Some career transformations are subtle as artists gradually and organically transition from one style to another over an extended period of time. Others are, let's say, not so nuanced. Such was the case of Alanis Morissette, whose career began as a Canadian mall-haired teen queen a la Tiffany or Debbie Gibson. At one point she was actually opening for Vanilla Ice, for heaven's sake. It's a pretty far cry from the Alanis the rest of the world met in the mid-90s, but for a stretch of time in the first half of the decade Alanis reigned as a cheesy dance-beat pop artist in America's hat.*
At 12, Alanis debuted as a regular cast member on one season of the the Nickelodeon tween sketch comedy show You Can't Do That on Television. It's not exactly the thing that angry-chick musicians are made of, I'll give you that. She started her career as a squeaky-clean, happy preteen in this slime-splattered comedy spot. Well, clean other than her very convincing fake vomiting at the end of this clip:
In 1990 at age 14 she moved on to show her, er, pop potential on the original America's Got Talent, Star Search. Be warned, for those of you familiar with a different, darker, more ironic Alanis, this may be quite the shock. While I do admire her general boppiness and the confidence it no doubt took to don that polka-dotted puffy sleeved midriff baring jacket, it's a far cry from the Alanis the rest of the world met a few years later.
Just one year later and released under her original Cher slash Madonna-esque stage name of Alanis, her first single "Too Hot" performed relatively well in the Canadian market. In this awesomely bad 90s music video, Alanis demonstrates a both surprising command of snappy dance moves and a serious lead finger on her can of Aquanet. The album was not released internationally, but from what I've been told it was pretty big in Canada. Take a look at this video and you can definitely see where the Tiffany comparisons come in.
A year later, yearning to show her more substantial side, Alanis released a more ballad-heavy album. The Canadian teen sensation's star seemed to be on the wane, as sales numbers fell off significantly from her first album. I guess they liked the Tiffany Alanis better. No one, however, or at least no Canadians, would likely have foreseen what was to come next for Alanis Morissette.
Flash forward just a few short years to the release of her angst-ridden album Jagged Little Pill, her first record to be released outside of Canada, and I'm sure you'll see why her musical transformation can be classified as less than subtle. Much less than subtle. Really, not subtle at all. Is there such a word as unsubtlest? If not, I move to add it on the basis of Alanis's incredible career 180.
On sort of a fluke, her single "You Outta Know" started getting some serious radio airtime following the lead of an LA DJ's broadcast of the song. For most of us, this was all well and good and we had little prior knowledge of bubble-gum pop Alanis, but I can only imagine what those poor Canadians were thinking about their coiffured pop princess when they heard this:
I apologize for making you sit through the preceding ad, but hey, this comes from MTV. We have to deal with what we're dealt here. Thanks for your understanding.
Well, that's a little, um, different, wouldn't you say? "Too Hot" to this? Is that really any form of logical leap? I guess if you want to shake the Debbie Gibson and Tiffany comparisons, this is probably the safest route. This was pretty edgy stuff for mainstream music, after all. It did fit in nicely with the mid-90s flannel wearing coming of age of a cynical Generation X. Assuming, that is, that they'd never seen any of Alanis's previous work. I can't imagine that widespread international knowledge of that "Too Hot" video would bolster her bitter 90s angst street credibility much.
The best part about this song, however, was in the speculation on the subject matter. Just who was this guy who inspired Alanis to spew such angry vocals? There were a lot of different names thrown into the mix, but by far the most prevalent prognosis was that this song's mysterious Mr. Wrong was none other than Full House's Dave Coulier. Yep, Uncle Joey of the Hawaiian Shirts, the "Cut. It. Out." hand motions, and insufferable woodchuck impressions. I'm sorry, what? That guy? Geez, Alanis, pull yourself together. Our jury at Snopes are still out on the verdict, but as far as rumors go this one has got to be one of the strangest. And, let's be honest, most embarrassing.
Jagged Little Pill gave Alanis a number of mid-level singles like "Hand in My Pocket", but her next big moment came in the form of the release of her single for "Ironic":
This song had to be by far one of the primary leading contributors to middle school students' collective misunderstanding of the literary notion of irony. According to the song, it seems irony is nothing more than a series of unfortunate inconveniences. While her examples certainly aren't welcome life circumstances ("10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife"), the are not ironic by any stretch of definition of the term. If nothing else, the real irony was that she managed to release a song entitled "Ironic" that claimed to showcase numerous incidences of irony while in reality none were ironic in the least. Now that's a bit ironic. Don't you think?
The album enjoyed a pretty substantial shelf-life, giving her two additional Billboard-worthy singles in "Head Over Feet" and "You Learn". "You Learn" contained the album's eponymous line, "swallow it down, what a jagged little pill/ It feels so good swimming in your stomach". It's a pretty far cry from "Too Hot", I must say.
This was, of course, not the last we heard from Alanis Morissette. I'm sure any die-hard fans can tell you not only of her 90s trailblazing ways for angry female singers, but of her subsequent album releases that I'm sure were also worth listening to despite the fact that I have yet to do so. There were happier, less angst-ridden incarnations of Alanis in the earlier part of this decade, but she will undoubtedly be most remembered for her mid-90s reign as a strong, bitter female talent. Which is probably for the best, really. I mean, would you want to be remembered for "Too Hot"? That's what I thought.
*I'm sorry, some of you may know this territory as Canada.