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Alanis Morissette: Adventures of Alanis in wonderland

Alanis Morissette: Adventures of Alanis in wonderland

She is the newest cover girl for "alternative" rock, a populist answer to Courtney Love. Fans and critics throughout North America have embraced Ottawa native Alanis Morissette as rock's second coming--and this year's best coming-of-age story. Some observers are still scratching their heads over the transformation of the former bubblegum-pop princess into the queen of ultra-hip music. But for the sold-out crowd that packed Toronto's Warehouse club last week, there was no such bewilderment. The more than 2,000 fans cheered on Morissette's every move--every melodramatic toss of her luxurious mane--and seemed to know the words to every song. When she snarled her way through "You Oughta Know," her raw but chart-topping attack on a former lover, they snarled right back. When she howled at a man's sexual manipulations during "Right Through You," they howled along with her. And when she sang her current hit, the anthem-like "Hand in My Pocket," the crowd acted out the high fives and peace signs described in Morissette's lyrics right on cue. "She's not like other female singers," said 29-year-old Toronto receptionist Tracey Smith after the show. "She's strong, without being bitchy. And men are into her as much as women."

Morissette's songs of revenge and redemption have certainly struck a chord with her mostly under-30 audience. "You Oughta Know" and "Hand in My Pocket" have cracked the Top 10 on both sides of the border. And the hits have helped make Morissette's album, Jagged Little Pill, one of the year's top sellers. Since its release in June, the record has sold more than four million copies in the United States and 300,000 copies in Canada. Meanwhile, Morissette has been visible on televisions and newsstands all across North America. First, she landed high-profile appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Late Show With David Letterman and the mtv Video Music Awards. Then, last month, she scored the unprecedented coup of appearing on the covers of the two leading American music magazines, Rolling Stone and Spin, at the same time (with the former calling her "one of rock's most gifted vocalists"). Now in the midst of a sold-out North American tour, the singer and onetime actress suddenly finds herself one of the hottest acts in the business.

Morissette's success in both the United States and Canada owes as much to canny marketing as it does to her singing and songwriting abilities. And the Alanis Morissette - Hand in My Pocketlaunch of  has been handled differently in each country. South of the border, where she signed with Maverick Records, the label owned by Madonna, Morissette is making her recording debut and has therefore been launched as a brand-new artist. Both Maverick and Morissette's Los Angeles-based manager, Scott Welch, have confidently aimed Morissette at fans of alternative rock--which includes such less-commercial styles as grunge, thrash metal and neo-punk, and has everything to do with an anti-Establishment attitude. But in Canada, where Morissette had two previous, dance-pop albums, Maverick's distributor, Warner Music Canada, had to take a more cautious approach. Explains Steve Waxman, Warner's press and publicity manager: "We knew that she might be up against prejudices because of her background as a dance artist. But we also knew that she had to answer for her past."

When Canadian media were sent advance copies of Jagged Little Pill, Warner withheld details about Morissette's background, hoping that critics would judge the album on its own merits. Perhaps the caution was not necessary, because even critics who were aware of Morissette's latter-day disco queen past were impressed by the new album. In fact, reviews across Canada were uniformly favorable. Meanwhile, Morissette's career as a teenybopper diva has not gone undetected in the United States. Both Rolling Stone and Spin picked up on it, with the latter referring to her Canadian albums, 1991's Alanis and 1992's Now Is the Time, as the singer's "dirty little secrets." For her part, Morissette, who has now begun turning down requests for interviews, denies being ashamed of the work. As she told Rolling Stone: "I never did any Playboy centrefolds. There's nothing I regret."

alanis you oughta know singleYet, nothing on her earlier albums has any of the power of Morissette's new work. Nor does any of it prepare listeners for the shock of the autobiographical songs on Jagged Little Pill. The explosive "You Oughta Know," with its cathartic rage against a man who has left her for an older woman, features some of the most sexually frank lyrics to be heard in pop music today. And on the searing "Right Through You," which exposes the sexual advances of an unnamed record company executive, Morissette's anger is equally palpable. Even the buoyant "Hand in My Pocket," which conveys a hopeful message amid a litany of life's contradictions, has the distinct ring of personal truth. Morissette's voice, meanwhile, perky and upbeat in her earlier work, now shifts dramatically from whispers to growls to screams as she gives full vent to her emotions.

Honesty, in fact, is the quality reviewers cite most in praising the new songs. Timothy White, editor of the influential music-industry weekly Billboard, described Jagged Little Pill as "spellbindingly frank," adding that "her wounded outrage mingles with a gathering courage that gives the listener a giddy desire to cheer her on." Morissette's father, Alan, a French teacher in Kemptville, 40 km south of Ottawa, also praises the album for its emotional candor. In a recent interview with Kemptville's Weekly Advance, he described Jagged Little Pill as "a phenomenal album with exceptional depth and feeling."

He also noted that his is a "very, very close family." Alan and his wife, Georgia, a Hungarian-born teacher, encouraged their only daughter (she has an older brother, Chad, and a twin, Wade) to pursue music. At six, Alanis took up the piano. By the time she was nine, the aspiring performer had begun trying her hand at songwriting. And at 10, she landed a job at Ottawa's CJOH-TV, acting in the children's series You Can't Do That on Television, which was seen on cable in both Canada and the United States. Showing surprising resourcefulness, the 10-year-old Alanis used her earnings from acting to produce her first song, "Fate Stay With Me," which she recorded with two Toronto music-industry veterans. She later found a collaborator in Leslie Howe of the Ottawa pop group One to One. And, with Howe acting as producer and songwriter, the two launched her latter-day disco career, with the singer going by the name Alanis alone. Says Max Keeping, anchorman at Ottawa's cjoh and a longtime friend of the Morissettes: "They're a family of overachievers. And Alanis was determined to become a pop star and wanted it so badly that she could taste it."

youngalanisWhile attending Ottawa's Glebe Collegiate Institute, where she excelled in drama and arts classes (and where a recording of her singing the national anthem was played each morning over the public-address system), Morissette worked with Howe on scoring a record deal. Josh Lovejoy, a friend at Glebe who sang with her in school theatrical productions, says that "even though it might have been cheesy her wanting so badly to be a pop star, she was never embarrassed about it." On the strength of a promotional video, she was signed to mca Records Canada. Howe wrote most of the songs on her self-titled debut album, a collection of polished though formulaic dance tracks. Still, it went platinum with sales of more than 100,000 copies and produced two hit singles, "Too Hot" and "Feel Your Love." And it won her the 1992 Juno Award for most promising female vocalist. The following album, Now Is the Time, did not live up to that promise, however, with sales of 50,000.

After graduating from high school in 1991 at the age of 17, Morissette went underground and suffered, she says, a couple of breakdowns precipitated in part by the conflict between her sexual awakening and residual guilt from her Roman Catholic upbringing. She has re-emerged only this year, having reclaimed her last name. During the time of relative obscurity, she lived for a while in Toronto and then drifted to Los Angeles. There she met veteran songwriter-producer Glen Ballard, and their collaboration yielded Jagged Little Pill, which Morissette now says she considers to be her real debut. During her first months in Los Angeles, the singer was unknown and poor. But, as she sings in "Hand in My Pocket," it was a time of deepening self-awareness. "I'm lost but I'm hopeful baby," she sings. "What it all comes down to/Is that everything's gonna be fine fine fine." At just 21, Alanis Morissette has already gone through one major metamorphosis, and come out as one of rock's most provocative new voices.

Originally published in Maclean's December 11th, 1995

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