Baring All.

Alanis Morissette Gives Thanks

Seeing the video for Alanis Morrissette’s “Thank U,” above, released ten years ago today, is probably the closest I’ve ever gotten to a religious experience while considering a piece of popular art.

Rage against the machine.“Thank U” was the lead single to Morrissette’s fourth album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, right. In the surreal and dreamlike film, she sings, completely nude, amidst a host of urban settings—a subway car, a city street. As she stands in place, people ignore her, typically walking past in a blur on the way to their destinations, though, intermittently and consolingly, she is briefly touched by a passerby in a moment of tentative human contact, just before the person moves on.

There are small variations on this. At the musical bridge in the middle of the video, she ceases to move her lips for about 20 seconds, but her voice continues to gust over the image of her peacefully gazing skyward. Meanwhile, the background’s walking commuters reintegrate, from an ethereal blur into individual, though still indistinct persons.

Even within the vagaries of music video, “Thank U” is an odd short, easily parodied, readily vulnerable to charges of pretentiousness. Morrissette wrote it after a six-week trip to India in 1997 that, as a new devotee of Iyengar Yoga, deeply affected her and her music. (The text which dominates the album’s cover comes from Buddhism’s Eight Precepts. In the video, an Asian man is the first to touch her, an Indian man the last.)

Swallow it.At the time, Morrissette was coming off of the blinding success of her previous release, 1995′s Jagged Little Pill, which, at 14 million copies sold in the U.S., alone (plus another 16 million worldwide) remains the best-selling international debut album by a female artist.

Because of this, her Canadian Encyclopedia entry (she was born and grew up in Ottawa) calls Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie “the portrait of an artist in recovery from fame.”

Among its 17 tracks, there are few of the catchy pop hooks that made Jagged Little Pill so palatable. Instead, Morissette’s voice surfs the thrash and drone of minor chords, pulled by an undertow of Indian rhythms, while the lyrics offer a therapeutic balm of confessions, conversations and New Age resolutions. The sexy anger of Jagged Little Pill has given way to healing and reconciliation. Morissette turns free-form journal entries into unrhyming lyrics. She sings open letters to ex-lovers, family members and friends. … Morissette’s sophomore effort tries to stretch the boundaries of pop. And even when the result is sappy or self-indulgent, it has a nervy originality.

It’s against this backdrop that “Thank U”‘s allusions to the intangible, are, perhaps, best understood. Speaking to what the Canadian Encyclopedia calls the video’s “sexless nudity,” for example, Morrissette points out that

“I was in my shower when I thought of the idea,” … adding she would happily bare all if it were not for censors. “When I’m naked, I feel so free and liberated and unself-conscious and close to God.”

To me, however, as a person who aspires to Christianity and its demands, the power of “Thank U” flies in its conviction that the need to connect with each other—inopportunely—is what gives our existences dimension and life. It proposes that this is something we must do against an often torrential void of, yes, misunderstanding and fear, but, even more, against ennui.

“Thank U” charges its listeners to embrace those aspects of human reality we most abhor, such as terror, disillusionment, frailty, and silence.

Into the light…Most of all, though, it speaks to finding God in mundane circumstances. In the video, a shimmering, trans-dimensional constellation of star-like lights, right, that I read as divinity, is depicted as materializing over a sidewalk, or in the beverage aisle of a supermarket.

These aren’t the places people usually go have an encounter with the Infinite. But in Matt. 18:20, Christ says that “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

“Two or three people gathered in Jesus’ name” is my functional definition of the word church. Not a building, then, but the conterminous efforts of those whom, withholding nothing from God, seek to do His perfect will.

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