Fumbling towards scholarly ecstasy

"Ice" seems an appropriate song for this winter day.

“Ice” seems an appropriate song for this winter day.

Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan were important contributors to the soundtrack of my teen years in the 1990s. I have never been a diehard fan of either, I certainly didn’t care for everything they create, and their biggest hits were actually my least favorite. But, some of Alanis and Sarah’s songs made it onto my permanent  playlist. Don’t we all have one of those? The list of songs that touch us, stay with us, make us turn the volume up when they come on the radio? Those songs that we have strong memories of and know most of the words to, even after years of forgetting they exist.

I always respected the hell out of Sarah for co-founding Lilith Fair. Along with other 90s feminist favorites like 4 non Blondes, Tori Amos,  and Garbage, Sarah and Alanis are both part of the legacy of 90s mainstream musicians defining third wave feminism. The substance of their music and activism and culture jamming makes the recent claims of feminism by some high profile female musicians seem particularly superficial and uninformed.

So, I am enjoying listening, remembering, and analyzing Alanis and Sarah as Canadian celebrities and activists as I prepare to present research about them at the annual conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies in Montreal in a few weeks. I thought I would share the abstract of the study here since I haven’t blogged my research in quite some time.

When Gen X Icons Grow Up: Celebrity, Ageing, and (Trans)National Canadian Identity in the Careers of Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan

Canadian musicians Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan helped define 1990s Third Wave feminism and Generation X culture through their art and activism. This project traces their careers and the reluctance on the part of transnational media to accept evolutions in their music and identities as they age or to acknowledge their Canadianness. I examine how transnational media construct celebrity activists as feminine archetypes and the influence that female musicians can have on audience performances of activism.

Morissette was catapulted to fame with her 1995 song “You Oughta Know.” With its graphically sexual lyrics and angry tone, the song cast Morissette in the role of an angst-filled Gen Xer. Morissette’s star persona turned meditative in follow-up works, leading audiences and critics to question her authenticity. As an advocate for breastfeeding and attachment parenting, Morissette’s credibility was treated with skepticism because she remained linked with her past exemplification of the seeming irresponsibility and sexual promiscuity of Gen Xers. Sarah McLachlan’s fame grew more slowly, as her album 1993 Fumbling Towards Ecstasy steadily gained acclaim ahead of her chart topping song “Angel.” As a co-founder of Lilith Fair, an event featuring all female musicians, McLachlan’s career is defined by her feminism. McLachlan’s career has waned as  the Third Wave/Gen X movement faded from prominence. The inability for transnational media to release them from the frames that defined their early careers exemplifies how female celebrities are rarely allowed to age in celebrity media discourses.

Furthermore, both women’s Canadianness has been obscured in transnational media. Using the concept of celebrity colonialism, I examine the unique cultural imperialism in which Canadian national identity is subsumed by U.S. national identity. U.S.-centric media construct us/them dichotomies that rely in part on cultural cues such as language or accents that may not be readily evident in the often highly scripted public personae of English-speaking Canadian celebrities. In order to explore the trajectories of the women’s stardom over two decades, my analysis will account for a variety of media including publicity produced on behalf of the women, their own editorial writing, song lyrics, and music videos, interviews conducted with them, and media discourse about them in order to gain a multi-faceted understanding of their significance as ageing Third Wave/Gen X icons.