Supposed Former Appropriation Junkie: Reinterpreting Alanis Morissette

Recently, while doing the dishes, I gazed upon a ratty, exhausted old sponge caked with debris—and was instantly reminded of those who have soaked up every bad idea that has collected in the sinkhole of academic humanities departments over the past fifty years. Of course, those bad ideas were spawned and institutionalized by preceding generations—indolent, conformist thinking transcends generational boundaries. One example of such a calcified deposit upon thought is cultural appropriation, a notion that has permeated to such an extent that it is now commonplace to see it referenced in writing about pop culture; it is no longer confined to discussions in rarefied academic settings. I recently saw the term invoked in a piece on the CBC website on the twentieth anniversary of Alanis Morissette’s 1998 album Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. Unfortunately, its author, Anne T. Donahue, does little to encourage readers to think more deeply about the Morissette album or art in general, and only distorts understanding of the work, rather than providing fresh insights. While the spread of bad, politicized theorizing into the fine arts and popular culture alike is lamentable, the relative accessibility of popular music lends itself to a discussion of these issues aimed at a general audience.

Reading Social Issues Into Creative Works

The Donahue article mostly reads like a personal reflection piece rather than art criticism, situating the artist and her work in the context of Donahue’s own life. The author neglects to give the album a critical reassessment, and also indulges in a line of thinking that is increasingly common among those who write about popular culture or the fine arts. The fashionable lens of cultural appropriation presents an artist’s use of any influence from outside that artist’s own culture as offensive and exploitative. Within the limited purview of this system, the offending artist merely benefits from undeserved privilege or power, and art is simply another arena in which exploitation and injustice play out. This is lazy politicization of art by commentators who may have no other way of examining creative work—thanks to defects in their education.

Cultural appropriation has become the default approach to the arts among waves of credulous university graduates, who have been churned out of politicized humanities programs, yet the concept shows little understanding of art or artistic influence. It replaces neutral observation of the art object with moralism and ideology, and its desire to impose rigid boundaries around different cultures makes little sense in immigrant nations like the United States or Canada, where different cultural traditions inevitably interpenetrate one another. Cultural appropriation in the creative realm is also a questionable idea in an international context, where travel and technology now allow for greater cross-pollination in the realm of art and ideas than ever before. As applied to the arts, it is ultimately a stale and parochial approach, perpetuated by small-minded academics—guilty white liberals, who have colonized the imaginations of younger, multicultural generations, who should have instead recognized the syncretism that results when cultural restrictions around imagination begin to dissolve.

Consider the word appropriation. The term captures the act of taking material from one source for use in another creation, but it is often used in a pejorative manner—akin to how we define theft in non-artistic contexts. This makes appropriation inherently limited and incomplete as a way to understand artistic influence and creativity itself, in that it politicizes something intrinsic to artmaking. While I was recently enjoying the pop pleasures of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” I read about how the songwriters poached the song’s guitar break from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ song “Maps.” One can hear the similarities, but one can also appreciate how this borrowed element from “Maps” was re-contextualized in an entirely different composition—and to good effect, since the guitar parts capture some of the attitude conveyed by the song’s lyrics. These kinds of artistic thefts are numerous in popular music, and they represent a tendency that can be observed in any artistic tradition—yet, as in the example involving Clarkson and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this creative process can be politicized as corporate, mainstream pop cannibalizing independent and supposedly more authentic artistic expression.

When an artistic work is viewed as representative of a culture or subculture, a similar politicizing of artistic symbiosis occurs. Appropriation can only be mapped onto scenarios in which the more powerful figure in the artistic dynamic is seen to be exploiting the work of an oppressed subject or group; it doesn’t appear to apply when a minority or subculture draws upon sources considered part of the dominant culture, the mainstream, etc. We can find an obvious example of the latter in hip hop, a genre pioneered by African-American musicians, in which the sampling of recordings by other artists, or interpolations of other compositions into a new creation is commonplace. The Fugees’ 1996 hit “Ready or Not” does both, improbably combining a looped sample from Enya’s “Boadicea” with a vocal hook taken from The Delfonics’ “Ready Or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).” From the perspective of Enya’s lawyers, “Ready Or Not” was originally viewed as a theft—the liner notes to the Fugees’ The Score album sheepishly acknowledge that they initially used the Enya sample without permission. Yet they used it creatively. Once the appropriated selections had been paired with the Fugees’ wordplay and Lauryn Hill’s sublime vocal, an ominous new track emerged, which is entirely different from the compositions from which it took its inspiration—and arguably better than either of them. “Ready Or Not” illustrates that artistic theft can be creatively fruitful, and that the protections of copyright, as valuable as they are, can put limitations on the amoral impulse to make something new from existing materials.

The theory of cultural appropriation imposes moral limitations on what one can do creatively—it aims to rectify what it perceives as big social problems, and is indifferent to idiosyncratic, individual artistic achievements. The proper way to assess cultural influences in the artistic sphere is always through art criticism, which is not based on moralism but on the assessment of artistic quality. While, in day-to-day life, theft is acknowledged as ethically wrong, in the realm of art, theft can be artistically justified—that is, if the artistic quality of an appropriation is high enough that it is not merely a restatement of an existing idea. When Lady Gaga was criticized for drawing too heavily on Madonna’s 1989 single “Express Yourself” in her 2011 song “Born This Way,” the real issue was that Gaga did not improve on the song musically, or better its lyrical clichés, but actually made it worse by adding even more politically correct messaging. Art that merely imports existing ideas without manipulating them in a fresh or interesting way can be dismissed purely on qualitative grounds; moralism in the form of scolding over appropriation is not required. The thinking behind cultural appropriation wrongly and simplistically assumes that social and political issues can be corrected in the domain of art, which is a contemplative realm distinct from the more prosaic political and social realms. To view an isolated instance of an artist seizing upon another’s image, trope or technique as a crime can obscure the reality that, over time, ideas in art can have a long life, re-appearing and nourishing new works.

In today’s decomposing media landscape, it is all too typical to see highly politicized dissections of art by people who have no ability to carefully read a poem or even a fairly straightforward song lyric: thus, they have no capacity to produce credible interpretations based on what exists on the page. This results in hysterical misreadings of the lyrics of songs like “Blurred Lines” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” in which the male pursuit of female attention is viewed as rapey (an inane term emerging from Gender Studies graduates with underdeveloped imaginations). For the latter composition, the bad feminist interpretation of the lyric has resulted in the song being pulled from circulation on radio stations. These degraded approaches toward the arts are becoming mainstream, as they infect institutions from academia to the media, and this is resulting in a culture of conformity, in which bad art gains prominence solely because it communicates predetermined social messages. Works that fail to conform to PC dogma risk being banished from the usual avenues of creative pursuit, or are simply neglected; thus, the larger culture doesn’t benefit from the artistic merits of these works.

Peeling Projections Off Of The Art Object

In her critique of Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Donahue’s reference to cultural appropriation applies to two songs in which Morissette explicitly refers to India—“Baba” and “Thank U”:

Ultimately, “Baba” (the Indian word for “father”) is another testament to cultural appropriation, with Morissette being another example of a white musician who’s used Indian culture as the jumping off point for an artistic awakening. (And 1998 was a hotbed of it: that same year, Madonna debuted her Ray of Light persona, which was flush with appropriative expressions, while Gwen Stefani decided she could adopt bindis as her own.) And while “Thank U” overtly cites India as a source of positivity, it still fails to see the singer acknowledge her own privilege and participation in borrowing from something that doesn’t belong to her, instead alluding to a me-centric journey that sees the singer suggest we abandon antibiotics and turn to divinity. (Yikes!)

Donahue situates Morissette’s music as part of a larger 1998 trend of Western pop stars looking abroad for inspiration, whether for the purposes of fabricating new personae for music videos and performances, or crafting fashion for the red carpet. Donahue is vague about what exactly Morissette is appropriating, only alluding to awakening and a journey, which suggests Morissette might be using material from Indian spiritual traditions.

When discussing the strengths or weaknesses of a creative work, the art critic must be specific in her use of examples to support her argument. I will now examine the lyrics of Morissette’s “Baba,” in order to assess Donahue’s charge of cultural appropriation, as well as to highlight some of the merits of Morissette’s songwriting.

Baba

I’ve seen them kneel
With bated breath for the ritual
I’ve watched this experience raise
Them to pseudo higher levels
I’ve watched them leave their families
In pursuit of your nirvana
I’ve seen them coming to line up
From Switzerland and America

How long will this take Baba
How long have we been sleeping
Do you see me hanging on to
Every word you say
How soon will I be holy
How much will this cost guru
How much longer ’til you
Completely absolve me

I’ve seen them give their drugs up
In place of makeshift altars
I’ve heard them chanting
Kali Kali frantically
I’ve heard them rotely repeat your
Teachings with elitism
I’ve seen them boasting robes and
Foreign sandalwood beads

How long will this take Baba
How long have we been sleeping
Do you see me hanging on to
Every word you say
How soon will I be holy
How much will this cost guru
How much longer ’til you
Completely absolve me

Ave Maria

I’ve seen them overlooking god in
Their own essence
I’ve seen their upward glances
In hopes of instant salvation
I’ve seen their righteousness
Mixed without loving compassion
I’ve watched you smile as
The students bow to kiss your feet

How long will this take Baba
How long have we been sleeping
Do you see me hanging on to
Every word you say
How soon will I be holy
How much will this cost guru
How much longer ’til you
Completely absolve me

Give me strength all-knowing one
How long ’til enlightenment
How much longer ’til you
Completely absolve me

Ave Maria
Ave Maria
Ave Maria
Ave Maria

The title of the song, Baba, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the Indian word for father as well as “a respectful form of address for an older man” and “a holy man.” Given that feminism, at present, is another ubiquitous lens through which to scrutinize art and culture, it is strange that Donahue doesn’t reflect more on the fact that Baba means father, or on how the speaker refers to this figure in the lyrics—questioning not only his authority in a spiritual or religious context, but the sycophancy of his followers.

If the title of the song refers to a spiritual leader in an Eastern religious context, the followers described by the speaker are decidedly Western. The verses record the speaker’s observations as she witnesses these Western followers in relationship to the titular guru figure of the song. The speaker communicates that the followers appear to expect spirituality to be something that can be obtained quickly, for money, by gaining approval from spiritual leaders. The followers are complicit with a power imbalance between themselves and their spiritual leader: the speaker notes that in that their subordinate position, the followers are “overlooking god in their own essence”—establishing a false hierarchy among fellow mortals in their relationship with the guru figure. The spiritual leader, meanwhile, is shown to take pleasure in the subordinate position adopted by his “students.” Arrogance is what the guru and his devotees have in common, regardless of how hierarchy separates them: humility and an acknowledgement of the shared suffering of humanity are nowhere to be seen in a milieu in which self-interest dominates.

Throughout the song, the verses and choruses alike are structured around repetitions based on “I’ve seen” or “How long/soon/much,” a list format for which Morissette’s songwriting is often criticized. In a song like “Baba,” this strategy, with its use of repetition and variation, structures the narrative; the listener is given familiar lyrical and musical patterns, though each new line provides different details of the speaker’s observations. In the verses, there is a separation between the speaker and the group; the speaker is distinguishing herself from those she scrutinizes and critiques. In the choruses, this separation disappears: there is no them and the we and I seem to reflect the views from within the group. The choruses can be viewed as changing the perspective within the song, giving the listener direct access to the thoughts and desires of the group of Westerners who are seeking wisdom in the East—but they can also be read as the original speaker of the verses restating the views of the group in order to critique them. The impatient questioning in the choruses, a collection of individual statements stacked on top of one another to highlight their absurdity, makes it plain that wisdom or spirituality are being sought as though they could be obtained through a business transaction.

Taken as a whole, the song is a critique of corrupt religious environments, in which leaders and students alike have forfeited any potential connection to the macrocosm; what is pursued instead is either instant relief from suffering, without introspection, or power over vulnerable spiritual seekers. The poisoned relationship between religious teacher and student implicates both parties—that the guru figure is drawn from an Eastern context is really incidental, since his Western followers perpetuate the dynamic as much as he does. The melancholy “Ave Maria” vocal at the end of the song injects some pathos into what is otherwise a cold-eyed judgment on those observed—as if the speaker finally comes to lament the lack of spiritual connection that she too may have been looking for. In the end, what the speaker has witnessed may only remind her of spiritual dissatisfactions from her own past. Alternatively, having rejected the spiritual father described in the lyric, the speaker ends by turning to a spiritual figure that is maternal, uttering “Ave Maria.”

My interpretation of “Baba” is based on a line-by-line analysis, which describes the narrative as it is laid out in the lyric, while speculating about possible meanings, where the writer has left some ambiguity, as is the case with the “Ave Maria” sections of the song. While no particularly poetic turns of phrase distinguish any individual line, the song conveys its unusual subject matter and narrative in an interesting way, atypical of most pop songwriting even in 1998. Only the most superficial reading could view this lyric as an act of cultural appropriation—as if the mere presence of words like baba or Kali, irrespective of how they are used, is automatically appropriative in a composition by a white Western woman writer. As I’ve demonstrated, the lyrics do not advocate that Westerners adopt Eastern religion in order to pursue a facile spiritual or artistic awakening, but instead depict and warn of the dangerous illusions one can succumb to during a spiritual quest.

The sole reference to India in the song “Thank U” is to thank it in the chorus (“Thank you, India”), which in context seems no more unusual than thanking terror or frailty. Merely thanking India for unspecified reasons is not sufficient grounds to level accusations of cultural appropriation at the writer. Again, at the first sight of an allusion to something non-Western, Donahue is quick to fall back on the most reductive, predigested interpretation available to her.

Art Exposes The Provincialism Of Politics

One area in which Donahue might have correctly detected an Eastern influence in Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is the music itself. In the book, The Words And Music of Alanis Morissette, music theorist Karen Fournier analyzes Morissette’s albums, and notes that Eastern influences on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie appear not only in the instrumentation but in some of Morissette’s vocalizations:

Morissette occasionally signals India more specifically in her songs with mimicry of Asian vocal practices or with the use of non-Western instruments. Examples include the Eastern-inspired vocal inflections that appear in the verses of “Are You Still Mad,” the sampling of the Indian tabla in “The Couch,” and the direct lyrical references to India in “Thank U” and “Baba.”

Fournier also considers the influence of spirituality and chant on Morissette’s singing:

The song “Baba,” for example, concludes with a stylized variant on the “Ave Maria,” while “Thank U” and “UR” feature codas whose extended vocalizations are evocative of chanting both because they are repetitive and hypnotic and because they use echo-effect to provide the illusion of an open space, like a place of worship.

Do these musical influences serve as examples of cultural appropriation? Only if one assumes that different cultural traditions can never intermingle, unless pre-approval has been granted by self-appointed authorities presiding over the arts. I would argue that these influences on Morissette’s album are relatively subtle compared to experiments with world music by other popular Western artists—including the Beatles’ use of Indian instrumentation in the 1960s (“The Inner Light”) or the campy blue version of Shania Twain’s UP! album from 2002. Eastern influences on Junkie are incorporated into the production and performance in a manner that is not excessive and which does not intrude upon the lyrical messages or the emotional delivery provided by Morissette as a singer. Non-Western instrumentation and “vocal inflections” are not used to parody a racial or ethnic other, and these influences are not being presented as though they were novel or exotic for a Western audience. A listener is more likely to be struck by the lack of a chorus in compositions like “The Couch” than by the appearance of the tabla.

Derailed by fashionable but vacuous political approaches to art, Donahue misses an opportunity to highlight the underappreciated aspects of Morissette’s album. Morissette often experiments with form, atypically of someone following up on a major commercial success. Morissette risks alienating listeners by venturing outside of lyrical norms, but in doing so she opens up new possibilities for narrative in popular song; her experiments with different perspectives within a single lyric, as well as breaking through typical limits on the number of words per bar of music, led directly to her later hit single “Hands Clean” from 2002. The very songs that Donahue singles out for the crime of appropriation, “Baba” and “Thank U,” are among many that depart from the stereotypes of Morissette’s work as confessional and focused primarily on romantic relationships. After using a somewhat affected style of singing on Jagged Little Pill, to match some of its emotional extremes, Morissette settles into her mature singing style on Junkie, beautifully captured on record by Glen Ballard, the best and most versatile of her producers thus far. Though we often hear about how women’s artistic accomplishments are not recognized in a culture that is patriarchal, here we observe how crude political readings of art can actually obscure what is unique and interesting in the work of a female artist. Direct analysis of the artwork and its objective properties, unencumbered by the passé political clichés of older generations, is the only way to recover the depth of artistic works that have been flattened by one-dimensional readings.

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9 comments

  1. The right will (probably correctly) view cultural appropriation as part of ‘the war on white’. The irony of anti-white is that it elevates whites (as supremely bad) and denies the agency of non-whites (who, being human, also committed historic wrongs).

  2. What a sublime read – you don’t make a point by half. And as a huge Alanis fan, really great to see a complex take down of lazy analysis.

  3. I used to rag on Randy Newman for trying too hard to sound black in his singing. it had always sounded to me like a bad caricature. then I spent some time learning to play guitar. I noticed in my singing with it that I could hardly help singing in the accent from whence the songs originated. if I was playing a country song, I would sing with a drawl (being from the Great Northwest, I’ve never spoken with a drawl, or really even tried). if it was one of a few popular British songs actually sung with a British accent (more on that in a moment), I would naturally gravitate toward a British accent. and if it was blues or soul… yep, you guessed it, I was singing in an African American accent. just like Randy Newman.

    so I mentioned that few popular British songs seemed to be sung in a British accent. this is something I noticed as a small child, that all the British bands on the radio sounded like Americans. or if they didn’t they sounded like something else entirely. some sounded British (Bowie, Pulp, some Beatles, lots of new wave, and lots of punk), but that was generally the exception. meanwhile an awful lot of American punk, and American industrial (a genre I had a keen interest in in the 90’s) had british sounding vocals. what I figured out was that’s just how you do it when you’re working in a style originating from somewhere else. the British Invasion bands were heavily, heavily influenced by American blues. these musicians collected old blues records from the 30’s and 40’s, and played A LOT of covers from those artists (the first couple Stones records are almost nothing but covers). some sounded fairly authentically black (Eric Burden of the Animals), for others it expressed itself as a more generalized American accent. but it all comes from trying to sing like the artist who inspired you to sing it in the first place. some singers are just plain bad at copying that, but try anyway. the result is often something that, quite by accident, sounds completely different that anything else. that Mick Jagger’s singing style in a nutshell. Robert Plant too.

    and it’s not just a one way street either. take Jimi Hendrix: a lot of people don’t think of it this way, but Jimi Hendrix actually came over with the British Invasion. he was living and performing in England at the time, using British high-gain amps (american amps of the era were more focused on providing clean tones, or at most mild distortion), using early fuzz pedals (another British innovation), and his mode of dress was a hodge podge of american hippie culture, and British Colonial costume straight out of Carnaby street. you want to talk cultural appropriation? Jimi literally stole the entire British Invasion’s thunder! and my god, what a less interesting place this world would be if he hadn’t!

    because none of this is really “appropriation”. it’s creative influence and cultural exchange. and the more that happens, the better everything gets.

  4. I think you grossly misunderstand the album and what it represents; it is evident you have not followed Alanis’ life or career.

  5. “cultural appropriation” seeks nothing less than to enforce tribal boundaries in a world that is no longer tribal. It wants to ban white rap singers and whites wearing dreds and so on. But the genie is out of the bottle–we no longer live in isolated villages. An artist is always looking for inspiration, and trying different styles (including foreign) is a major part of that. Paul Simon went to South Africa and found some cool new sounds that he incorporated (including using local musicians on his album). This is to be forbidden. The cultural appropriation ban now claims that male writers cannot write about women and whites cannot write about minorities. They seem to want fiction to become merely autobiography. How one can write about aliens escapes me, since none of us is an alien (or vampire or zombie). Since a love story involves writing about both male and female characters, I guess no more love stories are to be written. It is all insane.

    1. It’s worse than that. As the article mentions, “appropriating” culture is fine when it’s a minority borrowing from a dominant/majority culture, but is illicit when reversed. Further, the notion of cultural appropriation relies on an assumption that when one borrows from another culture, the borrowed-from culture loses something. But participating in or repurposing cultural elements doesn’t steal anything, nobody goes without. Reproduction of cultural elements is a multiplication, not a theft.

    2. speaking as an alien vampire zombie, I object to being marginalized in this way.

      and don’t even get me started on that movie, Lifeforce.

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