Morissette works the stage at New York City's Roseland Ballroom like a padded cell. As she flails her arms at some unseen tormentor, keening and ranting about sexual and emotional betrayal, the sellout crowd of young, ecstatic fans, all of whom seem to know her songs by heart, chant the risque lyrics along with her.
It's a riveting, heart-and-head-banging performance and something of a coming-out for the 22-year-old Canadian, who started her career as a sweet-as-cream, children's-TV star. Nominated for six Grammy Awards, Morissette has sold 8 million copies of her uneasy-listening album Jagged Little Pill, currently No. 1 in Billboard. The buzz began last year when Morissette's controversial single "You Oughta Know," a hate letter to an ex-beau, became a radio hit despite lyric content that would curl Tipper Gore's hair. "Is she perverted like me?" Morissette sings in an angry snarl. "Are you thinking of me when you f--k her?"
For those who recall her previous turns as a fresh-faced 10-year-old on Nickelodeon's You Can't Do That on Television and, later, as a teen disco queen known in her homeland as the Canadian Debbie Gibson, Morissette has come a shockingly long way, baby. "When I first heard 'You Oughta Know," says Geoffrey Darby, one of Morissette's Nickelodeon directors, "I thought, 'That came out of the mouth of our sweet little girl?"
Raised in Ottawa by schoolteacher parents, Morissette, Darby remembers, "was smart, pretty and fun-loving. She lit up the screen." Canadians saw the same G-rated smile six years later when Morissette released the first of two peppy dance albums. "Back then I was a lot more worried about people's perception of me," she told the Los Angeles Times last year. "I wanted their approval, so I came across happy. When [old fans] finally heard this more honest part of me, I think they were like, 'Yikes!' "
Now living in Los Angeles, Morissette makes no apologies for the sexual woman she is or the teenybopper she was. "It's all part of who I am now," she said. "And I like who I am."
"It's like therapy," says producer Guy Oseary of Alanis Morissette (in New Jersey last year). "There's substance there." [AlaAlbum; Best Rock Song; and Best Female Rock Vocalist) in tonight's 90-minute set, which comes seven months into a grueling tour that has six months left to go. Back on the road, it's catharsis as usual. [The Artist Formerly Known as Prince] and his new bride, Mayte, watch coolly from the rear of the hall; beer-swilling frat boys lean stageward in full tilt worship mode; lesbian couples sway side-by-side; gaunt, longhaired Alanis clones gaze intently; a hippie mom keeps an arm around her 10-year-old daughter as both join the unending screams that greet the singer's every move. And Morissette is all moves, an electrifying dervish in a burgundy satin blouse and shiny black pants.
The woman who has shrewdly protected herself from overexposure by granting fewer interviews than Princess Di offers little more than the occasional "Thank you" to the crowd--and scarcely needs to. As 19-year-old Jennifer Thompson says of Morissette's colloquial oeuvre, "It's like she's talking, but she's singing." When the diva does deign to speak for more than a moment, it's to introduce her band; she then turns to the crowd and says, "And you are?"
They are..record buyers, for one thing. Jagged Little Pill, Morissette's U.S. debut, has sold more than 6 million copies in nine months. But the real story is not the commercial one--it's how young America has embraced and debated Morissette's music to a degree unseen since Nirvana's Nevermind five years ago. For all the rage in her flagship hit, however, Kurt Cobain she ain't: Pill covers a range of postadolescent emotions. In the end, Morissette comes off more placid than pissed. So, with all this adoration, why are so many detractors so eager to elect her Poseur of the Year?
ONCE UPON A TIME, Madonna had a most amazing idea: to create, mentor, and bring to stardom a young diva who would mimic the raw power of hellcats like Courtney Love and PJ Harvey--and deliver it to the masses in a prettier package. To that end the Material Mogul signed a former TV star and dance-pop queen from Canada to her Maverick Records, then paired the impressionable thrush with hitmaking producer Glen Ballard (Wilson Phillips, Michael Jackson) for an alterna-pop makeover. Many Frankensteinian calibrations later, and voila! Jagged Little Pill, a prefab collection of surefire hits disguised as angry-chick anthems, was born.
That none of the foregoing tale is factual (excepting Morissette and Ballard's bios) hasn't stopped hordes of Alanis-haters from buying into the conspiracy theory of her success. Especially in pockets of the alternative-rock world, where "credibility" is next to godliness, there's a deep cynicism that Morissette could possibly represent anything honest.
The suspicion extends even here, to Minneapolis. Thorn, a DJ on a local alternative station, spends much of his concert's-eve drive-time slot ripping into Morissette. In introducing a song by flavor-of-the-month rockers Everclear, he grouses, "This is like the anti-Alanis. This is by a band that wasn't manufactured, but actually worked hard, recorded, and toured for years to get some success."
Morissette knows her years of growing up in public don't count as dues paying in some quarters. She has a harder time figuring out why some refuse to believe Pill's emotionalism is genuine. "I laugh now" about the backlash, she told Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune in a rare interview. "But there were moments when I wasn't laughing. If something's true, why are people so quick to doubt it? They've had the wool pulled over their eyes so much that they're compelled to throw the baby out with the bathwater Glen has worked with artists in the past that have asked him to create something for them. And [people] have every reason to believe that this has happened again. But Glen and I are so peaceful with this. I can't control people's brains out there."
Back in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley, Ballard leads a visitor into the home recording studio where almost all of Pill was written and recorded--"for peanuts." His and Morissette's modus operandi was to cowrite and record a song a day, in 12- to 16-hour shifts, with minimal instrumental overdubbing later. He can't help it if the album sounds too masterly, too hooky, too mature, to have been accomplished that spontaneously.
"All I know is what really happened. And this was the least calculated thing I've ever done," says the 43-year-old studio whiz. "All of her vocals were done the same day the song was written. Singers always want to nuance, but she was so close to what she was saying, singing the lyrics as she wrote them, that at the end of the night I would toss a track on tape as quickly as I could get it there, and she would sing it in one or two takes--and that's the record, largely. That's never happened in my career. I've spent a month just on one vocal."
Ballard met Morissette through a song-publishing contact, and it was only after they'd finished most of Pill's tracks that they shopped the tape to labels. By now it's the stuff of legend how nearly every major imprint rejected it, and how, when the album took off, not a few of those same executives had to beg to keepshe stuck to the "Jaggged Little Pill" album, breathing new air into the arrngements ush the concert stage [Fans at Alanis Morissette concert]