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.