My Life is an Alanis Morrisette Song

Which, means, I suppose, that my life is also good, old fashioned kitsch. Ah, Bliss.

Orrr….I’m eternally boring. Feel free to take your pick.

‘Twas driving somewhere recently, and decided that I needed to listen to something other than Amy Ray and/or Guns N’ Roses for just a bit. The driving gods seemed to be dictating a foray into Jagged Little Pill. You’ll recall this album, I’m sure, due to it’s most famous song–that Angry 90’s Chick tune, “You Oughta Know.” Or, perhaps you are familiar with it because some really obnoxious English teacher or journalist insisted on pointing out that while the song “Ironic” may have a few moments of cosmic irony embedded (not the least of which would be the title, assuming she was being thoughtful on the matter), that “black flies in chardonnay” are not, in truth, ironic. Gross? Yes. Annoying? Without question. Ironic? No.

And, I’m guilty of ranting about this song in class myself. And, friends, that is not what this post is about. The subject at hand is far, far worse. You see, I fondly remember the 90s and being one of those angry 90s chicks, though I lacked the great Alanis hair, and, as I already had a kid, I was rather…ummm…required to be somewhat more mature in my actions than some of my sisters, but, damn it, I identified with Alanis. I was the moron who really believed that her much older boyfriend “was the one,” and that he wouldn’t return to his ex if given the opportunity. Because, you (oughta) know, what he really wanted was a 20-something college student as life partner.


Anyhoo, I was listening to the lyrics, as I am in the habit these days of searching for explication songs to inflict on my students, and during “Hand in My Pocket,” the horrible, sinking feeling began. Perhaps you’ve felt it before–the overweening identification with a set of lyrics that manages to be more neurotic than enlightening? Let’s examine the facts for a moment.

First, it was this set of lyrics that grabbed me and shook me out of my drivetime reverie of lost 90s youth and frivolity:

What it all comes down to/ Is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet/ I’ve got one hand in my pocket/ And the other one is giving the peace sign

Now, any of you who know me IRL see where this is going, because there are few lyric sets that are more descriptive of me than this. I sign my freaking emails with “peace,” for heaven’s sake. Trotting out the explication: what we seem to be getting at here is that the “one hand” is symbolic for what we don’t see or know. Interesting point-of-view here, as “we” could be hiding some part of ourselves (the hand) from someone else, or, as the “figured it out just yet,” the naivety is all ours and the hidden hand is what we don’t know (about ourselves).

Am I reading way too much into Morrissette here? Onward…

The song is (mostly*) built on a series of apparent contradictions, ones that probably describe the lives of most young folk: high/grounded, sane/overwhelmed, green/wise, and so forth. So, what we see here are my own wanderings into nostalgia–those days of happy poverty, don’t you know? The lyrics wax ecstatic over the loose freedom of youth, which, since I was a teen mother, I really didn’t experience, so I recognize that my life was not an Alanis Morrissette song; rather, I tended to use her lyrics as some kind of marker for my reality in my early 20s. I was certainly “green,” but I had to be “wise,” because I was responsible for a life other than my own.

“You Oughta Know” works in fundamentally the same way, recalling those angry days of youth when I was so self-righteous as to believe that I DESERVED him because I was me and because I was too scared (fear being the point of origin for most anger) to actually do or say anything to protect myself. The speaker of the lyrics, embodied by Morrissette, was pissed off enough and (maybe) strong enough to say and–perhaps–do something, even if the lyrics did have that vaguely uncomfortable, familiar obsessive feeling to them.**

Morrissette epitomized the voice of the 20-something woman still searching for her voice; the albums lyrics move from vapid to angry to sappy to, occasionally, provocative, rather like the average 20-something (especially those early 20-somethings–I think I was 20 when the song came out). And I started this post with the intention of making all manner of fun. Ah well.

What I realized in my insipid car-moment: “Hand in my Pocket” is still my public face, more or less (green/capable, and so forth), and “All I Really Want” (anyone who thought “You Oughta Know” was the premier angry chick song did not listen to this one carefully enough) is still the me that runs around my brain and provokes blogs such as this and the iZazen business I mentioned a few weeks ago. That me would like to be more provocative, yet she is still quite stifled by the hand that stays firmly in pocket. Goal for the decade: hand out of pocket.

In “researching” this post, I found this reading of the significance of Morrissette by BadCoverVersion; I so want to take her class. She reminded me of something, though. One part of the “YOK” lyrics that stood out to so many people was the “go down on you in a theater” bit. Public risky business as proof of…what? strength? The lyrics represent a brief diversion into raunch culture, but I am not sure what to make of that, as the other lyrics don’t really follow up. I wonder how many of us believed that sexual behavior was power at that age…

Which leads me to my favorite song, which seems oh-so-very significant in light of the last. For those not already aware, my favorite song–okay, one of them– is GNR’s (I know you saw that coming) “It’s So Easy.” Now, it happens that the music (especially the rythym section) of the song is the root of my affection, not the lyrics, but the lyrics are worth noting. Now, like “YOK,” “Easy” is a fairly angry tune. And it is nothing if not viciously misogynistic, particularly in the end, with the remark “Turn around bitch, I got a use for you”*** Yet, it is one of this self-described feminist’s favorite songs; I even sing along as I drive.

I was given Appetite for Destruction for my 13th birthday, after falling head-over-heels (as rising thirteen-year-olds are wont to do) in love with “Welcome to the Jungle.” Now, I liked “Sweet Child,” but it was “Welcome” that made me sit down and take notice of GNR. Then, I got the album with the lovely “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” sticker. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t hear the explicit lyrics, captivated as I was by the raw, angry drive of the music. I think I even voiced that to my friend Carolyn at the time, but I might have just thought “hey, I didn’t hear anything explicit.” Ahem.

So, the second time, I listened to the lyrics…and quickly realized that if I ever dreamed of playing my favorite tune in front of my mother, I would lose life, limb, and every pursuit of happiness I have ever imagined. And then some. So, to the best of my memory, I never played all of Appetite in her presence. Especially not “Easy.”

So, at 13, I was attracted to a song that celebrates the L.A. women that supported the GNR gang (and heaven knows how many other bands), and, for their money and homes, were in turned into stars of a sexual fantasy in which the man (lyricist/speaker) recognizes that he doesn’t have to do any more than simply exist in order to get laid:

I see your sister in her Sunday dress/She’s out to please/She pouts her best/She’s out to take/No need to try/She’s ready to make/It’s so easy, easy [emphasis mine]

Axl once remarked that “Easy” was a “hippie rah-rah ya-ya” song (explain to me WTF that means, please), until he got hold of it. Okay….

Anyway, this is the example of ideal woman that I exposed myself to–and, to be fair, it is only one ideal–the whore–>”Sweet Child” posits the other ideal–the fair-haired virgin (the woman who was Axl’s muse for “Sweet Child” is also the whore in some stories about “You’re Crazy,” so make of all of this what you will). The same woman returns in “Nightrain”:

Wake up late honey put on your clothes/Take your credit card to the liquor store/ That’s one for you and two for me

And, she appears in “My Michelle” as well.

And in my 20s, the angry woman of “YOK,” who sells her importance because she’s willing to “go down on you in a theatre.” Imagine that.

This is not to say that I think for a moment that the GNR lyrics of my youth somehow shaped the decisions I later made; I don’t think I’ve ever credited music with that much power, but I find the images I gravitated toward rather fascinating, and I wonder what motivated those attractions, other than really groovy bass lines, particularly in light of the images I would gravitate toward later (and all of which are becoming fragments of my nostalgia now).

This turned into way more serious pondering than I intended, and it probably warrants a bit of follow up at sometime. How do these images shape us?

*”Mostly” because “short” and “healthy” are hardly mutally exclusive or even contradictory. Likewise for “poor” and “kind.”

** She wasn’t alone. Pay enough attention to Melissa Etheridge’s oeuvre–“Your Little Secret,” “Come to My Window,” and the like, and you will see a decidedly similar vein. Morrissette’s “Your House” is even more frightening than “YOK,” when you get right down to it.

***So much easier to believe that Rose wrote that part, but I’ve heard McKagan’s “Cornshucker“–it’s not like he wasn’t perfectly capable of that kind of verbal abuse, even if he tended to be tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s