Alanis Morissette, Corin Tucker and the Frustrating/Promising State of Women in Rock

Alanis Morissette's "Havoc and Bright Lights" is in stores today; Corin Tucker Band's "Kill My Blues" drops Sept. 18th.

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In 1995, Alanis Morissette released her iconic album Jagged Little Pill—the same year that, out in Olympia, Wash., Sleater-Kinney released their self-titled debut album. Both acts went on to make musical history, each in their own niches, in their own ways. And their parallel tracks continued: Both Morissette and Sleater-Kinney’s frontwoman, Corin Tucker, took a few years off to rear children and now both are back with new albums to introduce a new generation of women to their music and remind them that today’s female rockers—even Carly Rae Jepsen—are standing on the shoulders of musical giants. But the similarities stop there.

In many ways, Jagged Little Pill was music by women for women. The album came out on Maverick, the label that was backed by none other than Madonna. But even when it came out in 1995, it was in some ways an extremely cynical, or at least calculated, attempt at hitching a pop wagon to the Riot Grrrl and grunge movements. It married grunge’s angst, riot grrl’s anger and the confessional female singer-songwriter style of Tori Amos with a radio-ready package that could be sold at the mall. Which isn’t to say that the album wasn’t great. It was. After all, “just-okay” albums don’t typically sell over 30 million copies. The album’s first single “You Oughta Know” was a blistering scorched-earth song dedicated to love gone wrong, with catchy beats, brilliant production and unforgettable lyrics (made even more unforgettable when you discovered the sexually-suggestive song was about Full House star Dave Coulier). The album was a captivating combination of confession, offbeat melodies and angry truth. It became iconic of an entire generation and helped pave the way for such artists as Lady Gaga and Rihanna, whose brazenness in some ways still pales in comparison to Morissette’s. The follow-up singles “You Learn” (an almost resignedly happy anthem to maturing), “Ironic” (it wasn’t ironic, but it was catchy) and “One Hand in My Pocket” (a silly-yet-infectious earworm, which if made today would have spawned a million YouTube parodies) showed off a talented young woman on the verge of becoming one of the decade’s greatest.

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image: Alanis Morissette's new 'Havoc and Bright Lights'

Collective Sounds

Ultimately, though, it appears that the burden was too much for Morissette. She recently told The Guardian that she has post-traumatic stress from the Jagged Little Pill era of her life, after which she retreated from the spotlight. She has dutifully produced album after album, none of which has lived up to the expectations of Jagged Little Pill; her latest, Havoc and Bright Lights, out Aug. 28, is her eighth. And after all that, it seems clear that Morissette, who is now a wife and mother (and, according to her interview with The Guardian, a practitioner of at least four different types of yoga), is trying to regain some of her Jagged Little Pill verve. Havoc and Bright Lights is a good effort, with a few notable tracks like “Guardian” and “Spiral,” but overall the album falls noticeably short of Morissette’s promise from the ’90s.

The failures of Havoc are uniquely deflating because the album harks back to that earlier era without noticeably elevating or evolving its sound. (Which is ironic, in the actual sense of the word, as the last track on the album is titled “The Edge of Evolution.”) Morissette relies on the same range of sounds as she did on all her post-Jagged Little Pill albums—reverbing vocals, ’90s-style drum loops, the occasional string section, angsty guitar riffs over the choruses and the occasional anthemic flourishes—without using hindsight to re-visit her old musical stomping grounds in any meaningful way. It sounds like she has listened to nothing but her own music for the last ten years. The nostalgia works on tracks like “Spiral” and “Guardian,” a seeming ode to the joys of parenting, but crumples under its own weight on “Numb” and “Empathy.” It’s okay if Morissette is no longer angry—we all mature—but she seems to remember that anger worked in the past. Absent the real emotion, her ’90s-era musical nostalgia sounds hollow, more careless than craven, a default setting more than a musical choice. Lyrics like, “Calling all lady haters/Why must you vilify us?” from the pseudo-feminist ode “Woman Down” sound de-fanged at best.

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The BBC claims that, “The key to enjoying a new Alanis Morissette album is accepting that she’ll never make another Jagged Little Pill.” But there’s no reason that she can’t. Much like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the little curl, when Morissette is on her game, she’s not just good, she is very very good, and when she’s bad she’s so-so. This album is very so-so or, in Morissette-ian terms, from her song “The Edge of Evolution,” the album has, “The highs and lows and the heres and theres.” Morissette fans have a few very solid tracks to buy from this album: “Havoc,” “Guardian,” and “Spiral” are all welcome additions to any Morissette playlist.

And if my expectations of Morissette are too high, it’s because I’ve been listening to The Corin Tucker Band’s Kill My Blues, out Sept. 18. Like Morissette, Corin Tucker rose to prominence in the early ’90s, making waves as one of the instigators of the Riot Grrrl movement in Olympia, Wash., with her band Heavens to Betsy. She went on to front one of the most influential indie rock bands of the late ’90s: Sleater-Kinney. Rolling Stone has called her a “punk-rock heroine” and she proves that she still deserves that title with her blazing return, Kill My Blues. It’s an album that could fit into the illustrious Sleater-Kinney discography, and simultaneously shows a clarity of vision that is uniquely Tucker’s.

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That 1995 self-titled Sleater-Kinney debut (on Chainsaw Records) left, much like Morissette’s album, little doubt that the women behind it were angry. But Sleater-Kinney’s women, unlike Morissette, weren’t mad about getting tossed aside by Dave Coulier; their antagonists were institutionalized sexism, racism…and most other -isms. The band came together as the Riot Grrrl movement, which took hold in the early and mid 1990s, driven by bands like Heavens to Betsy, Bikini Kill, and Bratmobile, was beginning to fall apart. Bikini Kill put out its last album in 1996, and, according to the New York Times, Riot Grrrl (the organized movement, which had nationwide chapters) dissolved the same year. Sleater-Kinney — which comprises Tucker, Carrie Brownstein (now of Portlandia) and drummer Lora MacFarlane, who was eventually replaced by Quasi’s Janet Weiss — rose from the roots of Riot Grrrl, sprouting from the same ideology of DIY feminism. But unlike Bratmobile’s members, the women of Sleater-Kinney really knew how to play their instruments. Dig Me Out, the band’s first album on the Kill Rock Stars record label, is practically flawless. After six more albums, the group went on “indefinite hiatus,” a fact that still thrills fans with the possibility of a reunion. Brownstein and Weiss eventually went on to form Wild Flag and Corin Tucker launched a solo career with her 2010 debut, 1,000 Years.

In Kill My Blues, Tucker, like Morissette, revisits the sound she made famous in the ’90s. When Tucker returns to her Riot Grrrl roots, however, it sounds like a calculated return to the beginning, a way to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. It’s as if The Terminator were set to a killer beat with devastatingly poignant lyrics that call to task not only the music industry but also women who failed to continue the feminist fight. Tucker addresses topics that Morissette would find familiar: parenting, fame, love and loss. She tackles the topics with perspicacity and toughness, pairing her emotional investigations with hard-blitzing beats and thumping unapologetic rhythms.

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The album, which was written collaboratively with band members Seth Lorinczi (guitar), Mike Clark (bass) and Sara Lund (drums), is a lesson in songcraft as well as a refreshing reminder of how talented Tucker is as a lyricist. In “Neskowin,” Tucker takes you back to the pain of growing up, growing apart and sweet summertime nostalgia—all in the span of 15 lines. It’s short and sweet, with Lund’s impeccable drumming driving the track forward while Clark’s bass and Lorinczi’s guitar play off of each other to create a depth of sound and layers that you could try to unravel to for hours. In “Groundhog’s Day,” the first single off the new album, Tucker demands answers from her generation: “I took some time off to be a mom and have some kids/what’s up y’all? I thought we had a plan/Gonna move things forward/for us and women round the globe.” She sees herself waking up “like Rip Van Winkle in a denim mini skirt” and demands to know what happened and why more advances haven’t been made. She asks, “Tell me something are we living in slo-mo?” For Tucker, the answer is clearly yes. The song is a clear call to action and a kick in the pants.

“There is an alarming difference between the naïve sexism that disfigured rock before, say, 1967 and the much more calculated, almost ideological sexism that has flourished since.” The New Yorker’s music critic Ellen Willis wrote that in 1971, but substitute 1997 for the date, and she could have been writing about today’s musical scene. For proof of this, look no further than Pitchfork’s People’s List, a survey of the influential music site’s fans (88% of the voters were men) to determine the most popular albums of the last 15 years. The vast majority of the fan favorites were albums by white men, including admittedly great albums by Radiohead (who took the top two spots with OK Computer and Kid A), Arcade Fire, Animal Collective and Interpol. Kanye West was the lone African-American to crack the top 30 albums. What was not on the list were women. As Jody Rosen pointed out in Salon, “There are just 23 records by women artists in the top 200, and only two in the top 50. And that’s a generous count, making room for co-ed acts like The xx, Beach House, and Portishead.” While Rosen called the list “a scandal,” a shame seems more apt. The fact that the male Pitchfork voters were unable or unwilling to recognize the contributions of women is strange? sad? all of the above? While the list did recognize Bjork (the first female solo artist on the list at no. 51), M.I.A. (98), Joanna Newsom (101), and St. Vincent (113), it overlooked such notables as Missy Elliot, Sleater-Kinney, or, heck, Madonna. Going back further, the ’90s were rife with strong female voices aside from Morissette, Sleater-Kinney, and the Riot Grrrls. Singers like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple courageously sang about rape and were able to hit the Billboard charts while doing it. The music industry has changed, but in many ways it has stayed exactly the same. Morissette and Tucker’s new albums show that the women of the ’90s are not only still relevant today, but have a lot to show the new generation of listeners, performers and fans alike.

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