Nominating gay icons is downright therapeutic. Not only is it fun to discuss people who rule (like Ms. Julie Bowen!), but it’s simply about time we expanded the narrow phalanx of gay icons to include 1) stars who’ve emerged within the past 20 years, 2) more unconventional choices, and 3) entertainers who follow in the tradition of great gay icons’ defiance, independence, and charisma.
That brings us to today’s nominee, the graceful and doggedly articulate Alanis Morissette. No doubt about it, a big part of the Grammy-winning songstress’s fan base is gay men, much like her heroes Carole King, Tori Amos, Sinead O’Connor, and Liz Phair. But she’s still not quite heralded as a gay draw, and with her new album Havoc and Bright Lights emerging this month (as well as rumors that she may join American Idol), the time is right to shout out her winning qualities and everything that makes her a rightful target of gay connoisseurship.
1. Everyone, gays included, has an Alanis song that resonates most.
Now, I’m sure we all have multiple copies of Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie tucked into our forgotten CD visors, but I’d reckon that most of Alanis’ most touching and perceptive songs still resonate with even her most casual fans. “You Learn” and “Ironic” are perfect examinations of the triumph in surviving tough circumstances (or not surviving, in the case of the plane crash guy from “Ironic”). “Head Over Feet” is a scroll of perfect romantic imagery and blistering vulnerability. “So Pure” is a blast of a dance floor freedom. “Precious Illusions” (off the underrated Under Rug Swept) is my personal favorite, a tune about forsaking self-inflicted delusions, romantic or otherwise, and growing up. “Eight Easy Steps” is a straightforward, funny, and damning song about coping mechanisms. And I love that Dogma soundtrack tune, “Still,” which is the best of her Far Eastern-tinged stuff. But I’m sure you all have different favorites! Because she is that good a songwriter! For the best exhibition of her writing talents, give her Unplugged disc another listen.
2. She’s certified to officiate at gay weddings.
In 2004, Morissette was one of the first celebrities (that I can think of, anyway) to become an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church with the intention of “marrying some of my gay friends,” as she said at the time. Hey, everyone: I want Alanis Morissette to preside over my nuptials! My husband and I will recite the lyrics to “Thank U” and stand naked while our grown-out hair covers our chests. Perhaps we’ll conduct this at a grocery store!
3. She’s serious about her message, but she’s just as serious about not taking herself seriously.
Alanis is sometimes criticized for lyrics that are either too earnest or New Age-y, but it’s always been clear that she’s game to make fun of herself. Her appearance in Dogma as God was cheeky enough, but better yet, this video of Alanis parodying the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” in one of YouTube’s first viral phenonema is exceptional. Her line reading of “Get you love drunk off my humps”? Legendary.
4. She updated “Ironic” with a gay twist.
Alanis’ 2005 disc Jagged Little Pittle Acoustic revisited the 13 songs of her 1995 blockbuster, slowed them down, and imbued them with a tempered, adult contemporary sensibility. She didn’t change the lyrics except for one key word in “Ironic”: In the unforgettable line, “It’s meeting the man of my dreams / And then meeting his beautiful wife,” she changed “wife” to “husband,” making the irony all the funnier. This predates the shock gay ending of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” video by seven years.
And a word about the “irony” in “Ironic”: It’s hip to dismiss the lyrics of “Ironic” (“It’s like rain on your wedding way / It’s the free ride when you’ve already paid”) as erroneous examples of irony, but I think that cynicism skirts the song’s true meaning — and true irony. The song is ironic because it’s about finding relief and humor in the worst possible times. She didn’t lose her ideal man to his wife; she lost him to his beautiful wife. The plane-phobic man who dies in a plane crash doesn’t die angry; he says, “Well, isn’t this nice?” The meaning is all in the bridge: “Life has a funny way of helping you out when you think everything’s going wrong and everything blows up in your face.” Right, life is funny when it’s horrible. That’s the irony. A brilliant song.
5. She remade Seal’s “Crazy” and played a lesbian (or at least a very female-protective friend!) in the video.
Speaking of predating Carly Rae Jepsen, Alanis Morissette covered Seal’s glorious 1990 jam “Crazy” for her 2004 hits collection and cast herself as the LGBT twist in the accompanying video. In the clip, she appears to be chasing around a man who jilted her, but she’s actually pining for the affection of his female paramour. Get it, girl!
6. She made Sex and the City gayer.
She’s had a couple of memorable acting stints on Weeds and Curb Your Enthusiasm, but Alanis’ best TV cameo is also her gayest. On Sex and the City, she made out with Carrie Bradshaw during a game of Truth Or Dare. And I thought Madonna’s Evian exhibition was the gayest thing to come out of this parlor room distraction.
7. She may have written a sleeper gay anthem with “Orchid”
I love finding obscurer tracks from well-known artists that deserve more recognition. Elton John’s blissful, eight-minute “Are You Ready for Love” is a recent find for me. Chaka Khan’s ratatat dance jam “My Love Is Alive” is a stunner. And for me, this bonus track from Alanis’ 2008 album Flavors of Entanglement is beautiful; it channels the perspective of a misunderstood child (“Treated like a rose as an orchid”) and explores the relief and glory of finding someone who actually gets you. There’s some coming-out cred in this song, and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find a gay man who doesn’t know the relief of finding that first man who makes love seem attainable, un-alien, and natural. For me, “Orchid” covers that. And Alanis’ vocal is gorgeous.
8. She has spot-on reactions to completely sexist criticism.
It’s important for gays to be on the lookout for sexism since (among other reasons) a big part of homophobia is the hatred of women. I’m sure you’ve seen that well-circulated quote, “Homophobia: the fear that gay men will treat you the way you treat women.” I think it’s hard to deny the cyclical connection between the misogynist’s belief in male superiority and the homophobe’s resentment of male femininity.
Thus, let’s take a minute to think of the unfair and sexist evaluations female rock stars have had to endure from rock critics. The brilliant Aimee Mann is routinely dismissed as “depressing,” and she’s even been given the gag-inducing moniker, “the Martha Stewart of misery.” You can’t read a review of Liz Phair’s staggering, thoroughly incisive masterpiece Exile In Guyville without hearing about how she “titillated indie geeks.” And worst of all, Rolling Stone once put Alanis Morissette on a cover with the charmless tag, “Angry White Female.” If you’re a female rock star who exhibits qualities other than comeliness or motherliness, you might be exploited as an indecipherable beast, a Clytemnestra with a record deal. That’s even if you only express anger in one damn song out of many, as Alanis did. Imagine if Iggy Pop were continually called “angry” by the press. People and critics would be sick of that, fast, even though his career is built on rage. Bottom line: With male rock critics, the female side of anger is often treated as a gimmick, and that’s embarrassing.
To this day, Morissette lives down her “You Oughta Know”-era “anger,” and I always like her reaction when interviewers smugly ask why she’s not a shrieking weirdo with unladylike rage anymore. In one interview with The Daily Beast, she explained, “I think anger is an incredible life force, and I’m proud of my own anger. I think so much of it has to do with where you channel it. I’d been repressing for a long time this sort of cultural thing for me, as being a Canadian, was that I was very passive-aggressive. So a lot was squashed down, and all of a sudden I had this freedom to write whatever I wanted, so of course this was going to come out.” If you’re forced to continually justify and humanize your own perfectly reasonable emotions, I think that’s a diplomatic and smart way to do it. Go, Alanis. By the way, the definitive performance of “You Oughta Know” is this Grammy rendition.
What are your favorite Alanis tracks, moments, and albums?