35. ‘Hands Clean’ by Alanis Morrissette (2002)


One of my very favourite things about Motown is that the saddest of sentiments would frequently be married to the jauntiest of melodies (cf Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’). It’s a very relatable instinct, to not just find ways to make your private pain palatable but to send it flying into something funny and – even better – something you can dance to. Ultimately this tension between sorrow and joy functions as a testament to human resilience, with the implication that that takes a certain amount of self-possession to pull off.

It may seem a huge leap to make from Motown to Morrissette, but I bring it up because – although pop music has a long, fine history of packaging unpleasant emotions into sparkly packages – it’s rare to take this approach when what you’re singing about isn’t just Smokey-esque heartbreak so much as actual adolescent trauma. Here, Alanis wields a jaunty melody to replicate the blase privelege involved in an adult man taking advantage of a young woman. It is by turns sinister and darkly comedic. It also took me about 10 years to realise what a fucking accomplishment it was.

BONUS POINTS: The song is so deft at disguising its subject matter that to a friend of mine and his girlfriend it was “their song” as teenagers (the “this could get messy, but you don’t seem to mind” bridge is such an appealing sentiment to young love). They didn’t last.


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