I’ve been enjoying Steven Hyden’s multi-part retrospective on the ’90s alt-rock takeover of popular music, even though it must mean I’m officially getting old if it’s time for these Gen-X reminiscences. This week’s installment was kind of funny in a bittersweet way:
Even more than Sixteen Stone, Jagged Little Pill demonstrated that mainstream pop had assimilated the sound and feel of alt-rock and could now turn out artists that fit the mold without all that troublesome baggage of BS punk-rock credibility. Jagged Little Pill made edgy gestures—lead single “You Oughta Know” thrust an aggressive finger in the chest of the tired Carly Simon-style singer-songwriter template just enough to make it feel alive again—while turning out a steady stream of ear-pleasing pop tunes that toed the line with trends that were now firmly in place. Listeners were so wrapped up in the “controversy” over who exactly Alanis was supposed to be blowing in a movie theater in “You Oughta Know” that they never stopped to ask, “You know, who really gives a shit?”
Gather around, childrens, and let Grandpa Damian spin you a tale. ‘Twas the early fall of 1995; I remember it well. I came home one day and told my then-girlfriend that I had heard the most unbelievably wretched song on the radio while out on the road that morning. I said it was some girl who sounded like every drunk you’ve ever heard on a karaoke machine yowling her way through some stupid song about having one hand in her pocket while the other hand is doing this, that and the other. Seriously, the lyrics were insanely stupid and she sounded like she was affecting an annoying, whiny drawl on purpose, like you might do if you were sarcastically singing along to a song you hate. I figured it was one of those weird things that might get played once or twice on alternative radio, and then quickly – mercifully – disappear into obscurity.
Well, as you can guess, that was Alanis Morissette with her song “Hand in My Pocket”, one of the singles from a record that, if I recall correctly, went on to be the number one top-selling record by a female artist ever, period, full stop. I still laugh, imagining what it would have been like if I had been the A&R representative sent to a club to check out the buzz on this Alanis girl and see about possibly signing her to a contract. I would have reported back, “Forget it, boss. Ain’t no way in hell anyone’s going to pay money to listen to that shit!” I’m sure I would have been canned shortly thereafter.
Her inexplicable success, along with seeing blatantly derivative bands like Bush, Silverchair and countless other bastard children of Eddie Vedder and Layne Staley embraced by the same people who, a mere two years earlier, had greeted Stone Temple Pilots with unbridled, ferocious loathing more appropriate for serial rapists and war criminals over STP’s much less serious crimes against originality, driving singer Scott Weiland into the consoling arms of heroin addiction in the process, is what finally made crystal-clear to me that I no longer had my finger on the pulse of popular culture. I’ve felt like an outcast ever since, unable to comprehend why people like what they do.