Photograph by Jason Williamson.
Has Britain forgotten Alanis Morissette, besides tossing off the chorus to ‘Ironic’ in the wake of every tenuous coincidence? The fact her reputation still commands enough diehard fans to sell out a venue the size of Brixton Academy is proof enough that she’s still a blip on the radar, but the NME’s recent gaffe in mistaking Morissette for fellow ‘90s fame survivor Fiona Apple suggests that her commercial stock may have reached a new nadir. (That her mighty debut-but-not-really Jagged Little Pill slouched into its eighteenth year on the planet the very same week is
ironic a tenuous coincidence.) Alanis may not be the first to face the cold-shoulder slide from an extended stint at the albums chart summit to a virtual media blackout, but few have managed the feat by being so consistently thought-provoking.
Yes, you read that right. People are so caught up in the idea that Alanis had it all and blew it on a progression of overly verbose and alienating recordings that they’re failing to give credit where it’s definitely due. Flip the scenario around and Morissette becomes a canny investor. Jagged Little Pill becomes the musical equivalent of an internet startup in the ‘90s dot-com bubble. Alanis got in at the bottom, made a shitload of money, then bailed out to do whatever she felt like. Who hasn’t dreamed of having that level of financial and personal freedom? If that means wearing a nude suit on live TV to protest America’s hypocritically prudish reaction to Janet Jackson’s bare boob, or smooching Sarah Jessica Parker in ‘Sex & The City’, all power to her. If it means spoofing the Black Eyed Peas as an April Fools prank, well, ‘My Humps’ was pretty damn funny.
The truth is, Alanis doesn’t much care if you’ve switched off along the way. “I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you,” she sneered in her halcyon years, and it’s a principle she has firmly stuck to since. If Morissette has pandered at all to her detractors over the years it has been for personal reasons rather than to curry their favour. Sure, she regularly wheels out the hits (no fewer than seven songs from Pill feature in tonight’s show, as powerful and searing as ever), but it’s more than simple nostalgia for our teenage obsessions with ‘You Oughta Know’ that keeps her in the business of filling theatres. What Alanis has that many other artists lack is a candour and compassion that’s raw and engaging, coupled with a patent unwillingness to dumb down or disguise her obvious smarts in order to express herself. The way she writes about relationships, philosophy and feminism, to name but a few of her regular topics, is empathetic and often inspiring. Sadly, as with many other intelligent women in the public eye, it has also made her a target for some pretty small-minded thinking.
Consider how quickly Alanis found herself the focus of some of the most prevalent and aggressively reinforced stereotyping in years. Astounding, really, yet you couldn’t exactly call it surprising. By so successfully kicking against the pricks Jagged Little Pill set her up as a punching bag of convenience, the ‘hysterical woman’ who had outstayed her welcome. And when she dared to confound expectations with the sprawling Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, with all its mangled syntax and awkward growing-up profundity (hysterical woman gets a Gertrude Stein complex), pundits rushed to damn her with folly and faint praise alike. Progressively marginalised since, Alanis fought the law of diminishing returns and the law won. But while others might have crumpled and tried to repeat the successes of the past she just carried on regardless, exploring her own calling, at her own pace.
Tonight provides a striking reminder that, while Morissette’s music has, admittedly, barely evolved since Junkie (the Eastern-influenced percussion of that record is still very much in evidence on new song ‘I Remain’), the critical onslaught has been mostly undeserved. Though she’s often accused of being exhaustingly solipsistic, her outward generosity is seldom discussed. She talks of an “interdependency” with her audiences, and even from way up on the balcony it’s possible to gauge what a gift those explosive sing-a-longs really are to both sides. No wonder Alanis seems so incredibly fresh up on stage. Seldom still for even a second, she tears into new song ‘Woman Down’, a big, gritty anti-misogyny rocker that seethes with a menacing synth line, with all the conviction of her youth. Another new one, ‘Numb’, is harder to get a feel for but it’s very, very loud, climaxing the main set with a cluster headache of screeching guitars.
Now just two years shy of her fortieth birthday, you’d expect Morissette’s voice to show some sign of fatigue, but even her oldest material sounds note perfect. Even when she aims it high, as on the slightly plodding new piano ballad ‘Havoc’, there’s no apparent loss of range. A mistimed start to ‘Citizen Of The Planet’ provides the evening’s only flub (“Wait! That was way too fucked up for me”), but otherwise it’s a characteristically slick and professional performance. It prompts a question that I keep turning over in my mind on the long tube ride home: have we fallen out of love with Alanis because she’s just too well adjusted? Because she can breeze through a song like ‘Hands Clean’, about the statutory rape she experienced as a minor, and not break a physical or psychological sweat? Because her new single ‘Guardian’ is less about the joys of becoming a mother, as the title implies, but the vital realisation that to nurture a child requires women to also nurture themselves? Because the very ‘hysteria’ she was so derided for was actually what we loved about her most?
Morissette is no musical auteur but she’s challenging in other ways: headstrong, smart, disarmingly funny and unafraid to speak her mind or share her experiences – aren’t these qualities to be encouraging of in any artist? It’s a strange paradigm where we value innovation so far above these other crucial facets of entertainment. You don’t have to like Alanis Morissette but perhaps it’s time we finally gave her the distinction she deserves.