Honoring Silence

Alanis Morissette at the Prudential Center  

Words: Plum Luard
October 28, 2023

Tell me a story.  Tell me a story without me hearing.  And I have honored your request for silence. And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.  Tell me a story I cannot hear.  Tell me the story you promised you would not.  Say it in silence.

Tell me a story.  Tell me a story without me hearing.  And I have honored your request for silence.  And you’ve washed your hands clean of this.  Tell me a story I cannot hear.  Tell me the story you promised you would not.  Say it in silence.

We blow lids off of everything illicit.  And pine and dig it deep to death.  We love what is forbidden.  All the words we are not supposed to hear.  Alanis Morisette’s “Hands Clean” shatters across the room.  Lady Macbeth will forever strut a stage in her sleep seeking clean hands.  In a white nightgown with a withering taper.  Her light ruins any semblance of anonymity.  An unforgettable eerie image of restless sunken eyes and flickering shadows.  She speaks without restraint.  Her language is “set down” by the doctor who has been summoned to observe the peculiarity.  She will never walk alone.  And her words will never be forgotten.  Her night walk is famous, for she is unwittingly joined not just by the two trembling observers but by the millions who have heard her dazed and delirious and deafening speech.  “Set down.”  Etched in the annals of history and heart.  “What, will these hands ne’er be clean?”  No, never.  Forever frantically wash while we watch.  A secret for all and for none.  I’ve more than honored your request for silence.  And you’ve washed your hands clean of this. Have you?

Morissette hit the stage on a dank Thursday night at the festival “only New Jersey could handle”—the loud speaker told us resolutely so.  Though, I am not totally sure they knew what they had signed up for.  Morissette was fierce and fabulous and frightening.  She sported black leather pants and a vibrant orange shirt—merchandise from her 1990s era—overlayed with a black silk short sleeve button down that billowed as she spun wildly in strobe lighting, sometimes with such force she found herself in a heap on the floor.  She wielded a gold harmonica like a glistening weapon.  And whipped her shiny brown locks murderously.  And marched and danced and jumped in crisp white sambas that were beat by the time fans were shouting for an encore.  When my sister and I returned home giddy and giggling, we woke up our father.  He engaged in a dazed conversation with us in a state of half consciousness, “How was it, beauties?”
“Incredible.”  My sister beamed. “I thought she was going to kill someone.”

Morissette’s set was chaotic.  Her performance veered so drastically from the studio recording that it was difficult to join in—the crowd mumbled out of sync with Morissette’s strained and straggly vocals.  Exploding the familiarly of lyrics and rhythms fans thought were forever drummed into their bones.  Ooh, this could be messy but you don’t seem to mind.  Morissette began to diverge most jarringly in the transitions between songs.  As the lights shifted and sunglass clad stagehands shuffled in and out, Morissette grasped the mic tightly and expunged a mix of sweet and searing shrieks.  The melodies exuded a jagged Morissettian edge but were hard to entirely place.  As she let out a particularly deafening scream before collapsing into “Mary Jane,” we wondered if she was shrieking as Mary Jane or for Mary Jane, maybe.  The set progressed, and garbled lyrics began to appear among the free vocals of these interludes: “You were my teacher.” 

On January 8th, 2002 Morissette released the first single, “Hands Clean,” from her 5th studio album, Under Rug Swept.  The song chronicles Morissette’s relationship with her much older producer when she was 14.  Morissette adopts the perspective of the man, her teacher and mentor, in the opening and lists a load of loaded hypotheticals.  “If it weren’t for me you would never have amounted to very much” falls among the ranks of searing conditionals.  The song switches between the two perspectives, but Morissette seizes back her own voice in the chorus, where she rings out, “and I have honored your request for silence and you’ve washed your hands clean of this.”   Her explosion of “you were my teacher” resounded; she was singing warbled snippets of her 2002 blockbuster notably missing from the set list.  A song that accedes to silence while blowing it up.  The 2002 music video for “Hands Clean” focuses on a television set that jumps through time and vignettes of Morissette’s career—with a label on the bottom of the screen running through, “the next day,” “4 weeks later,” “later that week.”  On the final chorus, young smiling teens sing the song in a karaoke bar.  The shot cuts, and one line of the chorus is highlighted on the screen as the group sings through—“no one knows except the both of us.”  The irony is ripe and pungent (though Morissette’s relationship to irony is undeniably fraught, she nails it here) as the group recites all the intricacies of the statutory relationship—going so far as to quote the language of the perpetrator.  A dusty and dismal narrative Morissette drags out from under the rug.  And the music video, which focuses totally on a broadcasted TV, sets fire to the rug entirely.  What part of our history’s reinvented and under rug swept?

Morissette is queen of narratives that purportedly should not be told.  Suppressed emotion and warbled histories run wild in female artists’ discography because of the stories we tell about femininity and desire and being and body.  Well—Morissette screams new ones.

I sat around a table of strangers this summer and exchanged heartbreak songs.  We guzzled heaps of pasta swimming in a sheet pan of tomatoes and garlic and drank red bottles of red wine.  We went around the table to add songs to the queue.  Heads fell weakly into shoulders.  Lazily strewn limbs.  Arms draped over chair backs.  Lullabies of heartbreak rang out.  That pleaded and begged and groveled.

“Why are we doing this?” one girl drawled with wine stained lips. “Turn it off.  Please.”  “Heavy” by Orla Garland and “Stay” by Rihanna were among the songs whose lyrics clung to the air and mingled with the suffocating cigarette smoke.  Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” pumped all the stagnant blood.  In the 1995 music video, Morissette sports long brown hair with sparse bangs and a fiery red lip.  She totes a black leather case brimming with clothing.  She writhes and rolls in white monochrome she has swapped for a scraggly black slip.  As Morisette’s final drawl of “you oughta know” faded, someone turned to me and said, “wow—she was bitter.”

The trope of the ridiculous, rabid, ravenous woman is one we like to cling to dearly.  Female bitterness is batted around and berated.  On May 5th 2022, singer songwriter Maggie Rogers spoke in a TikTok about music she recorded alongside her 2nd studio album, Surrender.  She relays advice given to her by Ben and Marcus of Mumford & Sons.  With freshly bleached blond hair shining bright, she reports, “they said, ‘don’t write anything bitter… that’s not a taste you’re gonna want to have in your mouth for as long as this song remains on the setlist.’”  Fans flood the comments in a full fledged onslaught.  “We LOVE bitter.”  “We want to hear the bitter.”  “I’m actually obsessed with bitterness.”  A user named nastolici adds, “but we love a bitter queen, Alanis Morissette baby!”  In a converted hockey rink, my sister and I danced with a crowd to relive age-old bitterness.

Morissette explodes and explores the taboo of more than just female bitterness.  In 2020, Morrisette released her ninth studio album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road.  The album cover features Morissette's bedazzled shrieking face.  Eyes closed.  Mouth open.  Glistening skin.  The second track on the album is “Ablaze,” a ballad to her three children.  My sister, unfamiliar with the song, was floored as the tingly drums boomed with prickly strums of electric guitar.  “Plum—write about this one.  This one deserves more press—it’s wack.”  The song features two distinct choruses—the first opens, “to my boy” and the second, “to my girl.”  Morrisette sings of the bond and blood of motherhood under the mantra of “ablaze”—language historically ascribed to sex and passion.  The choruses conclude, “my mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze.”  Morrisette allows sexuality and motherhood to exist in shattering harmony, backed by the vinyl with a glittering orgasmic face.  In “Forgiven,” the 6th track on her smash 1995 success Jagged Little Pill, Morissette sings of her Catholic upbringing—she howls, “you know how catholic girls can be, we make up for so much time, a little too late.  I never forgot it, confusing as it was no fun with no guilt feelings.”  As the second verse rips, Morissette croons over a dulcet alleluia, “I confessed my darkest deeds to an envious man.  My brothers they never went blind for what they did but I may as well have.”  With her sexual promiscuity on full display, she challenges a priest to envy her liberation.  “Ironic” even, a song the crowd sung the entire opening to without any prompting, misconstrues irony on all but two turns—a misuse that Morisette never hears the end of.  In a 2016 article for The Atlantic, Robinson Meyers hopes to finally free Morissette of the 20 year burden of butchering the linguistic tool.  He opens, “pour one out for Alanis Morissette.”  And continues, “Irony, apparently, was described by Socrates, animated by Shakespeare and O. Henry, and killed by a 1995 radio hit.  RIP.”  The success of Morissette’s “Ironic” spins the controversy of the song on its head given the amount of profit Morissette has earned while the public berates her lyrics in a tornado of sexism and misogyny.  The true irony lies in its overwhelming popularity despite this highest linguistic offense.  Morissette does not shy away from probing the topic of mental health, either.  In “Thank U,” Morissette sings openly of her bulimia,“how ‘bout stopping eating when I’m full up?” And in 2020 she released, “Reasons I Drink,” a song that chronicles her experience with addiction.

Morissette tears open stories.  And writes raw and bleeding.  And ignites female desire and sex and bodies in raucous flames.  Lady Macbeth’s doctor and gentlewoman cower and recoil as their lady spews about slathered blood.  “She has spoke what she should not, I am sure of that.”  Language breeds fear.  And as Morissette spun and shrieked in the interludes, she landed one more fabulous frightful “fuck you”— and I have honored your request for silence.  “Hands Clean” did not formally appear on the set list, but bouts and riffs and shrieks of this hit were woven into the show.  With the story of her abuse emblazoned in an eerie display of writhing pain and lasting hurt and bitter screams still to ricochet.  Good luck with the damned spot now.






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