Today, Adele releases 25, the follow up to her pop breakthrough 21, which sold over 11 copies in the US alone. It was a staggering success and not easy to move on from. Adele's answer to this problem seems to be to generate more of the same, and her new record is composed of sweeping piano ballads meditating on the same heartbreak that inspired her previous work. However, not all pop stars take this route, which is why I have been thinking about Alanis Morissette lately. It's also not a coincidence that Morissette will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of her pop breakthrough record at the AMAs this weekend.
To date, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill has sold 33 million copies; it's is a perfect album that soundtracked 90s youth, generating such decade-defining hits as "Ironic," "You Oughta Know," "Your Learn," and "Hand in Pocket." It's a masterpiece, and a pleasure to listen to all these years later.
Yet, I have always admired her follow-up Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie even more. It's a spiritually restless and indulgently experimental, embracing alternative music, pop melodies, and hip-hop beats, while meditating on religion, identity, and self-worth. Alanis was not content to repeat her heartbreak, but instead turned her meditations to the challenges of adulthood and finding purpose in a messy world. Take a song like "Joining You," with its growling vocals, crunchy electric guitars, and Buddhist-inspired lyrics about the self. The song is an ambitious pop tune indicative of the whole album and the perfect representation of a star not resting on multi-platinum laurels.
Though Supposed Former did not sell as well as its predecessor, it peaked at number 1 on Billboard, spawned a number 1 hit ("Thank U"), and sold over 5 million copies worldwide. What I admire most about the album is that it showed Morissette would not be pigeon-holed or stagnant. Instead, she has followed her creative bliss over the past two decades, releasing albums that reflect the changes in her personal life and her evolving creative interests. I have followed her career through it's many evolutions, including her romance album So-Called Chaos and her most recent hopeful, happy Havoc and Bright Lights.
This all brings me back to Adele. Heartbreak has long been an inspiration for great pop music. From Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" to Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass," pop divas have found inspiration in the melodrama of breakups, but this mode outwears its welcome. This is why Whitney followed her Bodyguard tunes with the sweet, laid-back "Exhale" and Lennox stepped beyond her Diva period with art-pop of the quirky "No More I Love Yous." Of course, Adele has the right to create whatever music she wants, even if it continues to dip from the same well, and 25 is already slated to be one of the biggest hits this year. That said, what would have happened if she released a dance record? Or even a record about domestic bliss and motherhood?
These are the questions that ultimately turned me back to my Alanis albums, with their ambitious narratives and self-reflections. All these years letter, there is nothing I enjoy more than turning them up loud and singing my heart out.