A little love for Alanis

90s-me had a few musical loves, and strong female vocalists was one of them. I think I’d seen Alanis perform at the City Centre in Bramalea when I was much younger, probably in passing as I was on my way to Coles, when she was still a much happier looking teenager as well. Or maybe that was Tiffany? Or Debbie someone? Don’t remember. One of the one-name mall singers. But when she re-adopted her last name and showed up with Jagged Little Pill, well, it was pretty good and timely. It was an early example of women talking openly about shitty men, as well as women not trying to be perfect ideals for men. Like that Carly Simon song but with stringier hair and more anger. Yes, we all pointed out that her one song was more about bummers than irony, but come on, it was good and as angry as any grunge/metal. We all loved her. And she was Canadian. This article uses Morissette as a case study for how confessional writing from women is discounted while the same from men is considered literary.

Personal writing by women is often seen as indulgent, while personal writing by men is more often lauded as universal, reflective of the human condition, high art. As Lori Saint-Martin writes in Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media, “The realm of the personal and sexual has always been literary for men (Saint Augustine, Rousseau, Michel Leiris, Henry Miller) and confessional for women (Colette, Erica Jong, Anais Nin).” Many critics were condescending in their reception of Alanis’s work—even in ostensibly positive reviews. In a 1995 profile, Rolling Stone’s David Wild called Morissette “queen of this year’s pop culture prom,” whose live performance is “less like a concert than modern-rock group therapy.” And AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “Her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts.” Then there was all the widespread discussion of how the scenarios presented in Morissette’s hit song “Ironic” were in fact not actually ironic.

The brash vulnerability and confessional nature of Alanis’s lyrics often led to sexist critiques and dismissals like the one I encountered in my mom’s car that day. And yet her music felt right on time. Morissette has never framed her work’s expression of anger as overtly political, but it’s hard to imagine that her transition from bubble-gum pop to emotionally charged confessional rock wasn’t influenced by the political moment, centered on women’s outrage, into which she wrote these songs. Or that the vast popularity of Jagged Little Pill wasn’t, in part, the result of a culture ready to hear women divulging the details of their repressed anger; a generation of women that were growing quite angry themselves.

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