Revisiting Alanis Morissette's So-Called Chaos

Lately, I've been listening to Alanis Morissette's So-Called Chaos. This record has always been important to me and it's a record I vividly remember buying--at a Sam's Club with my mom, no less. It's also an album I have returned to, almost subconsciously, in times of change.

When So-Called Chaos dropped in May 2004, I was nearing the end of my junior year in high school. My mind was busy with plans for college, taking the SATs, getting through school, and worrying about my friends and dating--typical teenage stuff. Morissette's album was a sweet balm for those aches--full of gentle, bright pop songs about perseverance with good hooks and smooth production. Though the album has archetypal Morissette quirks (which I delight in)--eastern sonic influences, lyrics focused on self-reflection--they are softer on this record; she is not the angry teenager of Jagged Little Pill or even then independent maverick of Under Rug Swept. Morissette sounds empowered but loving. In fact, on her website, she says of the album, This record marked a big growth in my life of self-acceptance and empowerment."  That sounds right to me, and those messages spoke to my questioning teenage heart.

I think what also attracted me to the record was the fact that Morissette seemed to be reinventing herself with So-Called Chaos. She cut her hair, wore more colorful clothes, and seemed to embrace herself with gentleness. I mean, the hit from this album, "Everything," is in part about a lover accepting her strengths and faults, but it's about Morissette accepting them too. These themes (self-love which can give way to loving others) in "Eight Easy Steps" (one of her most under-appreciated singles), "Excuses," "This Grudge," "Not All Me," and "Everything" grabbed me, as did the media coverage about the record, which showed the singer as happy, humorous, and warm. There was a multi-hour special on the Oxygen network that followed Morissette through a promotional day for the album, including concert sets, a mock interview with herself, and meeting fans. I gobbled it up, as I did the making-of featurettes on the the enhanced CD. (Remember those?) Morissette was at once the person she always had been but somehow new, pushing herself to grow, and that embrace of change was an important message for a teenager.

Though I would occasionally listen to the album, it receded into my music collection until it resurfaced with urgency years later. I was an adult, two years out of grad school, and teaching for a great college. I liked my job. I liked my home. I had good friends around, but I was discontent and lonely. I felt stagnant, and in turn drawn to this record. So, I dusted off my yoga mat and started reading Buddhist philosophy--something I had taken seriously for a while but let go. A friend and I started a vegan challenge, which had me feeling good. Not coincidentally, I started dating again and fell in love. I felt open, kind, and alive. Of course, the songs about growth still spoke to me, but the songs about love--"Out is Through," "Doth I Protest Too Much," "Knees of My Bees," and "Spineless"--had a new resonance, not only for my romantic life but also my relationships with myself, family, and friends. They helped me remember to be accepting, compassionate, and generous.

As happens, So-Called Chaos fell quiet again. Though I loved the openness it inspired, I lost touch with the album and moved on to other music. I moved, traveled, and lived a lot. Then, I settled into a new pattern, and, inevitably, that pattern broke. My boyfriend and I decided to relocate for work. A family member died unexpectedly. We packed our bags and backpacked around the world for two months to get away. Refreshed, we returned to a strange city, where we are trying to build a life, and So-Called Chaos has slipped back into my days. I should have known.

On the title track for the album, Morissette sings over electric guitars, "I want to invite this so called chaos that you think I dare not be... I want to drop all of these limitations and return to who I was born to be." This is always the lyric on the record that used to scare me most. Morissette is singing about defying expectations, but when I would sing along to this album, it always felt like I was speaking about change. Am I brave enough? Can I face this next transition? Morissette did in the midst of making this record, and so can I--at least that's the message I keep hearing and it hasn't failed yet. As I face the future, the holiday season, and the end to a year full of more joys and sorrows than I could have guessed, I'm singing these songs.

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