Alanis Morissette is no Biggie Smalls, mythologizing and embellishing on real-life experiences, transforming herself into fiction. No, Ms. Morissette’s not one for ambiguity or distance. She is not, in the proper use of the term, an “ironic” writer. In “Front Row,” the opening track of her current chart-sailing juggernaut, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie (Maverick-Warner Brothers), she insists to one of her perceived antagonists that “it doesn’t always have to be about you.” But a quick perusal of the lyric sheet shows an I-Thou dialogue that would make Martin Buber do a spit-take. Out of 17 songs, 10 contain “I” (or a possessive variant) and eight have “you” or a variant in the first six words. And the numbers average out at 11 if you include the song titles (“I Was Hoping,” “Thank U,” “Your Congratulations” and “UR”). Also, one track (“I Was Hoping”) has a “we,” and another (“UR”) has a “they’ve,” which end up being the protagonist’s diaries–so count that as a “me.”
What does this mean? To quote Bud Abbott, another eminent existentialist: “Third base.” Unlike Ani DiFranco, another person she’s not, Ms. Morissette doesn’t lay it on the line in crass and artless confession. O.K., there’s artless confession. “Are you still mad I kicked you out of bed?/ Are you still mad I gave you ultimatums?/ Are you still mad I compared you to all my 40-year-old male friends?” she asks in “Are You Still Mad.” (Why not “RU Still Mad”?) But these considerations are so self-absorbed and deluded as to be positively ironic in the way they draw attention back to their source. I mean, why ask these questions if you’re just going to answer them yourself? Where is the art in that? Forgive me, that’s a stupid question. She concludes the song with “Of course you are.”
But wait, it gets even more corkscrewed. Repeated listenings of the album reveal that “you” often means “I.” And vice versa. In the end, it’s all “her.” In Buber, the I-Thou relationship constitutes the give-and-take between an individual and God; one is tempted to draw a similar parallel between the creator (small “c”) and her audience or, at the very least, her work. But there really is no dialogue here. As it is, the current press releases (or is that news stories?) accompanying Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie stress this supposed former Catholic’s newfound religious convictions, which seem to lean toward the East. Maybe it’s the use of supposed 1980’s holy man Prince’s style manual, as well as the occasional tabla loop, but the journalistic inferences of spirituality probably have more to do with the “ethnic” pentatonic scales that litter the record than a bearhug from the Bhagwan. Plus, the music comes courtesy of producer and supposed songwriter Glen Ballard, so there’s no real reflection on Ms. Morissette. Could she be but a creation as well? Whatever her religious trappings, no one gets that angry about a blowjob or spits out the word “sir” as she does on “I Was Hoping” unless there are some simmering “daddy” issues. None of us really needs to hear about it, but Soundscan doesn’t lie.
When it comes to religion, Ms. Morissette actually seems pretty skeptical. In “Baba,” she attacks the shallowness of a guru’s supplicants. Is she writing about us? How generous. She could be writing about Jewel. Ah yes, Jewel. While Alanis grew up with a sense of entitlement, and therefore grew up angry, Jewel was supposedly poor, and so grew to embrace transcendence. And while you’re not going to get a word out of Ms. Morissette that doesn’t somehow pertain to her person, supposed white-trash pinup Jewel’s latest album, Spirit (Atlantic), is filled with a desire to do good that appears to belie her million-dollar ambitions. The reedy whine of “only kindness matters” from Jewel’s unavoidable hit “Hands” has become the “No new taxes” of a new generation.
We can’t really hold Jewel’s mediocrity against her. She’s no worse than an endless list of low-profile supposed talents. This may very well be what Neil Strauss (no relation) meant when he referred to her as a “genius” in his breathless–and now kind of infamous–cover story in the Dec. 24 Rolling Stone . There is always the possibility that Mr. Strauss was writing a clever piece of subversive agitprop (and I would like to believe it is so). But he was probably grading on the mainstream’s bell curve, drooped like the pillow he stuck between himself and Jewel at one point in his profile as he lay next to her and gazed into her eyes. When I listen to Jewel, I yearn to have a pillow beneath my head. Or maybe over my face.
But again, let’s not shoot fish in a barrel. There are plenty of turgid artists getting a critical pass. Atlantic’s male Jewel, supposed chest-wig wearer Duncan Sheik, has ended up on many a year’s best list (including The Observer ‘s). Where artists such as Mr. Sheik and Jewel should be faulted is in their ambition to change the world. At least Ms. Morissette sticks to something she allegedly knows–herself.
Jewel possesses a suitable tool (her voice) with no lack of expression, but she doesn’t bring anything particularly individual to the table. Her phrasing is Joni Mitchell on the Mitchell-esque songs, Rickie Lee Jones on the Jones-esque ones. Her guitar melodies often recall Poco’s “Crazy Love,” and when they do, she starts singing like Paul Cotton. Then again, half of Spirit sounds like “Crazy Love.” Mary Lou Lord does the same thing with a slightly hipper set of influences and yet she gets a critical pass (I guess there’s more I-Thou with a busker). Ms. Morissette, on the other hand, consistently bleats in a manner similar to Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I’ve always considered him an underrated vocalist.
Then there are the words. Jewel’s lyrics are, to be kind, sub-McKuenesque, without the uniquely gushy wordplay. I close my eyes and randomly pick phrases out of the CD booklet: “Oh, oh be still my little heart.” “We are God’s eyes.” “There was a hole inside his soul a manicure could not fill.” What do these phrases mean to someone who doesn’t own a copy of A Course in Miracles ? The real problems arise when she attempts to make a point. Dig this line from “Innocence Maintained”: “Hitler loved little blue-eyed boys/ And it drove him to hate.”
Now, this is redneck homophobia, plain and simple (and now I participate in redneckophobia). But let’s assume that Jewel the Jungian was attempting to go all Wilhelm Reich on us, only without the tools to communicate. Could you imagine if a rapper had recorded a line linking homosexuality with genocide? A couple of Thomas Sowell and Stanley Crouch columns would result, at the very least. The entire song is a mess. It continues: “We’ve made houses for hatred/ It’s time we made a place/ Where people’s souls may be seen and made safe/ Be careful with each other/ These fragile flames/ For innocence can’t be lost/ It just needs to be maintained.” Would Hitler disagree with these supposed sentiments? Hitler was, after all, a spirit man, too. That this rock remains unturned goes to show that those who give lip service to her “genius” don’t even respect her music enough to work up the energy to crack the lyric sheet.
Spirit in pop music always ends up being sex, and, like Yahweh, sex in pop always breaks your heart. So let’s peer into the void once more: In Buber, the relationship between I and Thou is a mutual one, but Ms. Morissette and Jewel engage in an I-It relationship with both us and their work. This satisfies no one. Of course, there is a space in music for the I-Thou thing, and if we could just bring one Jewel fan over to Thelonious Monk or the Raincoats, it might save his or her supposed soul.