"You are courageous"

A supposed former Alanis-hater confesses.

Published May 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Women have always been divided against each other. Women have always been in secret collusion. Both of these axioms are true."

-- Adrienne Rich, "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," an essay in "On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966-1978."

Recently I met a woman named Amy who was left at the altar a few years ago. Her reputation preceded her, and I had always been fascinated by her horror story. Exactly one day before her huge, elaborately planned wedding, to which more than 1,000 guests were invited, her fianci called it off. There wasn't enough time to call everyone -- many guests arrived and were informed by the clerks at the front desk that the wedding was cancelled. Gifts had to be sent back. None of the costs of the wedding could be refunded. The unthinkable public humiliation she must have suffered! How did she survive? I wanted to know more, but I didn't want to embarrass her by mentioning it.

She unabashedly brought up the whole nightmare, and when I asked her how she made it through, she replied, "I know this is cheesy, but have you heard the new Alanis Morissette CD?"

Admitting that you love Alanis Morissette is almost as embarrassing as getting left at the altar.

Admitting that you love Alanis is like admitting that you own a "Buns of Steel" video. It's like admitting that you cook with butter instead of olive oil, that you never really finished "Backlash" or "Infinite Jest" and never got past the first chapter of "Gravity's Rainbow," that you sometimes watch Oprah and cry when the guest therapist talks about how important it is to feel sorry for yourself. Admitting that you love Alanis is almost as bad as visiting a tanning bed, or talking about your sex counselor or subscribing to InStyle magazine. Loving Alanis is something any self-respecting woman fears deeply and avoids at all costs.

She's a woman who speaks almost entirely in pop psychology clichis and New Age dogmas, a woman whose twisted fixation on the most mundane of struggles makes her a slower-moving target than a "Cathy" cartoon strip. While Tori Amos unearths child molestation, Liz Phair trots out rough sex and Polly Jean Harvey tackles revenge fantasies, Alanis brings us weight problems and "figurative slaps on the wrist." Helium's Mary Timony wrestles with dragons and fairies, Tracy Chapman talks about revolution and Alanis worries that needing a hug might make her seem "whiny."

In a time when discriminating tastes are turning to Jewel's poetry for inspiration, Alanis' disturbingly unsubtle lyrics seem better suited to the self-help shelves. Only preteen girls wouldn't cringe over lines like, "We were together during a tumultuous time in our lives. I will always have your back and be curious about you, about your career, your whereabouts." This is not a woman searching for the most graceful way to express her thoughts. "It's a cycle really you think I'm withdrawing and guilt-tripping you I think you're insensitive and I don't feel heard." This is the "Chasing Amy" school of songwriting -- no mystery and nothing to read between the lines, a diary on a billboard.

But then her video for "Thank U" came out, and there she was, standing naked in the street, singing, "How 'bout getting off of these antibiotics?" She was making it so easy for us to hate her, for everyone to hate her. The bestselling female artist in years, looking pasty. Heavy in the hips. Awkward. Why didn't she wear more make-up, or change her hair or use a body double? How could she do this to herself, expose herself like this, set herself up to be ripped apart ruthlessly?

Within weeks, parodies were everywhere, including an MTV promo that featured an extremely unattractive naked older woman whining hideously and being mocked by a throng of onlookers. Irish songwriter Sinead Lohan told "On The Record," "Oh my God. People like that, I wouldn't consider her a songwriter at all."

But it really is a catchy song, as long as you block out the part where she thanks the entire country of India for aiding her self-actualization. It's not long before you're singing along whenever "Thank U" comes on the radio, and then you're buying the "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" CD, and then you're actually sitting through the video. Before you know it, something inside you has shifted, and one day you find yourself telling a woman who got left at the altar that you unabashedly bawl your eyes out whenever you hear the part about "unabashedly bawling your eyes out."

It's embarrassing to love Alanis because she represents, in the eyes of men and women, the best and the worst of being a woman. She's obsessed with an endless stream of men, "emotionally available" and otherwise. She's preoccupied with her weight. She's in therapy. She's self-involved, insecure, fearful, bitchy and way too smart for her own good -- all labels often used to dismiss emotionally unrestrained women. Alanis is what Freud would have called "hysterical."

But women like Alanis don't have any desire to rein in their emotions, no matter what the reaction will be. They can't stand the repression and self-control it takes to be mysterious. Mystery works for women like Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith and Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker, women whose lyrics are subtler, more poetic and intriguing and just out of reach. But women like Alanis are too impatient for self-censorship -- they want to share everything, all the time, with everyone. No more small talk, damn it! No more batting the eyes and slowly giving in. Let's get to the truth! Let's make a real connection, already! "Is she perverted like me?" Just answer the damn question!

Women hate Alanis for the same reasons they hate the parts of themselves and the parts of their lives that they can't control. This is the fear that fuels our fascination with cancelled weddings. To think of the lilies and irises wilting in their crystal vases, the wedding cake being eaten by the family for weeks afterwards, the monogrammed towels, engraved silver and personalized stationery arriving after the fact, each new package carrying with it a fresh wave of humiliation. But worst of all is the talk: thousands of guests, each calling their friends to retell the story, creating their own narrative, replete with a moral that hints that another woman could have avoided this. The jilted bride must have lost control, she must have abandoned mysteriousness and said too much.

There are so few openings in pop culture for the rough edges Alanis celebrates. Most videos give us quick cuts of polished, pretty, shimmying girls. There are no cracks through which to spot reality, no moments where the focus blurs, where the starlet loses her composure. Her mascara smears, she feels self-conscious for a second, the cameraman eyes her ass and it throws her off her routine.

Alanis' literal, clunky lyrics unveil a world that's all smeared mascara and missed cues. She's no great wordsmith, but her style is subversive in its utter lack of pretension or self-consciousness. While Britney Spears and Mariah Carey don Wonderbras and smile coyly and squeeze their cleavage together throughout meticulously choreographed videos, Alanis sits her bare ass on a subway seat and opens her big mouth to scream. That's intentional vulnerability and exposure -- she knows exactly how negative and ruthless the reaction will be, and that's why she does it.

Mascara does smear, and perfectly nice women get left at the altar, and husbands leave their wives, and girls have sex for the wrong reasons, and lives unravel in millions of ways that aren't shiny or intriguing or tough. Women know all too well that no one wants to know about the chips in the paint, the loose ends and the way we often cling too much, or act too needy or lose control. These glimpses don't represent the whole of what a woman is capable of, but they represent exactly the parts that women wish to disown publicly and whisper about behind closed doors. It's not mysterious, it's not remotely sexy, but it's honest and it feels like a holiday from bullshit, a tiny respite from the burden of being a woman in a world that scoffs at womanly behavior. When we see Alanis with her bare ass on the plastic subway seat, we admire her for embodying our worst nightmares, for being painfully honest and embarrassing herself in ways we never could. Alanis has the courage to glorify the imperfect and the vulnerable, and most of all, to tell the truth.

Adrienne Rich writes, "Women have often felt insane when cleaving to the truth of our experience. Our future depends on the sanity of each of us, and we have a profound stake, beyond the personal, in the project of describing our reality as candidly and fully as we can to each other ... When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her."

I asked the would-be bride if she ever told new friends or dates about getting left at the altar. "Yeah, I do. I bring it up a lot, actually." She thought for a second, then smiled. "You've got to admit, it's a great story."

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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