Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Lost Continent of Alanis

I've said a few times that the late '90s (really, mid-to-late '90s, starting in 1995 or so) have their own very distinctive culture, and that when I watch a show or a movie from that era, certain obsessions seem to stand out and define the era. Other patches of years don't have that kind of identity as I see it, and others are defined only by the clothes or the style of music, but works from the late '90s seem to form their own weird little world.

One example that came to mind when I was re-watching some '90s TV shows: Alanis Morissette. It's not just that she was a phenomenon of the era, with Jagged Little Pill being played, talked about and imitated everywhere. It's that her success created a new archetype that became huge on TV for about three years: it seemed like everyone was making jokes, sketches, or whole episodes about angry young women singing songs about how much they hate men. Alanis jokes are still popular, come to think of it, since she's become comedy-writer shorthand for "man-hating." But in the late '90s, they were like a way of life.

I don't know if this stood out for anyone else, or if anyone remembers particular examples of pop culture's Alanis obsession. I can't actually name as many specific examples as I thought I could, because I remember several jokes or Alanis-like characters without remembering the source. (That's the problem with trying to reach back 15 years and remember what you saw: you can remember seeing it, you can't always remember where.) One I remember, because I saw it recently, was an entire Duckman episode where Bernice becomes a star by singing about how much she hates Duckman. Another example is below. Still another example is the French and Saunders bit "Bless U," though this one doesn't fit as clearly, because it's a parody of a song from a later album, rather than a response to the success of "Jagged Little Pill." I'll try and find some other examples from the era, or someone else can refresh my memory. But I definitely think it was a real phenomenon, because I remember seeing it in several different places.

It's not a big thing; I just find it very representative of the time. Everyone, everywhere, seemed briefly obsessed with the idea of the young woman who becomes a star by turning angry. I guess if you want to analyze it more, you could note that it's a bit sexist (young men singing angry songs are all over the place, but a young woman singing about her jerky ex-boyfriend is a freak), but lots of obsessions are. It just seems now like a very late '90s thing for writers to be preoccupied with.

Of the Morissette send-ups I remember -- and if you have any other examples from the '90s, refresh my memory -- the best was a Boy Meets World, where Will "Why Isn't This Talented Guy Doing More Non-Voice-Over-Work" Friedle meets a singer of sappy, cutesy songs (Leisha Hailey). When he breaks up with her, it drives her to write angry songs about him, and it makes her an instant star. "Planet Flaflooga" and "That's a minor chord!" are among the lines I have been quoting ever since this thing aired in 1996. It was written, incidentally, by Jeffrey C. Sherman, son of songwriter Robert B. Sherman of Sherman Brothers fame.

It's just me, I don't deny that; but to me, this clip just yells out "1996," just like many episodes from the seventh and eighth seasons of The Simpsons. Anything made in that era is just so redolent of its time, whereas something made in, say, 1992 or 2001 doesn't have as many clear cultural identifiers.


Tom Boone said...

My favorite Alanis homage: an <a href="http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/400665/jimmy-the-cab-driver-ironic.jhtml>MTV promo</a> with Jimmy the Cab Driver (Donal Logue) spoofing "Ironic."

Tom Boone said...

(Once more without the HTML gibberish...)

My favorite Alanis homage: an MTV promo with Jimmy the Cab Driver (Donal Logue) spoofing "Ironic." http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/400665/jimmy-the-cab-driver-ironic.jhtml

moopot said...

There was a terrible, terrible Australian song called "Bloke", which was a "parody" of the Alannis Morissette clone Merideth Brook's one hit wonder "Bitch".

Ken Reid said...

I don't know if this was specific to Alanis Morrisette or if it was just a bit of a larger cultural obesssion with the mainstreaming of some of "Riot Girl" movment stuff in the mid 90s. You had artists like Courtney Love, Liz Phair, Bikini Kill, L7, etc being featured more prominently in popular culture and so this kind of backlash seemed to stem from it. You had a lot of "angry youn women" kind of music going on and it was probably the first time a lot of mainstream America noticed it.

%Rax said...

That clip was actually pretty funny, which was surprising to me, since I only remember that show being either ridiculously melodramatic with the teen characters dealing with relationships as if they were twenty years older or completely ocer-the-top zany with the older brother being a retarded man-child. I guess I only watched the later seasons.

Rob MacDougall said...

"Anything made in that era is just so redolent of its time, whereas something made in, say, 1992 or 2001 doesn't have as many clear cultural identifiers."

It's not just you - I find this too. (It fits, too, with Joshua Glenn's insistence that the "decades" begin and end in years ending in 3. http://hilobrow.com/2010/03/02/cuspers/)

Somewhere I still have the CD-ROM that came with my new Windows '95 computer in, well, 1995. It had videos on it (video! on a computer!). I think it had the trailer for Braveheart, Weezer's Buddy Holly video, and a tutorial with Jenifer Aniston and Matt Perry, from this new show "Friends", explaining how to use Windows '95. I always thought you could not find a more concentrated chunk of 1990s than that disc.