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Mechanics of Popularity

Alanis Morissette / Hootie & the Blowfish



Alanis Morissette
Hootie & the Blowfish

By selling millions of copies of their debut albums, Alanis Morissette and Hootie & the Blowfish have created the most staggering pop truths of the past year. Pop truth marshals a mass constituency, sometimes (though not always) around an identifiable aesthetic. In the cases of Morissette and Hootie, it's staggering both in its enormity and its incomprehensibility. Millions? How about 5 and 11 million respectively? Morissette's Jagged Little Pill and Hootie's Cracked Rear View are as inescapable as Frampton Comes Alive! and Rumours were two decades ago, resting on the dashboard or bookshelf of every last friend and acquaintance. Frampton provides the better analogy for Morissette and Hootie--discerning listeners, almost to the last snob, deride both artists and their followings just as Frampton was put down for being too popular. Like soreheads the day after an election, the snobs snipe that the pair are only backed by a consensus of suckers. Frampton posed the musical question "Do you feel like we do?" Pop truth drowns out pip-squeak dissent (Who's we? Feel what?) with a packed-stadium roar.

On Late Night With Conan O'Brien a couple of weeks back, sitcom has-been George Wendt delivered a "spoken word" version of Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" (segueing, for derisive effect, into Joan Osborne's "One of Us" and Joey Scarbury's "Believe It or Not"). Wendt fancies himself a discerning listener--from the talk show chair he's championed such artists of enduring merit as, uh, the Blake Babies. His mockery of Morissette's song suggests that he's part of a larger backlash.

For each episode of the swiftly axed George Wendt Show Morissette's sold nearly a million records, but that's not the only reason good 'ol Norm should remove his one hand from his boxers. As Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins once remarked, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." The song "Hand in My Pocket"--an anthem for today's just-enough-in-control gal--traipses giddily along that line, and ends up as the year's most brilliant pop single. Yoked to that slightly denatured hip-hop beat that's powered everything from Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" to Beck's "Loser," Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" has the resonant obviousness of a classic: "I'm high but I'm grounded / I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed / I'm lost but I'm hopeful, baby."

Snobs call Morissette the Donovan to Liz Phair's Dylan; that is, the inauthentic, commercialized version of the real article. But at least Dylan moved more product than his knockoff. Morissette's numbers may place her on the same level as vacuous platinum divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, but her art is decidedly more personal, demanding a very specific and more selective engagement from the listener. For all its pop smarts, Jagged Little Pill doesn't pander to the crowd. The slick arrangements, ranging from arena grunge to coffeehouse strum, are assured but not obvious. The vitriolic ode to an ex "You Oughta Know," Morissette's breakthrough hit, offers such sentiments as "Is she perverted like me? / Would she go down on you in a theater?" She's been accused of repackaging the anger and lust put forth by Phair, Courtney Love, and Polly Harvey, the alternative rock queens she's outsold fourfold. Whether Morissette is less challenging is open to debate, but it's a familiar debate. For some a mass audience always dilutes the artist and automatically confirms the worst suspicions. You may call her an opportunistic hack, but Morissette alone has parlayed that strong stance into a pop truth. Growing numbers rock louder than glowing words.

Which should relieve the much-maligned Hootie & the Blowfish, the unassuming bar band from Columbia, South Carolina. They're as maddening as Alanis, snobs hold, but for different reasons. Where Morissette is garish, Hootie is gray; where Morissette is in your face, Hootie is barely there.

Hootie's Darius Rucker sings with the gruff sensitivity of Eddie Vedder, but the band has been more instructively compared to the Eagles, avatars of middle-of-the-road rock. The connection is more than musical--lyrically, Hootie stands in the cowboy boots of Frey and Henley, walking the familiar trail from bachelor pad to barroom and back, always away from evil women. "Let Her Cry" describes a typical Hootie situation: "She never lets me in / Only tells me where she's been / When she's had too much to drink / I say that I don't care / Just run my hands through her dark hair / Then I pray to God you gotta help me fly away."

The argument can be made that only gender transforms the self-dramatization of Morissette, Phair, Love, and Harvey into something vital. But a band like Hootie won't take the same chances. By resting on their regular-guy individualism they look reactionary, which is why snobs find Hootie's mild yearning so repellent while the group's constituency finds it so comforting. (Not for nothing is Hootie David Letterman's favorite band.) Yet that's why pop truths can sometimes be misleading: without the reach there's no grasp. Pearl Jam would be Hootie--just a sonically undistinguished band graced with a recognizable vocalist--if not for Vedder's focused excessiveness, his unabashedly monumental feelings. The transcendent narcissism, the reach for significance, justifies Pearl Jam's emphatic pop truth. The lack of same is what makes Hootie's pop truth seem like a vague answer to the question no one remembers asking.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump, photo/Paul Natkin.

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