This album has been the soundtrack of my pandemic life.
It first came to my attention when my mom sent me this video, which was making the rounds on social media:
This song is called ‘Ablaze’, and it is a manifesto about a mother’s love for her children – declaring ‘my mission is to keep / the light in your eyes ablaze.’
Part of what is so magical about this performance was seeing Morrissette’s music and her motherhood intertwined. The way she invites her daughter into this space – celebrating her as a joyful thing rather than an impediment to work – captures exactly what I want to do in my own artistic life.
After months of lockdown, when most parents I know where (rightfully) talking about how impossible and exhausting it felt to navigate the conflict between parenting and working, this felt like a balm.
This beautiful line of lyric was the one that came to my mind every time I looked at my daughter and thought my dreams for her future. From doing the dishes, to managing tantrums, I found myself repeating it like a mantra, with all that love and ferocity: “my mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.”
I was eleven when ‘Jagged Little Pill’ was released internationally. I remember the shock and the thrill of encountering this voice – striding boldly into emotional terrain I could feel just coming across the horizon of my own life, but which I did not yet have the words to articulate myself.
People talk about Morrissette’s anger, particularly in regard to this breakout album. But it still drives the conversation today. (In fact, the topic line of Rolling Stone’s profile opens with a quote saying ‘I love anger’.)
But focusing on the anger misses the point. What I find so radical and so refreshing is her honesty. The depth of feeling and willingness to express it in such a vulnerable way spoke to millions and millions of young girls.
She has done it again with ‘Such Pretty Forks In The Road’. She has captured exactly what it feels like to navigate motherhood and adult female life – capturing unhealthy stress relief (‘These…are the reasons I drink’), mental health struggles (‘Call it what you want to / ‘Cause I don’t even care anymore / Call it what you need to / To feel comfortable’), and partnership (‘You call it bright / And I call it simple / And somewhere in the middle is truth’).
I absolutely love her lyrics. They are just the right balance of clear and mystical, so you know exactly what she is talking about, but can also so easily read your own life into them.
I was hungry to hear her talk more about the stories behind the songs, how she created the album, and what this work meant in her own life. I wanted the deep dive into the artistic process.
So I googled it, but with disappointing results. There was very little in-depth journalistic engagement with the album… but lots of three star reviews.
I was shocked – had these critics heard the same album I had? This is the album born of the natural maturing and growth of the same voice that once drove ‘Jagged Little Pill’. She was changing, growing as a person, and taking us on that journey.
How did these critics not connect with it the same way I did? I mean, I’m a songwriter – and I was impressed technically as well as emotionally. What was going on – was I losing my touch?
Then I looked at the bylines. And all these reviews were written by men. (And guessing from their names, a very particular kind of white man.)
Some people are amazing at empathising their way into another’s perspective. Others, less so. The best way to control for this is to make sure lots of different voices can be heard. It made me sad once again that there is so little diversity in who has control of the critical conversation.
A piece of art needs to be reviewed by someone from the audience it is intended for.
There is still room for dissenting / contrasting voices. These are important to create a dialogue or point out flaws or blind spots. But they shouldn’t drown out the conversation an artist is trying to have with their intended audience.
If you can’t really speak to whether a song about postnatal depression captures that experience, you shouldn’t situate yourself as a voice of authority about that work.
I know lots of artists with a powerful antipathy to critics. I’m not one of them – I think they are an important part of the artistic ecosystem, and both good and bad reviews have helped me think in new ways about my own work.
But sometimes there is a missing ingredient, where critics don’t understand that not everyone sees the piece the same way they do. (Ex: a critic may hate a play personally, but if the audience is in hysterics, that needs to be acknowledged.)
What I was seeing in these reviews of Morrissette’s album is a bland ‘yeah it’s good but not amazing’ – but the only way they could feel this way is if they don’t understand the currents of life it was written to engage with.
I wish both the interviewers and the critics had engaged with Morrissette about her intentions – they might have better understood how beautifully this album fulfilled them.
And I also wish, on a purely human level, that they had managed to look a little bit outside of themselves.
As women get more opportunities to make art, we are encountering a critical establishment that isn’t always ready for us. It hasn’t yet learned how to engage with and understand this work.
I hope we get to hear from a wider range of critics and connoisseurs. And I hope the current gatekeepers take the opportunity to think about why they hold the opinions they do, and take the risk of looking beyond them.
This album may not have connected with the men reviewing it. But if they had asked their wives or sisters, they might have heard a different story.
In summary – the critics got this one really, really wrong.
THANK YOU Alanis for creating tracks that gave me energy and inspiration, that saw me in my darkness and struggles, and are just brilliant songs in their own right.
Your music has kept me going during this pandemic, and for that I will be forever grateful.