likely would've thrilled every little piece of Joplin's repeatedly shattered heart.
Later that year, in London's Hyde Park, Morissette performed an eight-song set from JLP before 150,000 people who'd attended Prince Charles's Trust Charity concert to see dino-guy rockers The Who, Ron Wood, Clapton, and Dylan. Naturally, Alanis stole the show, a fact which utterly delighted both her co-performers and 300,000 enchanted ears.
When the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) reviewed Morissette's accomplishments at a news conference early in 1997, it announced world-wide sales of 20 million for JLP, four Grammys, five Junos, two MTV awards, a Brit Award from the UK, an Echo Award from Germany, a passel of video awards, and a slew of best-of critical print citations right around the world.
But, just where did this dame — whose successes as a woman artist have outstripped those of any other in rock music's history — come from? Born in Ottawa 1 June 1974, Morissette grew up with Wade (her twin) as well as Chad, an older brother. Parents Alan and Georgia teach in Ottawa's school system; and, although Alan was born in the nation's capital, he did not find his better half until Georgia (nee Feuerstein), escaping Hungary's post-war regime, found herself in the right place at the right time for love.
Acquaintances have called Alanis "an old soul." Perhaps. When she caught Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease, the musical, she had miraculously managed to memorise each of its songs, no small accomplishment for a gifted three-year-old who, by the age of six, had already studied both dance and piano in an endless series of lessons. By the time she'd turned nine, she'd penned several original compositions worthy of preservation on vinyl; but, because she'd snagged a coveted role in "You Can't Do That On Television," she put her musical aspirations on the back burner until she won a major Canadian talent contest on the strengths of her singer-songwriter chops.
With Georgia acting in her behalf as agent, Morissette cut her first commercially viable record, a moderately successful indie single titled "Fate Stay With Me," in 1986. Its release opened negotiation doors with MCA Canada (now Universal) and, at 14, Morissette inked both recording and publishing contracts as integral elements of her first major-label deal. Interestingly, her recording contract came about largely because of the support of Stephan Klovan who, as her manager early in her career, went so far as to wrangle bookings for Morissette to perform "Oh, Canada" at largish local events in and around the Ottawa area.
Leslie Howe, one half of the One 2 One duo, additionally encouraged his other half, Louise Reny, to get together with another Ottawa musician, Frank Levin, with the goal of co-writing material for Al's major-label début, Alanis. Ultimately, the pair contributed "Walk Away," by far the most enduring of Morissette's early forays into the hit-singles biz, no doubt because Klovan and Howe hatched a scheme to promote this extraordinary teenager in whose talent they so ardently believed. Together, they sank almost $100,000 into producing a slickly chic video to complement the impressive response "Walk Away" had already garnered at radio.
The costly strategic scheming bore fruit: Almost overnight, Alanis had become Canada's dance-pop diva. "Party Boy," "Feel Your Love," "Too Hot," and "Plastic" — written by Morissette, Howe, and Serge Cote — struck a chord with her angst-stricken teenage audience. Alanis sold over 100,000 copies, earned Morissette her first Juno (for Most Promising Female Artist), and set the stage for the release of 1992's Now Is The Time (which also registered solid Canadian sales).
Beyond Canada, most of the musical world ignored Alanis's teen spirit and robust voice. Critics cynically compared her unfavourably to both Tiffany ("I Think We're Alone Now") and Debbie "Only In My Dreams" Gibson, a comparison which no doubt contributed to Morissette's bouts of depression. During a particularly devastating time in 1991, at the pinnacle of her dance-queen days, she suffered a nervous breakdown which led her to make a number of poor choices for mates; however, every silver lining has a zipper; and, despite her brief downward spiral which found her winding up in a number of less-than-satisfactory relationships with a series of significant others, to her credit, those bleak encounters would ultimately provide much of the fodder for JLP's series of sarcaustic reamings, a fact which went a long way towards rebuilding Morissette's badly damaged self-image.
As Morissette candidly explained to Spin in 1995, "There are certain mistakes you make when you're 16 because you're ignorant." For its part, Spin would turn around and refer to Morissette's first two albums as her "dirty little secrets," a charge generously described as idiotic, considering both her tender age and their respectable successes.
Between her putative dirty little secrets and JLP, however, Morissette had pulled off a reinvention of her persona worthy of either Madonna, Bowie, or Cohen. When queried on her transformation, she simply shrugs and says she considers JLP her "true début." In Canada, where Alanis had not been forgotten, critics tended to frown upon the drastic redefinition which cast her in the role of "alternative artist." In the States, she was marketed as a brand-new product to the grunge and neo-punk crowds. Critics there (often snidely) referred to her past as a "latter-day disco queen" and "teenybopper diva" before begrudgingly giving her the nod as a one-name worthy in the same league as Cher, Madonna, Reba, Dolly, et.al. (while studiously ignoring the Janis-Alanis connection).
Although Morissette's first two albums had sold in excess of 200,000 copies domestically, those figures did not translate into financial success. In what can only be described as an inspired move, MCA's John Alexander introduced Alanis to the man who had guided some of Paula Abdul's better career moves, Scott Welch (who still expertly manages the multi-platinum singer-songwriter). But, it was only after her 1994 move to Los Angeles, when she met veteran musician and producer Glen Ballard in a get-to-get set up by MCA Music that things really began to click for the still somewhat troubled 20-year-old.
Ballard — best known for writing and arranging Michael Jackson's "Man In The Mirror" — had worked with Aretha Franklin, George Benson, The Pointer Sisters, K.T. Oslin, et so forthia. A native of Mississippi, the fortyish Ballard received classical-musical training while growing up intensely influenced by jazz and the blues. Morissette first set eyes upon him in a meeting set up by MCA Music, the conglomerate's publishing arm. The ensuing collaboration between the couple bears comparison to the fruitful partnerships of either Shania Twain and Jeff "Mutt" Lange or Sarah McLachlan and Pierre Marchand, both in terms of co-writing precision as well as those immaculate production values everywhere evidenced on JLP.
Morissette told Rolling Stone that "Glen had a certain history, as I had, and when we met, we immediately connected . . . We just started with a clean slate. It was the most spiritual experience either of us had ever had with music."
Ballard wanted to hold off on the pursuit of a new record deal until the two of them had developed their material sufficiently to put together a first-rate album (which, of course, JLP turned out to be). Four labels expressed interest in signing Morissette (including Madonna's Maverick outfit which Warner had created for the Material — or is that Maternal? — Girl as part of her contract); but, despite Maverick's overall gung-ho enthusiasm, its A & R rep couldn't quite make a deal with Morissette until label bosses had satisfied themselves her "new" début would be worth the risk.
Firmly convinced Alanis had more than stuff enough to go the distance, the rep arranged an exclusive live performance for Maverick's top brass. One short half-hour later, Morissette signed on the bottom line.
JLP became a reality which would not only catapult its creator's career into the rarefied upper stratosphere in sales, it would also earn the diva of desolation the superstardom she both deserves and craves, most likely because its jagged little edge cuts right through U.
A slightly edited version of "Alanis Contextualised"
was originally featured in RPM's 9 November 1998 edition.
© 1998-2008 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.
(Special thanks to Walt Grealis, O.C. <*angel*> and Stan Klees.)