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The unfortunate case of the Bad Brains aside, the artists signed to Madonna’s Maverick label all seem to share one quality with their mentor: marketability. Madonna’s contradictions fascinate academics, but aren’t they just everyday cross-merchandising? A brazenly exhibitionist sexbomb who warbles adolescent-girl fantasies about true romance and even “keeping my baby” is just the pop-music equivalent of a Hollywood comedy/action/romance/thril ler designed to please the largest possible audience.
The wispy electronically generated images of Alanis Morissette on the cover of her new Jagged Little Pill suggest an Adobe Photoshop version of Joni Mitchell, but Canada’s latest chronicler of serial monogamy’s discontents is no mere folkie. The whole marketing campaign is there in the hit that has taken Pill into the Billboard Top 10, “You Oughta Know.” This post-breakup bridge-burner is a tender folk-rock song with a swaggering electronic beat and hiphop phrasing—and also a statement of persona (whose inspiration the singer says is strictly autobiographical) that presents Morissette as both vulnerable and indomitable, overwhelmed by love yet utterly comfortable with sex. Comparing herself to her contemptible ex-lover’s new girlfriend, she demands, “Is she perverted like me/Would she go down on you in a theater?” Madonna couldn’t have asked it better.
An Ottawa-bred former TV actress (seen on Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television) who now lives in L.A., Morissette is no fragile songpoet. At 21, she’s an entertainment-biz professional who recorded her first single at 10 and made two previous albums that were not released in the U.S. For Pill, she’s been paired with producer, songwriter, and “spiritual brother” Glen Ballard, already a specialist in packaging young women’s regrets for maximum Top 40 acceptance. (Remember Wilson Phillips? That was him.) Bro plays guitar, keyboards, and synthesizer while his little sister coos, yelps, and occasionally blows a little harmonica. (The credits are unclear on this point, but Ballard is presumably the principal melodist.)
Such Morissette/Ballard compositions as “Head Over Feet,” “Hand in My Pocket,” and of course “You Oughta Know” are not as sweet as Wilson Phillips’ “Hold On” (although “You Learn,” the source of album’s title, comes close). They are, however, every bit as canny—edgy pop for post-grunge people. (“Know” features both Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, which is emblematic of the album’s all-pro L.A. eclecticism.)
Songs like “Ironic” and “Right Through You” feature verses that are supported only by acoustic guitar, but they’re just set-ups for choruses as swelling as anything in alternative neo-pomp rock. (Angst plus crescendos, after all, equals Nirvana.) Expressing her distress with voice rather than guitar, Morissette occasionally unleashes harsh glossolalia that suggests Courtney Love more than Joni Mitchell: “My sweater is on backwards and inside-out/And you say how-owww-owww-owww appropriate,” she sings in “All I Really Want,” her breathy coo transformed into a berserk warble for just a few seconds. Pill is indeed jagged here and there, but just often enough to set off its slickness.
As a sorta-folkie unafraid of electronic percussion, Morissette suggests Suzanne Vega, while her willingness to sing songs about fucking—and call it just that—of course recalls Liz Phair. Most impressively, her rasp sometimes resembles that of a woman who really earned hers: When Morissette croaks, “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?,” both the sound and the effect is “Why’d Ya Do It?”-period Marianne Faithfull. So why does Pill also have the faint aftertaste of Indigo Girls whine?
Even if she can bark like a serenely crabby old soul, Morissette’s lyrics are too often those of the oversensitive young thing. Subject matter includes overdemanding parents (“Perfect”), Catholic school dogma-damage (“Forgiven”),and boyfriends who’ve fallen and can’t get up (“Not the Doctor”). The vehemence of “You Oughta Know” energizes lines that are essentially post-feminist stand-up material: When she protests that “You told me you’d hold me/Until you died, ’til you died/But you’re still alive!,” Morissette’s merely echoing the title of humor columnist Cynthia Heimel’s If You Can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead? Elsewhere, Morissette comes on like a self-help author, advising poor lost “Mary Jane” to “take this moment Mary Jane and be selfish/Worry not about the cars that go by/All that matters Mary Jane is your freedom/Keep warm my dear, keep dry.”
Ballard’s settings make the best of such sententious counsel, turning “You Learn” and “Hand in My Pocket” into successes despite lines (from the latter) like “I’m green but I’m wise” and “I’m sick but I’m pretty, baby.” No wonder that Morissette’s vulnerability is at its most vulnerable on an untitled, unlisted track hidden after a pointless remix (also unlisted) of “You Oughta Know.” Unprotected by Ballard’s production savvy, she sings a cappella, recounting how she sneaked unaccompanied into a lover’s room “where I could smell you.” “I took off my clothes/Put on your robe” and—most intimate of transgressions—“I played your Jon-i.” Discovering a letter from another woman, the singer implores, “Forgive me, love, if I cry in your shower.” It’s creepy if Morissette is serious about this romantic-obsessive wallow—and even if she isn’t.
Whether waxing soft or strident, Morissette’s voice is more powerful than her words, and Ballard’s rapport for her work, if not spiritual, is pretty effective; “Hold On” aside, he didn’t alchemize soggy psychotrauma into crisp pop nearly as reliably for Wilson Phillips. Underneath the beats, bleats, and “fucks” that suggest Madonna, Love, and Phair, though, Morissette is not so bold as her hit insists. The active ingredient of her Jagged Little Pill is that familiar female-folkie poison: that girls just want to feel pain.