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King Of Intimidation
Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" is every ex-lover's worst nightmare. The most unwelcome of 3 A.M. phone calls, it's full of blistering accusations and unanswerable questions, like its acid catchphrase-in-the-making, "Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?" In the video, she wails, snarls, and sneers; trudges through a symbolic desert wasteland; and makes three changes of costume-just in case you miss the theme of shedding skin and violent personal renewal. By the time she lies down in a field of flowers at the end, you hope she's exorcised her personal demons. She sure has awakened yours. It's the empowerment clip of the day, a raspy anthem for all those inner children out there who refuse to get over it.
Alanis didn't simply reinvent herself to make "You Oughta Know" and the album it came from, Jagged Little Pill. She cut down to the bone, stripped out her innards, and held them up for everyone to enjoy. Self-excavation the Henry Rollins way is a dangerous game, but at her best Alanis comes across like a more repressed Liz Phair, a less disturbed SinZad O'Conner, a Marianne Faithfull who never shot junk. At worst, she sounds like Edie Brickell on a bad day.
Which is still better than being Ottawa's answer to Tiffany. Three years ago, this archetypal scorned woman was plain Alanis, junior disco diva, she echoed the older, sexier likes of Paula Abdul and Janet Jackson. At the age of ten, Alanis had won a part in Nickelodeon's kids series You Can't Do That On Television. At fourteen, she set up a record company and shot a promo video in Paris. By the time she was seventeen, she had a platinum debut album called Alanis, a Juno Award (Canada's Grammy), a huge pimply following, and next to no friends her own age. Her follow-up album, Now Is The Time, did little but prove that her time had come and gone. The perfect child-star was washed up at an age when most people have barely begun.
Alanis is twenty-one now--old enough to know better and to realize that her biggest betrayer has always been herself.
"Did anyone get laid last night?" Alanis asks her band as the tour van pulls out of Seattle on the way to Vancouver. No one answers. This means that the high scorer in the band's unofficial one-night-stand league remains the current leader, with four bodies bedded. Whoever it is.
"I'm really proud of us," Alanis chirps. She would be. Since finishing Pill, she's been making up for lost time, smoking joints and having one-night stands, whereas the other Alanis was a tower of self-control. Sort of.
"I never allowed myself to go off the path when I was younger," she mutters. "There are a lot of things I didn't do. I lost my virginity at nineteen but I was very sexually active since I was fourteen, doing everything but. Isn't that odd? I enjoyed what I was doing, but I couldn't fully enjoy it."
Alanis is small and much prettier than she photographs, with a wide, sensuous mouth that seems locked in a perpetual smile; large, engaging hazel-brown eyes; and chest-length, curly auburn heir. She is, however, not at her best today. Ten days into the tour, she and the four-man band are already feeling the burn of too many dates in too short a time since the Jagged Little Pill album took off. The floor of the van has developed a healthy carpet of chicken bones, mashed melon pieces, and banana peels. The band fight highway ennui by flinging the rotten fruit at the windshield of the trailing equipment truck. The fruit goes flying; the cellular phone pesters them with interview bookings, chart updates, and gig offers; and Alanis sleeps most of the two-hour drive.
We meet the next morning for a late breakfast in a Vancouver coffee shop. Alanis is having fruit, a dry bagel, and charmomile tea. Still tired, she's wearing her trademark retro-'70s clothes, which look fresh out of the thrift-store bargain bin: candy-apple-red polyester bell-bottoms, Adidas sneakers, and an oversize men's shirt that covers her frame like a tent.
"They say that androgynous people are the happiest," she says, smiling. Where Disco Alanis used to flaunt dZcolletage during her bubblegum days, now she won't wear clothes that highlight her butt at the expense of her songs. And anyway, she says, she'll never fit society and the media's standars of perfection, so why try?
She plays with her fruit salad, eating just a little of it as she explains that ever since she was ten, she's know what she wnated and how to get it. The TV series and records came because of her self-discipline and drive for attention. And she thought she didn't really deserve any of it. All her youthfull accomplishments were like sugar to a diabetic.
"I'd say 'Thank you' for a compliment and thing, 'You don't know how terrible I am!' It was a little bit of a drug for me. I wound up with all this adulation, and at that age you don't know what self-esteem is."
When she was fourteen she was trying to be forty-signing contracts, making videos, reveling in adult approval. Now she's twenty-one and trying to be twelve, doing all the things her Catholic childhood and self-imposed perfection wouldn't allow. Everything, that is, apart from smoking tobacco, drinking, injecting, snorting, or doing caffeine. She even wears stick-on tattoos: "Part of my fear of commitment." It's a funny kind of abandon.
By the time her first career curdled, Alanis had few friends her own age. She found them too immature. She'd steal their boyfriends instead, simply for the conquest.
"The only way I felt desirable was when a man would leave his girlfriend for me. I wish I could go back and apologize to all the girls I did that to. And if I ever dated guys my own age, it would only last about a week.
To sink Disco Alanis, she moved to L.A., leaving her tight-knit family, her management, and her old bands for a second chance. Staying in Beachwood Canyon, above Hollywood, she was alone and unknown. Her Canadian good manners were interpreted as doormat passivity; she was mugged. Finally, on a flight home to Canada last Christmas, the emotional costs she had avoided for so long came due.
"I was writing my fifty-sixth Christmas card on the plane when I had a head-on anxiety attack. I just bawled my eyes out and started shaking and wanted to faint. It scared the living shit out of me."
Similar uncontrollable crying jags and fainting spells followed, and she checked herself into a hospital, admitting to herself that she was losing it. Hypnosis and therapy helped to release years of blocked emotions, feelings she didn't even have a name for. When she started working on Pill, the songs came spilling out like automatic writing, some of them so unbidden that she doesn't even remember putting the words on paper. Far from her old pop confections, these were discordant, off-kilter tunes about rejection, betrayal, guilt, and-yes-oral sex.
"It was like God's way of saying to me, 'You've been working your ass off, and I'm going to give this to you. Enjoy it, please.'"
The meet-and-greets and the radio promotions grind on. Despite Jagged Little Pill's success, some of Canada's DJs remember the other Alanis too well. AT Z59.3 FM, one of Vancouver's biggest Top 40 stations, the presenter asks her about her bra size and fingernail polish, and ends with a Howard Stern-like request for a kiss. In Toronto, the interviewer concluded, "Well some people can evolve, some people can change. Personally, I don't believe it."
Later, in the lobby of the hotel where the band are staying, Alanis pauses at the elevator.
"There are a lot of people who resent success here," she says quietly.
"If this was a confessional record that I released independently and it didn't succeed, you'd believe it. But because it's succeeding, you don't know whether to believe it or not."
She doesn't care. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she doesn't have to.
From Details magazine, Vol. 14, No. 5, October, 1995. Pp 174-176. Story by Jeff Spurrier.