Welcome to Throwback Thursday, a weekly series showcasing an album, single, music video or performance of a bygone era and its personal and/or cultural significance.
Cliches are born out of reality. They can be well-versed tropes of language, stereotypes about people and common wells from which everyone seems to draw creativity. But strip away the hyperbole for a second, everything is grounded in truth. It might not be your truth–but someone, somewhere, finds comfort in it. 27 years ago, Alanis Morissette, called “queen of this year’s pop culture prom” by Rolling Stone, opened her soul for one of the watershed grunge-pop albums of modern times. And it goes much deeper than that. All Music‘s Stephen Thomas Erlewine once aptly wrote: “Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them.”
Boy, did she ever.
The carpet smelt of mildew. It was purple, speckled with red and blue dots, melting into a hippie hybrid of color. Her frayed red tips flowed gently in the breeze coming from the ground-level window, cracked open less than an inch. She was perched, legs splayed, on her second-hand mattress, perfectly creased in the shape of her body. She was seven years my senior, and she was so cool. She smoked. She partied hard. She drank. She embodied who I wish I could be. My sister was 16 and living life on the edge. Another cliche. Her musical tastes, as you might imagine, were hard-rock, grunge and certain strands of mainstream pop. The Doors, Nirvana, Janis Joplin. Cliche, cliche, cliche. When P!nk hit the scene a few years later, she would be obsessed with her, too. But Morissette exuded that rockstar spirit, free-wheeling it with that distinctive, undeniably-her vocal. When she was biting her thumb at an ex (“You Oughta Know”) and reflecting on life’s hard but honest lessons (“You Learn”), you felt the pain dripping from her phrasing, flicking between her head voice and full-on belting from her chest. She was/is a modern-day Joplin, frantically flying through the lyrics with unapologetic bravery and with a knack for gutting melody.
I was transfixed, seeking redemption through the two towering foam speakers. Morissette, then 21, beckoned me to gather at her feet and let her tell me some stories. “You pray, you learn. You ask, you learn. You laugh, you learn,” she chanted over jangly electric guitar lines and a smooth-to-the-touch vibration. She was liberated in knowing every choice had a severe consequence, and regardless of the outcome, she owned up to her shit. “You’ve already won me over, in spite of me. And don’t be alarmed if I fall, head over feet,” rings out the iconic chorus on one of her most definitive tracks. Later, on “Ironic,” she examines life’s chilling circle of life, which plopped her down in the eye of the storm. “He waited his whole damn life to take that flight. As the plane crashed down, he thought ‘well, isn’t this nice.'”
With producer Glen Ballard, who also worked with Michael Jackson, Willson Phillips and others, Morissette delved into the darkest corners of her mind. “They never went blind for what they did, but I may as well have. In the name of the Father, the skeptic and the Son, I had one more stupid question,” she unravels on “Forgiven,” a stunningly sinister recollection of her Catholic school disillusionments. “There’s no sentimental value to the rose that fell on your floor,” she spits on “Wake Up,” one of her often-overlooked deep cuts. Despite all of the negatives in leading a budding superstar lifestyle (paparazzi, addiction, fading transparency), she was “broke but I’m happy,” she smiled on “Hand in My Pocket.” It was a life lesson my 9-year-old self took to heart. I leaned in to catch every slurred syllable, inhaling what would become one of the most important songs of my life–the harmonica solo, blustering and tangible, was always my favorite moment on the record. It was honest and real, something I could latch onto.
The album, double-diamond in sales, would go on to be declared the Album of the Year in 1996, alongside other such distinctions as Rock Album and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance (for “You Oughta Know”). That night, she stormed the stage (above) with her Grammy-winning song, resting resolutely on a stool centerstage. Comedian and personality Ellen DeGeneres introduced the performance, and the electricity spilled from Morissette’s vocal. The production took on a vastly different tone, adorned with prominent piano and strings. Even on the roaring hook, the arrangement was far more sombre and sweeping than fans had been accustomed to. But her voice rose to the occasion with deep passion and clarity. It’s one of the greatest performance ever and remains seared on my brain.
The album, splintering from the flippancy of opener “All I Really Want” to the yearning of “Mary Jane,” never felt like a moment. It just was. It was a simple young woman, who could rock harder than the guys, writing diary-like about her pain, her happiness, her inescapable darkness. Through that catharsis, she came into our living rooms, into that chilly basement bedroom, to talk to us, face-to-face. Even when she was wailing into her microphone, it felt like she was whispering right into my heart. “Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you when you think everything’s OK,” she attested.
It really does.
Spin the album below: