Jagged Little Pill Turns 20
Society taught me that a woman should be quiet. The church I was raised in taught me that anger was a sin. Alanis Morissette taught me to be loud, and that my anger was righteous. While the media dubbed the Angry Young Woman simply another trope in the long cast of mainstream music’s character sheet, girls my age learned that our anger could be clear, bright, and powerful — that it might be rewarded on a national stage like the Grammys. In 1996, Jon Pareles of The New York Times labeled the Angry Young Woman popular music’s next big thing. He wrote: “The Angry Young Woman is articulate and sexually explicit, both a lover and a fighter.” I suggest that after removing “angry” and “young,” this sentence should still make sense. Perhaps in 1996, it didn’t, but it definitely should have. Morissette herself spoke out against the repeated characterization that she was defined only by anger, saying, “Over time, if you listen to the record you will soon come to realize I am not solely an angry person.” Though Pareles does point to binaries in his definition, the overarching, static idea of defining women by their anger remained. But voicing female anger wasn’t as much a trend in music as it was a profound realization for a whole generation of women that their identities could be multifaceted. Women are socialized to be accommodating. The title of Jagged Little Pill suggests inevitable conflict, a medicine that will rip through you. Morissette accommodates no one; she unapologetically demands that her hurt last forever. And so it did.
When Madonna’s Maverick label released Jagged Little Pill I was 7 years old. I did not know who Joan Jett was, nor was I aware of P.J. Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or riot grrrl, even though that movement was erupting practically in my backyard. I would not have been allowed to listen to Hole. Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville was for teenagers. But Alanis Morissette was mom’s minivan radio music with the curse words bleeped out. Morissette’s rise into the upper echelons of the mainstream was important because it meant that the right people heard it: young girls. I’m not saying that when I was that age I grasped everything she was wailing against, but I heard her wailing. And I knew people were listening, actually listening to her anger. That stuck with me. So did “Ironic,” which society is so quick and eager to perpetually qualify, noting how some of these situations aren’t quite ironic. Gold star, guys. That wasn’t really the point, was it? The point was a pop song that explains to you that life is probably going to suck. Even if you’re on the radio! It might rain on your wedding day. You might slightly misuse a literary device in a song that becomes one of the biggest songs in the country, causing hordes of smug correctors to focus on that for ensuing decades instead of the song’s actual message. That’s ironic, right? It figures. “Ironic” is probably the song off Jagged Little Pill that had the most profound impact on my life. I remember belting out the line “It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife” with my sister any time things went wrong. It was the absurdity that drew us in, comforted us. We tried to imitate the way Morissette sang it. We wanted to be like her. Even though every situation was marred by things going wrong, she still sounded strong. If she could cope, we could.
Of course, as someone who felt a connection to that voice, reading old reviews about Morissette’s vocals can be frustrating. It’s caustic and abrasive, “caterwauling.” I have pondered the way women’s voices are coded as annoying or irksome, and I think Morissette’s voice is actually why girls relate to the album so much. She sounds like us. There’s vocal fry, casual phrasing, that teenage-like sentence-slurring that is trying so goddamn hard to sound carefree but really serves to mask social terror. If a woman’s voice isn’t objectively beautiful according to music theory’s mathematical pitch and tone scales or according to classic voice training techniques, then it’s suddenly bad? Morissette’s voice is a stumbling block for plenty of people, even many women I know. But most of these songs are about losing control, pain that overtakes your ability to act with logic and self-dignity. They wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t sung in her flickering, passionate, gnarly voice. Her voice is a huge part of the way she manages to maneuver between the sexually explicit and the more artful, articulate lyrics on the record. Her voice also reaches unabashed sweetness on “Head Over Feet,” an outlier that functions as a revelation — the acerbic tonality was an aesthetic choice. Again, this is not the voice of an angry young woman — this is the voice of a woman. A magnanimous, brave, incredibly talented one, and a fascinating, fluid singer.
When Jagged Little Pill came out, SPIN and Rolling Stone both put her on the cover. Billboard also did an extensive profile. Plenty of the reactions to the album were favorable. Robert Christgau voiced what is probably the main complaint about Morissette, that she’s a rehabilitated pop star sold as alternative, who must simply be a product of the publicity machine. He dubbed her a fake privileged phony — hawked to us by Madonna — with “man problems.” As the record did go sixteen times platinum, it was a game-changer for Madonna’s Time Warner imprint Maverick — but these songs were real, and written before Madonna became involved. Even Christgau still had to give it a B+. To this day, it’s incredible how many people tell me they hate this album or even Morissette herself. In 2002, Pitchfork ran a parody review of her then-new album Under Rug Swept, saying it came off as “glimpse into her daily therapy session” and lavishing it with an 8.4, all as part of an April Fool’s joke. As recently as four years ago, Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of The 90s List said it was unfair that the album from a “moppet” didn’t suck. Last year, NME ran a defense of the album in a column whose aim is to “revisit underrated or maligned albums and give them some much-needed rehabilitation.”
The cultural opinion surrounding Jagged Little Pill seems to be constantly in flux. Many men in particular seem to have recanted their initially negative stance with “I’ve seen the light” essays. As Elissa Strauss points out in her piece for The Week, that shift is best encapsulated by the widely-touted scene in 2014’s The Trip To Italy, when two middle-aged men discover this is their only CD on a long road trip. Bur after a few listens, they end up deeply connecting with the album. Whatever the reasons people have for dismissing or hating Morissette, I hypothesize that Jagged Little Pill will always be much harder for rock purists to swallow because of how it sounds. It was grunge. It was rock. But it was from a former pop star, not a proper rocker. It was the same blown-out guitar solos that drove Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana to critical acclaim. That’s Flea on “You Oughta Know” for God’s sake, wailing on bass like he’s the first one to discover it could drive a whole song. Jagged Little Pill was big, burly, and masculine in the most ’90s understanding of that word — ferocious, defiant, confident even in the strands of pop it pursued, even while exploring explicitly feminine struggles. But that’s not all: There’s perfect flourishes of flamenco guitar on “Forgiven.” “Hand In My Pocket” proves Morissette’s harmonica and other folk-pop elements worked even up against the harder stuff, and if you want harder than that, “Right Through You” is the next track, surging and soaring guitar noise like a semi hauling down a highway. It fit into the alternative rock of the ’90s while incorporating all of Glen Ballard’s hybrid pop and all of Morissette’s angst. To anyone listening past her gender, anyone without an axe to grind against Ballard, it was an undeniably excellent rock album.
Ballard, who produced and co-wrote Jagged Little Pill, explained Morissette’s mindset to Annie Zaleski at The A.V. Club: “She had already had the arc of success and then crashing on the second [album], and had been sort of told by the industry, ‘OK, you’re done. You’re 17, the second record didn’t go, so you’re done.’ They cut bait and left.” More than a handful of the lyrics on the record suggest that Morissette was also romantically involved with one of the people who professionally abandoned her, commonly believed to be Dave Coulier. The line “You scan the credits for your name/ And wonder why it’s not there” on “Right Through You” is perhaps the most obvious. She’d been through the teen pop star phase and been deemed obsolete; Jagged Little Pill sounds like it was born out of that as much as anything else. This was romantic failure and career failure all rolled into one. And unlike plenty of mainstream pop albums, Morissette wrote every lyric herself, and shares composition credits with Ballard. He says most of the songs started with one reference from a diary or a journal, and they certainly have that stark, in-the-moment quality. The album’s title is drawn from “You Learn,” and it’s actually “getting your heart trampled” and “biting off more than you can chew” that she characterizes as the “jagged little pill.” It’s hard to say if she knew she’d come to embody that pill herself, or if it was just another example of her brutal, brilliant imagery.
For All Music, Stephen Thomas Erlewine noted that on Jagged Little Pill, Morissette explores emotions “so common that most people would be ashamed to articulate them.” He’s right. But Morissette wasn’t ashamed; she gave voice to emotions so common, so resonant, that her album had sold 13 million copies in the U.S. by 1998. That’s not a number we can even grapple with in the streaming era. For a 21-year-old woman, Jagged Little Pill was just as much an act of bravery as it was defiance. She’s been mocked, dubbed overly emotional and embarrassing, and picked to pieces ever since, but despite all that, here we are in 2015, still celebrating the album as a classic. The emotions might be common, but that doesn’t make them any less painful, any less real. What’s most admirable is the level of emotional intelligence she possessed, even at such a young age. Morissette questioned the authority of parents and relationships. She dared to believe her pain was just as valid, if not more valid, than what her parents or lovers told her. As I listened to her question the status quo, I learned to do the same thing in my own life.
When women powerfully assert their voices, especially if it’s against a man, they are labeled as crazy and difficult. This is never more true than when it comes to romantic relationships. There’s a 500-year-old phrase that’s achieved ubiquity: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” It’s half-proverb, half-warning, a commentary on the anger and spite that women who are dumped or left by men infamously experience. But this phrase also equates the pain women experience to an evil, devilish thing. It demonizes them in the context of a good/evil binary that’s downright insulting, especially given that our society all but guarantees a romantic dissolution will privilege the man over the woman in the equation. “You Oughta Know” gets all that fury off Morissette’s chest and foists the burden squarely onto the shoulders of her ex: “I’m here to remind you / Of the mess you left when you went away / It’s not fair to deny me / Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.” Only a 21-year-old could write a break-up song as lusciously selfish as this one, but only a writer as nuanced as Morissette could also get at the internal, deep-seated power imbalances in our culture at the same time. You can dismiss this lyric as overly emotional, or, like me, you can marvel at the way these simple lines examine the power structures in many romantic relationships, how our society is set up in a way that often leaves women damaged when they exit these situations. “You Oughta Know” suggests that our sense of fury might stem from a place of real, palpable injustice. Alanis asserts that there are consequences to hurting women, that the reminder is her existence. It’s a funny twist that this reminder also became a Grammy-winning song twice over. You might even call it ironic.
Recently, Maggie Gyllenhaal noted the proliferation of roles for “actual women” in TV/film during her Golden Globes acceptance speech. That phrase resonated with me and many of my peers who attempt the daily work of confronting bias, sexism, and racism. Morissette is as loud and difficult a woman as any in pop-music history. She was an “actual” woman. Again, it’s not like songs about these topics hadn’t or weren’t being written; it’s that they went mainstream — they reached everyone, not just those aware of communities like riot grrrl or other liberal enclaves. They reached girls like me, growing up in the claustrophobic church of a tiny conservative town. Her success also suggested that I might be able to succeed without conforming to the sugared and primped versions of womanhood regularly presented to me by music. And even if she’s not the sole purveyor of these sentiments, Morissette communicated them in particularly nuanced ways. She was wary enough to sense the jealousy that her priest in confession might feel toward her sinful behavior on “Forgiven.” She was observant enough to perceive that the teachings of the church had different effects on her than on her brothers, and to realize that the designs the church had on her life were hurting her, while still incorporating an “alleluia” into the very song that questions her place in that choir. She was strong enough to call out parental pressures and exacting standards on “Perfect”: “Be a good girl / You gotta try a little harder / That simply wasn’t good enough / To make us proud.” She was also empathetic enough to write “Perfect” as a gender neutral song, picking up on overarching societal pressures, not just her own. “We’ll love you just the way you are / If you’re perfect,” she sings, and I think back again to the train wreck of her second album. It’s hard to dismiss her as Christgau’s “privileged phony” when she was barely 18 and had already experienced utter, abysmal failure. It’s impossible to dismiss her after listening to the inquisitive, wise narrator of “Hand In My Pocket,” the empathy in “Mary Jane,” or the buzzy longing and rebellion on “All I Really Want.” Surely, listening to Alanis Morissette helped give rise to the wave of female critics that have swept over the internet, busting out of the gate, eager to write their own assessments of the albums that helped give them their voice. We may be difficult, but that does not mean you can dismiss us as angry. We may be young or we may not be. We’re actual women, and we will be heard.
On “Not The Doctor” Alanis sings, “I don’t want to be a bandage to a wound that’s not mine,” but that’s exactly what she did with this album. Sure, that song is directed at a man, so perhaps she doesn’t mind that, on many levels, she’s become the poster child for our rebellion and the salve for the microaggressions, injustice, and sexism we face every fucking day. Maybe there will come a day when these issues aren’t a fundamental part of our society. It’s 20 years later, and that day has not come. I can’t think of anything better than a world in which the themes of Jagged Little Pill aren’t so urgent and didn’t still resonate with such force. For now, it’s here to remind us.