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King Of Intimidation
Not long ago, Alanis Morissette was a cheesy Canadian pop princess. Now the 21-year-old phenom has become the fastest rising star in music. But is it possible to outrun your past? James Hannaham trails along.
ALANIS IN WONDERLAND
I shouldn't be here. From a vantage point not ten feet away, I'm watching
Alanis Morissette grind her arms and legs through a vigorous workout on an
obsolete stationary bicycle-the kind where the handlebars go back and forth.
Minutes earlier, her tour manager had firmly instructed me to keep my
"She'll be in the gym," he said, "but we'll see you at dinner."
"I could just go down to the gym..."
"That's not what I said," he growled.
But how could he expect me to obey orders knowing that, over in the hotel
exercise room, the pop banshee of the moment was sweating her booty off?
Fueled by 1995's anthem of the jilted, "You Oughta Know," the 21-year-old
Morissette has successfully packaged female anger and sold it back to
ex-boyfriends worldwide at an incredible markup. Her American debut, Jagged
Little Pill, is racing up the Billboard album chart with all the fury of a
ravenous she-wolf hunting her prey, and her blurry form dominates MTV much
the same way her record label CEO, Madonna, once did.
The sweathog grunting before me, though, doesn't at all resemble the royally
pissed-off alterna-grrrl who refused Sinead O'Connor's abandoned Lollapalooza
spot, the siren whose show Alicia Silverstone, the summer's slickest teen,
clamored to see. As if. Clad in plaid shorts and a baggy white tee, her long
brown hair pulled back, Morissette could be Typical Girl History Major at
Liberal Arts College. In a space as cramped as this, hardly 20 feet square,
she's forced to exchange a tentative "Hi." Her monosyllable provides few
clues as to whether or not she'll bite my head off when my espionage becomes
clear. But when she abandons the noisy bike and approaches the bench press
machine, she smiles and turns to me. Noticing my confusion at a padded
contraption attached to the weight-station, she comes around to help out.
"It's for curling, I think," she offers after some tinkering. The vengeful
video vixen, it turns out, isn't Tank Girl after all; she's friendly and
sweet, almost flirtatious. And a samaritan of sorts.
Lousy with guilt, I confess to staking her out. Her shoulders tense
momentarily, but she quickly rules me out as a potential stalker. "Nobody
ever recognizes me," she sighs, as if saying so will keep it true.
"I was thinking about your song," I shyly begin.
" 'Your House,' " I admit.
"Uh-oh." Those shoulders stiffen once more. "Are you some kind of stalker?"
"Your House," for those uninitiated, is the super-secret track at the very
end of Jagged Little Pill. Search past track 13, the uncredited remix of "You
Oughta Know," until you get to 5:12, and you'll hear an a cappella Morissette
seeking absolution from a lover whose house she has broken into-she takes a
bath, plays his Joni Mitchell albums, puts on his cologne-as she sings, "I
shouldn't be here without permission / You might be home soon / Would you
forgive me, love / If I laid in your bed?" Saturated with reverb, the track
possesses a chantlike, religious quality that leads me to wonder if the
one-time Catholic is actually singing to some deity.
"That is the only song on the record that's not 100 percent true," she
confides. "I was staying in this guy's house in Hollywood and he wasn't there
for a week. I remember being overly curious and sleeping in his bed. It felt
eerie and unnerving; I also had kind of a crush on him. I get burned at the
end of the song because if I had really snooped around as much as I wanted
to, it would have been wrong. I probably would have found something I didn't
want to find. I deserved it." She laughs. "So do you."
That evening, when Morissette appears for dinner, a mild transformation has
occurred. Her hair, extending just about to her elbows, falls perfectly
straight until it reaches her chest, where it freaks out into zig-zaggy
tentacles. She's wearing a white oxford fastened together by a safety pin in
only one place despite its fully functional buttons, baggy satin sweatpants,
and no-name tennis sneakers-very Haight-Ashbury '90s love child. I can't help
but notice her fingernails, decorated in a lovely shade of robin's-egg-blue
nail polish. Not only do I notice it on Morissette, but on several members of
her band, a Muppet Show of longhaired L.A. session dudes. "I've made everyone
put it on," she smiles before glancing at my own fingertips with devious
intent. "Would you like me to do yours?"
I make some small talk with the Muppets, but I can't help watching Morissette
sideways. Not because I fear an unauthorized manicure, but because she knows
how to get your attention without demanding it. She's a hair twirler. If
you've got it, twirl it, I suppose. She claps her hands in front of her mouth
and squeals when she gets excited about things, particularly the temporary
tattoo she plans to buy and affix to her guitarist's butt, a drawing of a
hand with the inscription, "Grab My Love." When a cake arrives for the table
next to us, she croaks "Happy Birthday" just as out of tune as everyone else.
"Hey, you can't sing!" I exclaim.
"You're right," she deadpans. "You'd better go home."
The next time we meet, just before the evening's Pontiac, Michigan, show at
7th House, a tiny rock club just beyond the affluent edge of Detroit's
suburbs, the metamorphosis is complete. Morissette is devastating. She's done
little more than slap on some foundation and accentuate that big Carly Simon
mouth with a smidgen of burgundy lipstick, but that proves plenty. She warms
up her voice by outsinging the Motown on the radio. Now I recognize her. You
only have to flick a switch to turn on a light.
7th House looks to be about two-thirds full, the twentyish pop music
consumers almost evenly divided between guys and gals. Strangely enough, this
miniature cult following includes a large number of couples, who nuzzle in
the balcony or stand on each others' toes down front. All of them have long
feathered hair, and, it seems, at least one item of cut-off clothing.
Morissette's band, sans their frontwoman, swarms the stage, launching into a
ferocious Zep-like groove. For all their offstage goofiness and Sunset Strip
hairspray residue, the four Muppets are ear-poppingly good musicians, with
the kind of enthusiasm that results in lots of flying drumsticks. Guitarist
Jesse Tobias, formerly of the band Mother Tongue, came recommended by the Red
Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and Dave Navarro, who backed Morissette on "You
Oughta Know." The rest-drummer Taylor Hawkins (a self-described "cross
between Brad Pitt and Animal"), bassist Chris Chaney and one-time King Swamp
guitarist Nick Lashley-"all just showed up and worked out," says Morissette.
"If I wasn't in a band with them I would probably have dated each one of them
already, except Nick, who's married. But it's too sacred for us to jeopardize
our professional relationship."
When Morissette finally races onstage, flinging her tresses from side to side
before ripping into "All I Really Want," the crowd whoops like an Arsenio
audience. The sleeves of her button-down shirt flapping at her sides,
Morissette looks like she's taking orders from some other planet. With her
eyes practically rolled back in her head, and her left arm waving
spasmodically, it's clear that Typical Girl has been left behind at the hotel
gym. After a few impressive tosses of her hair, Morissette begins to resemble
those terrifying teen starlets of '70s horror films-pig-bloodied Sissy Spacek
in Carrie, Linda Blair growling "Your mother sucks cocks in hell" in The
Exorcist. You'd best believe that all she really wants is deliverance-"a way
to calm the angry voice."
Morissette isn't all revenge fantasies and spewed split-pea soup. The flower
child with the light-blue nail polish emerges in the lilting singalong "Hand
In My Pocket," which finds Morissette exploring the central dichotomies of
her existence: her private life versus her stabs at reaching out, apathy
versus engagement with the world. "I'm high but I'm grounded / I'm sane but
I'm overwhelmed / I'm lost but I'm hopeful," she drawls. Astonishingly, her
cult following at 7th House has developed a little routine for the song's
chorus. In the lyric, one hand always remains in the aforementioned pocket,
while the other goes through a series of easily imitable functions-hailing a
taxicab, giving a high five, flicking a cigarette-which our feathered friends
demonstrate at the appropriate moments. In perfect unison. Sure it's cheesy,
something you'd expect of, say, Hootie & the Blowfish fans-and you know
there's gotta be some overlap-but the entire audience partakes, without any
prompting from the stage whatsoever. Sometimes cheese is Brie.
Morissette doesn't have a clear-cut explanation for the song. When she tells
me that she never watches TV, reads nothing but books-she's presently plowing
through Marianne Faithfull's autobiography-and that fun for her is climbing a
tree with a friend and not speaking for four hours, I suggest that said
concealed hand symbolizes the Glenn Gould-like depth of her self-imposed
"Sure, that could be what it's about," she hedges. "Most of those songs were
written so quickly that I would write something and sing it, and the next day
not remember doing it. It was just exactly the way I was feeling at the
Morissette has a dark secret, several even, but she's not showing her hand
for nothing. She's keeping it in that damn pocket.
The following afternoon, Morissette and I commandeer the tour van and spend a
Zen-like afternoon on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, home to
more beautiful sculpture gardens than you can shake the Venus de Milo at. We
sit in the sun, by a reflecting pool filled with multicolored carp and water
lilies and flanked by spitting cherubs, and talk, ironically, about pain.
Morissette speaks wisely and authoritatively about her fans' connection with
the hurt and anger of her music, recognizing both their need to identify and
her own need to purge. "Everybody has to release it somehow," she says. "If
you don't, it'll take its toll on you, and it'll either be a physical thing,
or all your relationships will be really negative and full of conflict or
something. So you have to deal, whether you go through therapy or get into
relationships, or music, or write it out in diaries. Smoking cigarettes isn't
enough. There's no way around pain. That's part of the charm of being alive."
Indeed, Jagged Little Pill's calculatedly eclectic pop-a hip-hop beat here, a
folk guitar there, a little extra feedback on the bridge-gets its power from
Morissette's willingness to push a little harder emotionally and lyrically
than any woman currently working the Buzz Bin. Her voice goes from quirky
punches at the ends of lines and awkward, expressive breaths to high piping
siren territory, and is all the more impressive for her lack of formal
training. "Never had a singing lesson," she beams. "I'm getting a vocal
Taking cliches like "you live, you learn" and exploding them into painful
conclusions-"You bleed, you learn / You scream, you learn"-Morissette mines
the nitty-gritty too often relegated to mere subtext in pop music. Grrrls
can't be girls because the media defines them through their anger, and that
just makes them angrier. The way in which Morissette carves out space for a
broad emotional range is more typical of men: She simply assumes it. "Being
able to express both your masculine and feminine sides is a great advantage,"
asserts the former tomboy.
Morissette's gentler (but not necessarily "feminine") side, as heard on "Hand
In My Pocket" and the sympathetic "Mary Jane," nestled alongside rants like
"You Oughta Know," effects a sea change in pop music by affirming that
"angry" and "woman" don't have to add up to "angry woman." "The day that
there's no need for feminism, this society has truly woken up," she says. She
hasn't even heard Throwing Muses or PJ Harvey.
Her career, however, began long before either of theirs, despite her just
having turned the legal drinking age last June. Alanis Nadine Morissette, the
only daughter of military high school teachers Alan Morissette and Georgia
Feuerstein, respectively French Canadian and Hungarian-born, spent most of
her first few years in Germany before being whisked back to Ottawa, along
with her twin brother Wade and older brother Chad. At nine years of age,
before you learned three-place multiplication, she took up piano, and at ten
she began to write songs and act, landing a recurring spot on Nickelodeon's
wacky kids show, You Can't Do That on Television, where she unsuccessfully
dodged falling buckets of green slime for the 1986 season. Back when you were
a big Kajagoogoo fan, the determined Morissette took all the money she made
on You Can't Do That and recorded the self-penned single "Fate Stay With Me"
with help from a couple of Canadian music biz veterans. She had 2,000 copies
of it pressed on her own indie label, Lamor Records, and MCA Publishing was
impressed enough to snag her a contract with their Canadian division at age
14. You'd just popped your first zit.
Because of her ample confidence, not to mention the cross-legged Buddha
posture she's assumed, it's easy to forget that Morissette has only walked
the earth for 21 years. Her precision masks her unruly sentiments. When she
says she believes in "that whole concept of having to hit rock bottom in
order to make any changes," I remember that she's dealt with her problems in
the past-realizing that her heart wasn't in the music she'd become so
successful performing-by dropping everything and moving to Toronto at age 18,
and then again to Los Angeles at 20. She explains: "You have to reach a point
that you're so consumed by whatever it is that you can't take it anymore, and
until you reach that point you just coast along like a bottom-dweller."
We stumble upon a man-made swimming hole. "We're going in, right?" she
declares. Neither of us has a swimsuit. I strip to my skivvies. She dives in
fully clothed. Talk turns to relationships.
She insists that she's ready to love somebody, but lets it slip that she's
never been in a positive relationship before, citing examples of dalliances
with older men who were "emotionally unavailable" to her.
"How will you handle it the next time you get dumped?" I ask.
She immediately responds, in all seriousness: "I'm never going to get dumped
She intimates that the last good time she had in bed resulted in bruises up
and down her arms.
"Hickeys?" I hope, worrying that the sex might have taken an ugly turn.
"Hickeys, bite-me's. It was great."
"So what happened to him?"
"He's coming back. Definitely." With that, she inverts herself in the water
and lets her legs finish the conversation.
Not until I rejoin her in Toronto do I uncover Alanis Morissette's dark
secret. None of her press people have been particularly forthcoming about her
first two albums, the 1991 Canadian platinum Alanis and its 1992 near-gold
follow-up, Now Is the Time. No one carries them in the U.S. As soon as I land
in Canada, I'm praying I can find at least one of her previous releases at
the local mall. Unbeknownst to me, the time I spend hunting down these
rarities coincides with our scheduled interview session. I am embarrassing
her and pissing her off simultaneously. Would you forgive me, love?
I know I can't mention to her the exact nature of my disappearance when I get
a look at the cover of Alanis, from which a younger version of Morissette,
still swaddled in baby fat, pouts defiantly. Inside, she sings of "party
boys" and "supermen," and sassily exclaims "My name is Alanis / I'm a white
chick singer / The drums are a-smokin' and so's the bass." It's as if her
high school yearbook picture came to life and made an album designed to haunt
her forever. Sometimes cheese is Velveeta.
"There are certain mistakes that you make when you're 16 because you're
ignorant," she demurs the next morning, realizing I'm in on the musical
make-over that has made Canadians skeptical of Morissette's newfound
alternative status. No wonder she refers to Jagged Little Pill as "my debut
album," and lowers her head in shame when referring to her two
dance-oriented, teen-spirited chartbusters. Alanis was the Debbie Gibson of
When her contract with MCA Records ex-pired, the 20-year-old HI-NRG queen
exiled herself to Los Angeles. "It was kind of a blessing that it was over,"
she muses, "because I wanted to start out with a clean slate, not only
personally but career-wise, too. It left me sort of naked. Leaving Toronto to
go to L.A. gave me a severe dose of disillusionment that was really
necessary. I was finally in a position where things weren't working out. And
it was good for me. It made me realize that certain people I'd blindly
trusted let me down. My intuition was saying 'Don't trust these people, don't
work with these people,' and I went against it."
She keeps her bitterness over her early career in check, though.
"I've had people cheat me out of a lot of money. Let's just say that I'm
still paying for the mistakes I've made. I think of it as my tuition for The
College of Music Career."
Still, everyone resembles their high school yearbook picture a little, no
matter how much they mature. It's worth noting, therefore, that most of the
love songs on Alanis-"Jealous," "Walk Away"-consist of diatribes against
unfaithful or unsuitable lovers. Even a 16-year-old Morissette crackles with
angst, in sharp contrast with the peppy Paula Abdul-esque computerized
backup. "Feeling lost in a world full of lies / I can't help thinkin' that
love is just passin' me by," she moans in "On My Own," a song for which
Morissette retains a reasonable amount of respect, probably because it
describes her lack of control over the final product. How ironic that Jagged
Little Pill producer/collaborator Glen Ballard, who rescued her from MIDI
hell, has also helped trap Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson there.
Ballard brought Morissette to the attention of Maverick Records, playing
"Perfect" for A&R whiz-kid and Freddy DeMann-protege Guy Oseary. Though the
22-year-old Oseary denies that the song touched off a synergistic prodigy
vibe between the two, he tends to stress Morissette's precociousness. "She
and I are about the same age, and people are always so amazed that we've
accomplished anything since Generation X-ers are supposedly not ambitious.
We're showing people we're as ambitious as anyone else." Oseary, who also
inked Candlebox to Maverick, has yet to see or hear Alanis' first two albums,
though. "I don't even want to," he says.
Morissette downplays it, but this evening's Toronto show means a great deal,
as much a vendetta as a homecoming. "It feels good to have a country
understand and appreciate my growth as opposed to questioning it," she
declares. With two wildly successful albums' worth of ripe cheese to live
down, Morissette's trying to pull off the entertainment business's toughest
trick: the Janet Jackson/Tori Amos/Ron Howard how-ya-like-me-now. As the
young and underpaid hoser who sold me her previous releases quipped with more
admiration than scorn, "She's a trend-jumper."
The sold-out show, at Lee's Palace, has a much friendlier vibe than the
exciting chill of the Pontiac bloodletting. It's the first show after a
week's vacation. She spent it in Ottawa with family, catching up by taking
long walks down train tracks with her brothers, who thankfully never discuss
her career with her. "We couldn't be more different," coos Morissette, "but I
feel closer to them than I ever have." She takes care to explain that her
parents aren't phased by hearing their daughter refer to oral sex and fucking
to the cheers of an enthusiastic throng. "A lot of people ask my parents,
'Aren't you embarrassed that your daughter speaks like that?' and they say,
'No, she's been that way her whole life, she just wasn't doing it publicly.
And we're glad she is now.' " Morissette laughs. "My mother's raunchier than
Old friends from her Toronto days drop in, including former roommate Mike
Levine of the Canadian cheese-metal band Triumph. Her parents come down to
see the show. Even old enemies from her mallrat days, busily promoting the
opening act, have shamelessly appeared.
"Right now is pretty pinnacle-ish," she tells me when I ask about her goals.
"I went to the beach just the other night and I sat on the same rock I sat on
when I first moved to Toronto, which was probably the hardest time in my
whole life. I remember sitting on that rock in such major pain. And then I
sat on it the other night-same rock-and I just went, 'Man.' "
That's why it looks strange when she squints a little and arches her back
during "Right Through You," sternly indicating the band as she growls, "Hello
Mr. Man / You didn't think I'd come back / You didn't think I'd show up with
my army / And this ammunition on my back." After the show, she tells me that
she spotted in the audience some of the same record execs who inspired the
song. Her eyes light up. "When this one guy approached me backstage," she
whispers, "I looked him in the eye and said, 'See you on the way down.' "
[end of article]