25th Anniversary: ‘Jagged Little Pill’ — A New Perspective

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Like a lot of older Millennials, I can remember the first time I heard Alanis Morissette. I was in eighth grade, and her debut music video in the U.S., “You Oughta Know”, began making the rounds on TV. I didn’t think much of it, but her second single, “Hand in My Pocket”, arrived months later and I became hooked like the 33 million fans worldwide who’d buy her blockbuster album, “Jagged Little Pill”, in 1995 onwards.

It wasn’t just that I was a fan; she literally introduced me to music—and at that pivotal age, it was momentous. Like many teenagers, my musical taste would be crucial in informing my identity. Aided by Alanis’ music, I discovered the genre she was ostensibly part of—alternative rock—and I was in love.

I remained a fan of Alanis in the subsequent years, still fondly playing her first and second albums regularly, well into my thirties. A quarter of a century later, however, I unexpectedly found myself coming full circle to the minority of outliers whom I recalled initially rebuked the phenomenon of her music, perplexingly.

Something had shifted my sensibilities. Now the instrumentation, style, and concept of her music simply struck me as… inauthentic. They seemed preconceived, affected, and a little silly. It wasn’t that there wasn’t true talent involved; it’s that the music was less about art than it was about entertainment. On that level, yes: the music was certainly catchy—enough for me to listen repeatedly for decades. I would never tire of her music in some sense, but I began to realize: maybe she wasn’t such an authentic artist, but again: just an entertainer with a phenomenal gimmick.

These were the accusations from her critics, twenty-five years ago upon the release of “Jagged Little Pill”. They had baffled me then, in their reservations against a surely indelible and spectacular artist—but now I understood where they were coming from.

I remember hearing people flatly say her music was “whiny” and an outlet for complaining—rather than profound and cathartic, as millions of fans attested. Her most famous critics declared her hackneyed and contrived; I could hear it in the instrumentation now—often, it sounded more like an imitation of rock music than actual  rock music, if that makes sense. It was too slick and mannered for its own good. A sophisticated ear is a tall order for a fourteen year old; what was my excuse for the last twenty years? Maybe when I listened to her music between then and now, it was clouded by my own nostalgic attachment to it.

Morissette’s credibility was always suspect from the start: prior to “Jagged Little Pill”, she’d released two strictly dance-pop albums that were indicative of their time: the early 1990s. Her about-face with “Pill” as an alternative rock singer was suspiciously convenient, a few years later at the peak of the grunge phenomenon. That she collaborated with veteran music producer Glen Ballard—who was accomplished but best known for polished pop rather than rock music—only perpetuated doubts of Alanis’ “rock” status. Honestly, this theoretical calculation on her part wouldn’t have bugged me, except that she didn’t pull it off artistically after all.

It’s telling that Morissette never repeated her success with “Pill”—commercially or artistically, ever again. Not that an artist should replicate their style or subject repeatedly, but she never attained the same relevance even on a strictly esoteric or artistic level. Her follow-up album came the closest, but even now it suffers from a similar quality as its behemoth predecessor: inhabiting a dubious sonic limbo between art and entertainment. In fact, all of her subsequent albums shared this trait. That was no accident.

It’s no wonder that no matter how beloved and entrenched “Jagged Little Pill” is in popular culture, it rarely if ever landed on any of those contentious, retrospective “Best of” lists from presumably serious music critics. Those dissertations always lent themselves to debate, which is why their unanimous omission of this album is all the more telling: and rarely debated!

Don’t get me wrong—I still think Alanis Morissette’s music has merit, but her music is tantamount to a blockbuster movie: it may become a beloved fixture in popular culture, but it’s not necessarily the finest example of its medium. In many ways, it’s no less valuable for bearing this quality, and there’s no shame in liking it. I will always have a place in my heart for her brand of music, just like I do with other fun pop music, blockbuster films, or cheesy TV shows. They all serve a purpose. Twenty-five years later, I may have changed, but I can still laud this landmark album for its most consistent quality: a pivotal moment in pop culture—for me, and the millions of fans that made it one of the biggest albums of all time.

Fiona Apple: A Ranking of Her Albums

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It feels like a milestone with Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Maybe because of the relief it spells for us in our unprecedented times of ambiguity during a global pandemic, or because it’s her fifth album—rounding out a full discography that officially spans four decades in this new year, or maybe every album feels like a milestone from the famously reclusive singer who has solidified a slow pace of artistic output with her last release, in 2012.

For all of these reasons, it feels warranted to geek out over Apple’s music—with that most irresistible and contentious of efforts: a list. With five albums under her belt now, Apple’s catalogue feels ripe for a ranking of this very discography. It’s all the more tempting because it’s no easy feat, considering how ingenious her music has consistently been these last four decades: how would you rank her albums from best to worst, or in her case: best to almost as best?

  1. The Idler Wheel… Her 2012 release has been aptly described as “distilled” Fiona. It best showcases her artistic sensibility, style, and skill in top form. Although the piano was synonymous with her identity and music at the start of her career, and still is—The Idler Wheel… transcended instrumentation, literally: its pared down sonic landscape was a stark departure from Apple’s prior albums, but her lyrics and melodies were instantly recognizable—and an extension as well, showing her artistic growth. These assets were brought to the foreground, and were always Apple’s greatest strengths. Songs like “Anything We Want”, “Hot Knife” and “Every Single Night” were as rich and potent as any music with multitudes more instrumentation. It’s her most consistent record, without a single weak track. Apple was at her peak: the songs don’t aim to be catchy, but the melodies are indelible anyway. It’s the perfect balance of artistic and accessible.
  2. When the Pawn… – Apple’s sophomore album was also an impressive balance of rich melodies and artistic innovation. In many respects, it’s her most satisfying album because it operates on all cylinders: it features beautiful production values, potent lyrics, and inventive sounds. It’s no wonder that this appears to be the fan favorite, from what I’ve read online—myself included. It draws from several influences and weaves it into a rich tapestry that can be sung along to, while also digested for its lyrical meaning: classic rock, hip-hop, show tunes, and spare piano torch songs. “Paper Bag” remains one of her best songs for good reasons: it’s lyrically and melodically taut yet bursting with ripe instrumentation that includes a brass section. “I Know” is one of her loveliest songs—a quiet, infectious meditation on adoration and contentment. When the Pawn… is the complete package.
  3. Fetch the Bolt Cutters – Undoubtedly her least pretty album, but perhaps because it’s the sequential last step in her artistic progression thus far: her most revealing, in a career that always prioritized revelation. Similar to her 2012 release, it moved even further from instrumentation and focused more on lyrics and themes. The result is a palpably cathartic album that marries deeply personal experiences with the primal impulse for release: pure art. What the melodies lack in accessibility, they make up in sheer urgency and authenticity—they’re like chants you made up in the schoolyard as you faced down bullies, or while you lounged quietly in the privacy of your home. They pulse with vitality. “Ladies”, “Heavy Balloon”, and “Relay” touch on themes like jealousy, betrayal, and mental health without being didactic or heavy-handed.
  4. Tidal – Her most accessible album for its sheer sonic gloss, it features her most catchy songs like “Criminal”, “Sleep to Dream”, and “Shadowboxer”. The seemingly surface beauty of these songs is not a detriment to their accomplishments. They sound as vibrant and relevant today as they did a quarter of a century ago. This album is ranked lower than her others only because an artist like Fiona can only improve with age, and starting from 18 years old at that, as she was when this album was released in 1996. The lyrics are not as mature as her subsequent albums, naturally, but the melodies and gorgeous piano-laden instrumentations aid them in their appeal.
  5. Extraordinary Machine – This was always my least favorite album, perhaps because it sounded less urgent and distinctive than the rest. There are a few classic gems that exemplify what I love most about Apple: “Parting Gift” is what she did best at the time: a girl with a piano singing about love askew; “Waltz: Better than Fine” is a throwback, reminiscent of her preceeding album’s foray into classic show tune influences. The rest of the album justified Apple’s talents, but there was a whimsical instrumentation and mood to this album that, though shouldn’t be synonymous with inferiority, was less appealing.

Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?

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It’s that time of year again: when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—who wore it best—oh, and which film won Best Picture. Probably something artsy and serious. Sometimes it’s deserved—a film of true excellence and craftsmanship in writing, acting, and directing. But usually it’s just a film that you may or may not have seen. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided all serious dramas will be relegated to DVD viewing—‘cause, you know: why do I need to see talking faces on a big screen?) Also, movie prices are astronomical, so—okay, I see it: I’m part of the cycle and why Hollywood is nickel and diming every potential film that passes through their gates in the hopes of production. No wonder they’re settling for the bottom line so often—a “sure” thing (read: sequel, prequel, or remake of something that did legitimate business once). But I digress.

Anyway, it’s the Oscars again. And of second most importance, it is 2017. I make a point of the year because frankly, I don’t believe the Oscars are nor have been the same for a long time now.

I often wonder what my younger doppelganger today would think of this Hollywood pastime now. What do young, budding (okay, and gay!) dreamers like me today think of this rapidly declining tradition of awarding the “Best” in Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

Cut to: me in the early 1990s. Maybe because things often look better in retrospect or I just didn’t know any better because I was a kid, but: the Oscars felt like they meant something back then. The five, count ‘em, just five nominated films for Best Picture (more on the topic of that category being expanded to ten nominations later) really felt like they earned that coveted spot. Each film that was nominated felt special, and it was usually a tight race that was more or less about merit and not just politicking by studios and adhering to social trends of the day.

Culturally, budding gay—I mean, budding dreamers of all stripes only had a few outlets to view their favorite stars back then: People magazine, and “Entertainment Tonight”. Which meant we were primed and hungry to see all these stars convene on one epic night—a smorgasbord of glamour, glitz, and at least to an idealistic kid like me back then: talent!

The Oscars have been cheekily dubbed “The Superbowl for Women”—in terms of annual cultural impact and significance. But unlike the actual Superbowl, the Oscars have been morphing and changing notably, and gradually eclipsed by other smaller Superbowls in the past two decades.

In the age of Twitter, TMZ, and the E! Channel, we can literally follow our favorite stars online 24/7 to see what they ate for breakfast or what color their kids’ poop is; spy on them as they exit an airport terminal via shaky video footage, or consume their daily lives in a craftily executed weekly reality TV show.

With these enlightening options that we’ve been blessed with through technical progress, the mystery of what it means to be rich and famous and talented has become rote and accessible in ways never before imaginable.

I have a feeling my teenage doppelganger today would view the Oscars the same way I viewed silent films or drive-in movie theaters when I was a teen in the 1990s.

Perhaps in response to this changing culture (read: poorer ratings for the telecast—undoubtedly due to the Academy’s penchant for nominating “serious” films that don’t do much business at the box office)—the category for Best Picture was expanded to include up to ten nominees, in 2009. The Academy claimed this was a throwback to the early years in the 1930s and ‘40s, where there were up to ten nominees per year—but many cynical observers assumed it was a blatant attempt to nab more viewers for the annual show. The quip “Are there even ten films worthy of being nominated every year?” hit the web quicker than you could say ‘Action!’. Incidentally, the Oscars suffered its lowest TV ratings ever the previous year, so read into the subsequent change however way you want.

As I alluded to earlier, I could relate to the criticism on the merit of today’s films—let alone their worthiness of being nominated for such an honor. In our current cinematic climate, I think the cap of five nominees is/should’ve been more relevant than ever—an elite prestige worth striving for, artistically.

Nearly a decade later, the expansion of nominees hasn’t made a mark on me as an Oscar viewer or a movie fan. If anything, it makes it harder for me to remember what films were nominated each year—but that could be more of a reflection on my waning interest for the show altogether.

In 2016, the Academy was confronted with yet another issue—this time one of moral. The lack of diverse nominees that year spurred a boycott by many African-American artists and viewers, who claimed a racial bias against them. Although I understood the greater issue of diversity, as a minority myself even I had reservations about the campaign. Was the Academy biased, or were there simply no quality films that year that starred African-Americans (or other ethnic groups)? If it was the latter, for instance—the issue wasn’t the Academy, but the movie industry itself.

Nonetheless, in true form, the Academy reacted swiftly with their image in mind—claiming they would add a significant amount of women and people of color to their voting bloc. The validity of this gesture aside, the consequence of this detrimental publicity also left a viewer like me wondering how sincere future nominations would be. As well intentioned as the campaign was to shed light on the Oscars’ lack of diversity, the fallout could be that they might overcompensate and recognize films (not people, mind you) of lesser merit to meet political correctness.

This shifting of objectives and influences only aided the rapidly declining relevance of the Oscars in my eyes. It was not about simply awarding the best films anymore—but a commercial and social experiment gone awry.

But this was nothing new overall: the Oscars have always been about more than just the merit of moviemaking, of course.

I turned eighteen when the world entered a new millennium in 2000, and the year “American Beauty” won against a highly publicized award campaign for its chief rival nominee that year, “The Cider House Rules”. Maybe because I’d technically became an adult and therefore achieved full enlightenment at last, but the fact that a movie studio launched a publicity campaign to swarm voters to choose their film was not lost on me. Apparently, voters don’t just go into hibernation and pick winners, then emerge back into the real world alive and rejuvenated by the purity of their choices.

The validity of their choices has often been debated for other reasons as well: awarding an actor or director for their current, less stellar work simply to acknowledge their greater body of work is another common longstanding ploy.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the curtain has finally gone down on my love affair with the Oscars. Honestly, the last few years I’ve been less and less drawn to the extravaganza. As late as 2013, I still recall having a few vestiges of excitement that I’d had in my youth—feeling like I was witnessing something greater than myself. But the past two years and on the eve of this year, it’s dawned on me now that the heyday of the show has long joined the past. It doesn’t detract from the merit of truly good movies, but that’s the thing: good movies and the Oscars are not the same thing, and they haven’t been for a long time.

So it’s that time of year again—when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—and who wore it best. Oh, and which film won Best Picture. Exactly. That’s all it is.

 

 

Why do people love the 80s?!?! (Try the 90s!)

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America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).

They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.

By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.

If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.

Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.

For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!

TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.

TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.

Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.

But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.

But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.

So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.

Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.