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.

25th Anniversary: ‘Live Through This’ album review

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The rumors about Courtney Love were true: her band’s second album is brilliant. From the deceptively underplayed riffs of opening song “Violet” to its explosive chorus with Love’s rebel yell backed by her four-piece band, Hole laid the groundwork for an album that flexed considerable muscle for the then-peak alternative rock movement. It will stand as one of the genre’s seminal works.

The elephant in the room is neither ignored, pointedly demolished, or obsessed over on this album: can a woman rock legitimately, without negating her femininity?

Love wins, because she has it both ways: she’s so good her gender’s not even relevant, which makes the revelation all the more relevant. She’s a natural: charismatic, dangerous, cocky, defiant, funny, tender, and poetic. That she happens to wear baby doll dresses is moot.

And the answer is a resounding yes: feminine themes are laced throughout the album’s lyrics and sound, but not at the expense of the genre’s nihilism. Just as Love’s voice can command and dominate with raspy force, it can flirt and dance with a showgirl’s glee.

‘I am the girl you know can look you in the eye,’ Love boasts in the raucous first single, “Miss World”. Mixing her favorite concepts of glamour and destruction, the song nakedly implores ‘Watch me break/And watch me burn’, before crunching everything under a guttural chorus: ‘I made my bed and I lie in it’.

Most of the album employs this soft/hard dynamic that dominates the genre, with a few heavy exceptions. “Plump” churns hard guitar riffs like gunfire while Love subverts feminine expectations: ‘I don’t do the dishes/I throw them in the crib.’ “Jennifer’s Body” skitters edgily along until exploding into power pop/rock riffs rivaling any hard-rock contemporaries.

Elsewhere, the slow-burn cautionary tale “Doll Parts” lays down its lyrical and stylistic groundwork so expertly without a hint of artiness: an artist’s dream in the form of twentieth century grunge rock. ‘Someday you will ache like I ache,’ Love forewarns in the chorus, changing the inflection slightly at every reprise until it bears multiple meanings.

A lone guitar riff periodically accents the throbbing bass showcase of the album’s quietest song, “Softer. Softest”, titillating you just as you’re being soothed by the song’s languid spell. It’s these simple but unexpected sonic twists that captivate and challenge listeners.

Throughout the album, we’re reminded again of the ineffable power of music—what can be achieved by the arrangement of chords and beats from a few instruments in different variations. No matter how crude and humble the parts are the sum can be transcendent.

The album’s lyrics alone are exemplary too—born from the best conversations neo-philosophers dream of and budding screenwriters would sacrifice a rent check for: ‘If you live through this with me/I swear that I will die for you’, begs the song “Asking for It”.  ‘I fake it so real I am beyond fake,’ Love concedes in “Doll Parts”. ‘I don’t really miss God/But I sure miss Santa Clause,’ quips “Gutless”. None of the lines feel precious or pretentious, furthering their impact.

Like the lead singer herself though, it’s not an easy album to accept at face value. Its compelling sheen is on alternative-rock terms; this is not your grandmother’s female rock star. Many music fans will simply not bear the palette to welcome it, and it’s their loss.

For fans of alternative rock and true music connoisseurs, however, it is undeniable. “Live Through This” is a stroke of genius in its sonic dynamics, thematic scope, and lyrical potency. It’s rife with excoriating ruminations set to indelible hooks that seduce and assault you simultaneously, daring you to embrace and question yourself and the world—like the best rock music does.

The View vs. The Talk

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I love watching women gab. As sexist as it sounds, I’ll just say it: they’re good at it. I imagine it’s the equivalent of people tuning in to watch physically fit men play sports. Also, if I really want to fully commit to being politically incorrect: maybe it’s part of my DNA as a gay man to enjoy hearing women yak about everything from the profound to the frivolous. I can relate, and it’s fun.

Since the beginning of this decade, we’ve had two major choices to see the biggest and brightest women in pop culture do just this, on daytime T.V. in the U.S.

Venerated journalist Barbara Walters set the precedent in 1997 with a show called “The View”—featuring ‘different women with different points of views’ sitting around a table and discussing the day’s biggest headlines. They ruled the roost as the lone standard for such a concept, until 2010 when former child actress Sara Gilbert had the sterling idea to do an offshoot of the format (with the angle that it’d consist of a panel of “moms”—although its predecessor never played down the maternal status that most of its panelists could claim too). As a viewer though, I wasn’t discerning—it made sense because: in a nation as large and diverse as ours, one of the benefits is how we can expand on commodities… like talk shows. After all, there have been multiple late night talk shows for decades now, competing directly with one another and thriving in their own right regardless of the saturated market. When a new daytime talk show featuring a panel of half a dozen women talking about topics in the news with their “different points of views” popped up, we took it in stride.

Both “The View” and “The Talk” have succeeded with viewers and been nominated for the same daytime Emmy awards throughout the years, solidifying their place in the pop culture lexicon.

But is there a difference or a clearly superior one?

“The View” has the advantage of experience on its side: thirteen more years over its rival. With that plethora of time, it’s seen and done many things it can learn from. Infamously, placing two panelists who are diametrically at odds with one another in perspective is ratings gold: when outspoken liberal Rosie O’Donnell was recruited as the show’s mediator in 2006 during the contentious Bush/Iraq War years, fate was written on the wall—she would ultimately come to blows with then-outspoken conservative panelist Elisabeth Hasselback the following year. It was the best daytime drama that needed no script.

The show also has the undeniable class factor that only a highly respected figure in the journalism field like Barbara Walters can provide. Although “The View”’s reputation has ebbed and flowed as any long-running entity is prone to, its pedigree is still rooted in solid stock.

It’s not without its trials. The show has “jumped the shark” as much as a talk show can do, in the sense of creative/production malaise. Since the 2010s, there has been a highly visible turnaround in the show’s panelists—it’s hard to even keep up with who’s officially on the roster these days, like watching your favorite sitcom characters getting replaced by new actors or new characters that you just don’t care for. Many of the new recruits were blatantly regrettable as well (Candice Cameron Bure and Raven Simone dragged down the credibility of the show, imho! Thankfully, their tenures were scant). The show has even rehired previously retired or exited co-hosts such as longtime favorite Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd and even Rosie O’Donnell herself (who ultimately only stayed for one season again in 2014, mirroring her infamously clipped first round).

“The Talk” also tinkered with its lineup initially after its debut season, which is to be expected of a fledgling show though. It found its footing with a consistent lineup afterwards, and has only had one panelist replacement since.

Another difference with “The Talk” is its less emphasis on formality. The show humors its audience and viewers by directly asking them questions after bringing up a headline—from a serious news story to celebrity gossip, mediator Julie Chen will offer a concluding missive to encourage monosyllabic responses, boos, hisses, or laughter from the live audience reminiscent of, well, a daytime talk show (a 1990s version moreso, though).

Since the show is filmed in Los Angeles, another distinction from its New York City predecessor, it also has a daily celebrity-themed guest correspondent who contributes a pop culture headline (adding to the inevitable pop culture news that permeate the show anyway), in a segment loosely dubbed “Today’s Top Talker”.

As one can guess, “The View” and its reputation skews more towards a serious, politically-themed show. Although its current longtime mediator Whoopi Goldberg is a veteran Hollywood actress, she is outspokenly political and even good-naturedly mocks the more frivolous pop culture news she’s required to broach regularly (read: reality show fodder).

Other panelists, regardless of how short their tenures have been in recent years, have frequently been renowned political pundits as well, something “The Talk” has steered from completely. Currently, Senator John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain is the resident conservative Republican on “The View”.

“The View” has also expanded its most well-known segment, the roundtable discussion deemed “Hot Topics” from just a third of the show’s running time to half or more now, betting on the attention-grabbing headlines and the often heated exchanges between the ladies on the panel to sustain viewers.

Both shows have the requisite celebrity guest interview in the latter half of the show. Again, “The View”, naturally more political, regularly invites political figures such as former president Barack Obama and several political commentators. “The Talk” relies entirely on celebrity guests, occasionally some that are not even major draws. This is moot, since I only tune in to each show to watch the ladies yak amongst themselves in their roundtable segments.

Judging each show based on my proclivities, I do have a clear conclusion of which one succeeds most. “The View” tides me over, for the aforementioned reasons above—it has more legitimacy but is still able to delve into melodrama, camp, and frivolity. Although its high turnover rate is unnerving and dispiriting, it has enough mainstay power players to anchor it. As a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I have a bias for Whoopi Goldberg as a pop culture fixture. Comedian Joy Behar’s sassy Italian schtick hasn’t gotten old—or perhaps, twenty-one years later on the show, I’ve also grown attached to her presence. As for the rest of the current panelists, I feel neither strongly for or against them. Sara is the bright blonde who keeps things light or at least centered; Sunny adds more diversity and a touch of primness. Meghan obviously serves as an antidote to the clear liberal slant from the two veterans of the show, and for the most part I enjoy her dynamic. Not to paint her as an archetype, but I love a good “nemesis”, and Meghan is one by default, constantly having to defend her political party whenever President Trump drags it through the mud, which is often.

“The Talk” is sufficient enough, but my taste doesn’t quite extend to audience participation and an overabundance of pop culture fluff. And although they currently have the steadiest panel lineup longevity, I’m not especially fond of any of the panelists: mediator Julie Chen is too proper; Sara Gilbert is insightful but staid as well; Sharon is the venerable one who’s been around the block—but is a bit too mannered and biased in her outspokenness; newcomer Eve hasn’t proven her worth yet beyond tugging the median age of the group down more; and Sheryl Underwood plays up the sassy black woman trope a bit too much.

Each show brings something to the table, and it’s merely a matter of taste. To me, I primarily blur the edges that separate the shows. They’re like two sitcoms that have an overlap of similarities and differences, and I like them both for different and similar reasons.