AT THE Shepherd's Bush Empire, Boy George opened with the proto- punk classic, "Funtime". It seemed like a manifesto. First it announced that he had defected from frothy pop to Iggy Pop - even "Karma Chameleon" was camouflaged as a bass-heavy thrash - and second, that a fun time would be had by all. This was Boy George as glam ham, it appeared: Gary Glitter, the next generation. His two guitarists were teddy boys with surfboard quiffs; the female vocalist had a beehive hairdo and an unfortunate resemblance to Divine; and George's grin and hat could have been borrowed from a leprechaun in his family's native land. But first impressions didn't last. At the second of his UK shows, it wasn't all fun and games.

Some clothes make a statement. George's baggy suit said, "I'LL GET GEORGE!" in bold block capitals. More Fleet Street than Savile Row, it was defiantly screen printed with tabloid headlines about his decline and fall. And when you could make out the lyrics from his latest album, Cheapness and Beauty (Virgin), beneath the rock'n'roll racket, they were as confrontational as his tailoring: "Well, I got my revenge/ My name in neon lights./ You got what you deserve/ Your sad and miserable life." On "Same Thing in Reverse", he recounts a heterosexual interrogation: "Do you kiss him, hold his hand?/ Who's the woman, who's the man?/ Is it twisted, is it sick?/ Mother Nature's little trick."

It's a long way from "War, war is stupid", but then George O'Dowd's life has gone the distance, too - from the collapse of Culture Club, through heroin addiction, tabloid persecution, his coming out, and, worst of all, an appearance on That's Life. These events do not necessarily make him a hero, but they are grisly grist to any songwriter's mill.

So, his suit takes swipes at the press, the songs take swipes at old friends who have kissed-and-told, and between them he takes swipes at hecklers: "If you want to be famous, honey, make a record." Just so that Virgin Records won't feel left out, he adds that he is moving on to a new record company: "I no longer want to be seen as a cabaret act. I'm better than that." And so he is. Successfully mixing camp frivolity and powerful songs, he may soon be ready fill the platform boots of his heroes, Bowie and Bolan. The Boy done good.

Just 21, Alanis Morissette has just released her third album, Jagged Little Pill. It's on Madonna's Maverick record label and is in the top three of the American chart. And yet, despite this double quality-control filter, it manages to be formidably good.

Morissette has a steely, multi-octave voice which makes her sound like a freaky sister of Dolores from the Cranberries and whatever-her-name- was from 4 Non Blondes. The opening woozy funk-rock splurge, "All I Really Want", is what Black Grape would sound like if they brought in a good singer, or, indeed, any singer. Morissette's best music is warped and, well, jagged, and the best of her extremely smart lyrics make Madonna seem like Celine Dion. (In a reversal of the usual scenario, in which a porn video is unearthed featuring the naked posterior a now clean-cut Hollywood star, Morissette's former record company is re-releasing her two teenage albums, which show a softer and fluffier side of her than that on show today. Rather than skeletons in her cupboard, she has a few teddies and a Barbie doll.)

For all her talents, at the Shepherd's Bush Empire she played the harmonica as if she had been taught by Bob Dylan, and danced as if taught by Quasimodo. But even these idiosyncrasies just added to her endearingly loopy, edge- of-the-stage presence. All that marred a revelatory show was her rather ordinary grunge band. They give their all, but if their soft-metal leanings lean too far, she should return them to whichever Hollywood beach they came from.

Loudon Wainwright III is one of the most side-splitting, heart-breaking songwriters working today. But when you can get those songs on a record, why come and see him and his acoustic guitar live? After all, those of us who caught his guest appearances on the Jasper Carrott show remember that he made even his host seem funny in comparison.

We needn't have worried. Within four seconds of coming on stage at the London Palladium, he had been more entertaining than a whole series of Carrott, just by grinning, miming being blown backwards by the gust of applause, and, when the spotlight hit him, making a shadow puppet of a duck on the curtain behind him. As he sings, he is either screwing up his face as if he's trying to break in an uncomfortable set of false teeth, or waggling his tongue and one leg. He looks less like a tortured artist than one who is very itchy indeed.

He played the tongue-twisting meditation, "I Wish I Was a Lesbian" from his excellent new album, Grown Man (Virgin), and duetted with his 20-year- old daughter Martha on the piquant "Father/ Daughter Dialogue". But best of all was a song about Tonya Harding, his "favourite tarnished American sports hero". What starts as a novelty serenade to a girl who "wasn't Mrs Goody Two-Skates" becomes a moving and satirical examination of competitiveness, nationalism, sponsorship and prize money, combined with an evocative appreciation of the sport. Particularly impressive from someone who never skates round a subject himself.

Loudon Wainwright III: Cardiff St David's, 01222 878444, Tues; Bath Pavilion, 01225 448831, Wed; Reading Hexagon, 01734 591591, Thurs; then touring.