Alanis Morissette – Jagged Little Pill – Classic Music Review (Third Wave Series)
Jagged Little Pill came out when I was on the cusp of turning fourteen, right before I entered high school. According to the historical record, it reached #1 on the Billboard charts a few months later, in October 1995. Because October is usually one of the two warm-and-sunny months you get when you live in San Francisco—and because Halloween was a huge fucking deal in The City by the Bay—I’m pretty sure that neither I nor anyone else in my inner circle paid much attention.
That inner circle consisted of a group of four teenage girls, each of us dealing with the I-wish-I-was-out-of-my-body experience known as puberty. We shared tips on zit control, debated the virtues of tampons or pads (while ridiculing the term “sanitary napkins”), monitored each other’s tit development and spent a lot of time classifying guys as either “cute” or “eeew.” Although we generally had good times together, the emotional hypersensitivity of puberty sometimes got the best of us, and seemingly harmless comments could trigger uncontrollable tears.
I know that we did eventually encounter Alanis Morissette sometime between November and March when the weather turns cold and shitty. During the truncated sunny season, we’d hang out at Dolores Park after school, but once the fog and rain took over we would take refuge in one of our homes and immediately turn on MTV or VH1.
One thing to note about the state of my psyche at this point in my life: my reaction to puberty involved developing a protective shell, so I wasn’t the outwardly opinionated bitch I am today. When my friends said or did something I thought was totally weird, I generally kept my opinions to myself and responded with a polite but noncommittal nod. If my emotions started to boil over while I was with them, I rarely resorted to tears but held my feelings inside until I got home and could inflict my rage on my parents.
My dad found my fits of anger very funny, insensitive prick that he is.
Back to our story, my inner circle watched music videos because that’s what teenagers did back then when we weren’t playing video games. I privately thought most of the music videos fell into the category of “overproduced and stupid,” but I kept those opinions to myself to avoid messing with the vibes. I remember there was a lot of Hootie and the Blowfish and Red Hot Chili Peppers (which always put me in a sour mood), the usual Madonna-Mariah Carey crap and more rap than I ever wanted to hear in a lifetime. The only video I remember getting excited about was the Foo Fighters’ “I’ll Stick Around,” where Dave Grohl spits out chess pieces while he’s singing. Meanwhile, my friends would chair-boogie to most of the videos, chattering all the while in girl talk—“He’s so cute,” “Love her cut,” “Do you think she’ll ever go back to Sean Penn?”—that kind of stuff.
But when Alanis Morissette popped up on the screen with “You Oughta Know,” my relatively normal girlfriends turned into raving maniacs, leaping out of their seats to dance and sing along with outsized passion, screaming the bleeped-out “FUCK!” with Richter Scale intensity.
For the record, this was my reaction:
I’ve always been amazed at Charles Schulz’s ability to express volumes with simple black lines.
That was also my reaction to Jagged Little Pill’s remarkable success. “Jagged Little Pill topped the charts in thirteen countries; with sales of over 33 million copies worldwide, it is one of the best-selling albums of all time and made Morissette the first Canadian to achieve double diamond sales. Jagged Little Pill was nominated for nine Grammy Awards, winning five, including Album of the Year, making Morissette at 21 the youngest artist to win the honor, a record she held until 2010 when 20-year-old Taylor Swift won with Fearless.” (Wikipedia) Jagged Little Pill was recently transformed into a musical, receiving rave reviews from theatre critics.
And after listening to the album deeply three times twenty-five years later, I remain absolutely baffled by it all.
Liz Phair and the Riot Grrl bands made it cool for women to sing angry. It turned out to be a good news/bad news kind of a thing.
There’s a fundamental difference between a trend and a fad. Fads tend to be short-term phenomena that we look back on and say, “Shit, what were we thinking?” Trends tend to be longer-term phenomena that sometimes lead to long-term culture change. The word “trendy” has taken on a dismissive connotation, but the problem is that people use “trendy” when they really mean “faddish.”
Sometimes a phenomenon can be both a trend and a fad. The Beatles represent the ne plus ultra of this dynamic. It’s funny to look back to the dawn of Beatlemania and see how the so-called experts completely missed the potential of dramatic culture change that the lads from Liverpool would initiate. In an unusual example of mea culpa in journalism, U. S. News and World Report published a retrospective on their original missed call:
What the Beatles Prove About Teen-Agers
Interview With a Leading Educator and Sociologist
In case you’re worried about the craze over those Beatles—Here are some reassuring words from one of the best-known sociologists in the U.S.
David Riesman, Harvard professor and noted author on social trends, was interviewed by “U.S. News & World Report.”
Q Professor Riesman, is the furor over the singers who call themselves the Beatles a sign that American youngsters are going crazy?
A No crazier than hitherto. In the first place, any large city will turn out a minority capable of nearly anything. One mustn’t exaggerate and attribute to the vast majority the reactions of the minority.
Q Would you say that the fad for the Beatles is a mania, then?
A It’s a form of protest against the adult world. These youngsters are hoping to believe in something, or respond to something new that they have found for themselves.
Q Will it last very long?
A No. No craze does. The way to describe a craze or fad is to point out that it starts out as a minority movement. It is self-fulfilling, self-nourishing for the minority that supports it, and every member of the minority is supposed to respond in the same way. As soon as the majority takes it up, it can no longer be a fad. Some new fad has to come along for a new minority.
Given the number of witless, short-sighted graduates from Harvard, it’s a wonder they’re still in business.
Though their founding principle focused on getting to the toppermost of the poppermost, The Beatles initiated several trends that wound up changing world culture. Men could grow their hair long and still be men. Pop music became a legitimate art form. Western societies loosened up a bit and tolerated greater non-conformism.
It’s equally true that Beatlemania spawned several fads. Beatle wigs. Collarless jackets. Beatle boots. And most important and relevant to our story, The Beatles opened the door to a slew of follow-the-money musical acts who tried to emulate the Fab Four, with varying degrees of success. Most of those Invasion bands failed to survive after The Beatles shifted gears and began offering more intricate music. It’s impossible to imagine Herman’s Hermits, Freddie and the Dreamers or The Dave Clark Five coming out with anything close to Rubber Soul, Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. Though they cashed in on the craze by adopting the bright sounds and cheerful energy of the Invasion, they all lacked the depth, musical sophistication and songwriting talent of The Beatles to go much further. This talent gap should have been apparent to any music fan even during the heights of Beatlemania. Though early Lennon-McCartney lyrics were pretty much standard pop fare and the songs generally followed standard pop structures, the melodic range and harmonic complexity of some of their early creations clearly separated them from their competitors. Even within the realm of pop, they pushed the boundaries as far as they could (the Aeolian cadence at the end of “Not a Second Time,” the feedback that opens “I Feel Fine,” the metrical imbalances of “Any Time at All,” the unusual chord and key changes of “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl”).
Key takeaway: What separated The Beatles from the rest of the pack can be summarized in a single word: substance.
Thirty years later, it was pretty clear that angry women using naughty language had reached the inflection point between fad and trend. Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco and Courtney Love (with Hole) had created enough buzz to earn the label, “cutting edge.” It’s when you get to “cutting edge” that other artists take note and begin to alter their style in accordance with changing tastes.
Enter Alanis Morissette.
Prior to Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette was a teen pop singer a la Tiffany. Her first album, Alanis, consisted of cheesy pop/dance numbers and was a modest success in Canada. The second album, Now Is the Time, was more ballad-driven and sold about half as well. Shortly thereafter, Alanis graduated from high school and moved to Toronto, where she learned how to play guitar and hooked up with a guy named Glen Ballard, who eventually produced and co-wrote the music for the soon-to-be-legendary Jagged Little Pill. The stylistic shift from dance-pop to “alternative rock with post-grunge influence” took her fellow Canadians by surprise, but the rest of the world had never heard of Alanis Morissette and considered her an exciting new voice. People all over the world heard this angry young woman spilling her guts out over the radio and bought the record in droves. “Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them,” wrote Stephen Erlewine of All Music, capturing the popular sentiment.
The most curious aspect of this transformation involved a decision to expunge the historical record. The transition from wannabe teen pop star to alternative rock hero also involved a change in record companies, from MCA to Maverick. Apparently, the marketing staff at Maverick took this repackaging assignment very seriously. From Wikipedia:
Executives at Maverick persuaded MCA Records to withdraw all copies of Alanis and Now Is the Time from circulation, and they did not mention either album in the promotional material for Jagged Little Pill. According to Spin magazine, Morissette’s transformation from “the Debbie Gibson of Canada” to an alternative rock musician made some Canadians skeptical. As with Alanis, Now Is the Time is no longer in print.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with an artist reinventing themselves when things aren’t working out, but that’s some pretty Stalinist shit right there. I couldn’t find any evidence that Rick Nelson demanded the removal of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet from syndication when he shifted gears to country rock.
Alanis is an alternative rock singer. Alanis has always been an alternative rock singer. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. We have the Coronavirus under control. Got it.
As far as Jagged Little Pill is concerned, my initial reaction to Erlewine’s comment was “What the fuck?” Upon reflection, though, I can see the truth in his observation. On Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette sounds like she’s twenty-one going on fourteen. Her anger is largely adolescent in nature; her tartness little more than smart-mouth whining. Of course my fourteen-year-old friends thought she was the bees’ knees—she expressed the anger and frustration of a young woman who failed to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. As for the gazillions of older folks who bought the album in droves, I learned long ago that most adults get stuck in adolescence and never dig their way out. They continue to play silly head games. They view male-female relationships as a competitive sport: the battle of the sexes. And they always blame the other for their own fucking problems.
Combine an unflinching exploration of bourgeois emotion with heavy use of cliché language, “edgy” pop stylings and magnificent timing, and next thing you know, you’re the darling of the Grammies.
The album opens with the word salad of “All I Really Want.” Songfacts describes the song thusly: ” . . . a frustrated Morissette is in the midst of an argument with her significant other who refuses to engage in the ‘intellectual intercourse’ she desperately wants, preferring to distract himself from the problems in his life rather than face them. The singer is aware of her own shortcomings, and compares herself to Estella, the cold and critical socialite who captures the protagonist’s heart in the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake. She certainly isn’t aware of her own shortcomings in the area of communication, because if I’m that poor guy, I have no idea what the fuck she’s talking about:
And there I go jumping before the gunshot has gone off
Slap me with a splintered ruler
And it would knock me to the floor if I wasn’t there already
If only I could hunt the hunter
And all I really want is some patience
A way to calm the angry voice
And all I really want is deliverance
Alanis seems to delight in torturing the poor bastard because, in her superior judgment, he is obviously her intellectual and spiritual inferior: “I don’t like to dissect everything today/I don’t mean to pick you apart you see/But I can’t help it.” She then attempts to prove her literary cred by comparing herself to Estella of Great Expectations:
Do I wear you out?
You must wonder why I’m relentless and all strung out
I’m consumed by the chill of solitary
I’m like Estella
I like to reel it in and then spit it out
I’m frustrated by your apathy
If you’ve read Great Expectations, you may remember that Estella was a major league asshole who toyed with poor Pip and drove him to distraction. I don’t think Alanis admitting she’s an asshole qualifies as “admitting her own shortcomings.” Assholes, by definition, are not self-aware.
Musically, her distinctive voice drives me batty, especially her multi-syllabification of simple words and her fingernails-on-chalkboard ascent into soprano. Glen Ballard called her performance “feral,” so if you’re into howling cats, this song is for you! As for Ballard, he proved himself more than a match for Alanis when it comes to pretentiousness when he claimed, “I went into an Indian modality” when composing the music. Dude! You wrote a drone song! BFD!
Even more disturbing is the song that thrilled my teenage friends, the thoroughly disgusting display of childishness called “You Oughta Know.” Listening to the song as a relatively mature adult allowed me to give form to thoughts that my teenage self could not put into words.
This woman needed a fucking therapist.
Story: Alanis finds out a guy has cheated on her. She is obsessed with comparing herself to the other woman. She blames him for everything.
And 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
You, you, you oughta know
Uh oh. The inability to accept responsibility is a common feature of a sociopath. This is not good. She’s not singing, she’s hyperventilating.
You seem very well, things look peaceful
I’m not quite as well, I thought you should know
Did you forget about me, Mr. Duplicity?
I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
It was a slap in the face
How quickly I was replaced
And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?
I have three reactions to this despicable tantrum. First, the guy needs to get a restraining order—pronto.
Second, Alanis Morissette’s use of the word “fuck” has no credibility. Her tone indicates she’s likely filtering that word through Catholic guilt. She just threw that in there because Liz Phair and other women were using “fuck” in their songs.
The third has to do with something Alanis said when attempting to justify all this bullshit: “When I hear that song, I hear the anger as a protection around the searing vulnerability. I was mortified and devastated. It was a lot easier for me to be angry and feel the power from that anger versus the broken, horrified woman on the floor.” (Songfacts).
Clueless. Absolutely clueless. She gave up her power long before the break-up by making herself dependent on the guy, continued to piss away her power by making him responsible for it all and now she’s fucking stalking him! She has zero understanding of “anger can be power” because she’s bent on revenge, the ultimate dead-end street. Her anger is “ME-ME-ME” instead of “We.” I only have one thing to say to this petulant child: “Well, boo-fucking-hoo, bitch. Grow the fuck up.”
Listen to You Oughtta Know on YouTube.
Sometimes Alanis kinda sorta seems to get it, as is the case with “Perfect.” Here she compares and contrasts parental expectations of boys and girls. Boys are viewed as having a shot at perfection if they try, while girls never seem to get anything right:
How long before you screw it up
How many times do I have to tell you to hurry up
With everything I do for you
The least you can do is keep quiet
The climax of the song comes in the bridge, and while the lyrics do a good job of indicting parents for using children to vicariously live the life they never had (“I’m doing this for your own damn good/You’ll make up for what I blew”), she lapses into hysterics while delivering the vocal, overselling her argument. Glen Ballard’s arrangement of strummed and arpeggiated guitars is predictable and intensely boring, failing completely in its attempt to establish a reflective mood.
“Hand in My Pocket” has the virtue of good songwriting construction with each stanza ending on a changing line depending on whatever Alanis decides to do with her free hand. The song would have been much more effective had she exercised anything close to restraint, but apparently she and Ballard believed that her ticket to fame was to oversing everything and emphasize the trivial and since she sold 33 million copies what the fuck do I know?
Alanis shifts back to whiny-moaner mood in the more-than-annoying, “Right Through You,” where she bitches about how a music mogul mistreated her. His sin was that he didn’t listen to her, which was indeed a very rude thing to do. As usual, Alanis over-reacts; her response to this grave insult is both infantile and predictable: REVENGE!
Oh, hello, Mr. Man
You didn’t think I’d come back
You didn’t think I’d show up with my army
And this ammunition on my back
Now that I’m Miss Thing
Now that I’m a zillionaire
You scan the credits for your name
And wonder why it’s not there
My response is equally predictable: Boo fucking hoo, bitch.
“Forgiven” features a ridiculously over-the-top arrangement full of drama and shades of darkness as Alanis reflects on growing up Catholic. There’s not a whole lot of insight here unless you didn’t already know that the Roman Catholic Church has been running one of the world’s most successful scams in history for about two millennia. I guess nobody told Alanis.
Next, it’s cliché time with “You Learn,” where Alanis makes no attempt to modernize the ancient adage, “live and learn,” but delivers this “wisdom” with her usual “passion” as if nobody told her that the saying had been around for about two millennia. In addition to the trite title, the song is loaded with other familiar references to life’s lessons, such as “biting off more than you can chew,” “sticking your foot in your mouth” and the cliché that spawned the album’s title, “a hard pill to swallow.” Maybe she guessed that loading a song with meaningless phrases would magically produce meaning.
I guess “Head Over Feet” qualifies as a love song, but it’s more revealing in terms of the misperception of Alanis Morissette as some kind of feminist hero. She’s not. The lines “You treat me like I’m a princess/I’m not used to liking that” and “You held your breath and the door for me” reveal her as a traditional (and rather insecure) female playing out the culturally assigned role while reserving the right to bitch aimlessly about men. Her anger was the anger of traditional women who have built their lives around the cat-and-mouse game and get pissed off when the game gets ugly. There’s nothing wrong with that; if a woman chooses a life where she plays the traditional role of taking care of hubby and the kids, she has the right to make that choice and no one has the right to stand in judgment of her. My point is that there is nothing “alternative” about Jagged Little Pill; the songs do not attempt to push society to respect alternatives to traditional relationships but encourage women to express their feelings within the context of classic male-female coupling. Like every other song on Jagged Little Pill, “Head Over Feet” is a pale imitation of alternative rock, using tropes like the Pixie-esque soft-LOUD dynamics and power chords galore, but sanding down all the rough edges. It’s music sanitized for the masses.
At least “Mary Jane” shows a bit of empathy for other women, though her description of Mary Jane’s plight is so skimpy we have no idea what event or situation led to her apparent depression. My main reaction to the song is, “My god, does she always have to sing so fucking loud?” The effect of her over-the-top performance is to draw attention to herself rather than the subject of her story.
Both Alanis and Glen Ballard have already taken a lot of shit for their misuse of the word “ironic,” so I’ll skip over that controversy and simply mention that when they make the shift from soft-to-LOUD on “Ironic,” I rip the headphones off my ears every time. You’d think that after nine songs I would have gotten used to that terribly grating voice but I guess not. I really don’t understand the people who go ga-ga over Alanis Morissette’s vocals; her phrasing is undisciplined, her sense of dynamics non-existent and her child-like whine aurally disturbing. Yeah, yeah, she’s “different,” but “different” doesn’t always mean “better.”
Listen to “Ironic” on YouTube.
In “Not the Doctor” her phrasing and tone sound suspiciously like Ani DiFranco’s, so I guess she had enough sense to listen to someone who knew what they were doing, but in the end, she didn’t learn much from the experience. The album thankfully closes with a song called “Wake Up,” where she details several examples of automatic adolescent contradiction. She moans, whines and wanders over the slick production, ending up pretty much nowhere.
If you read the Wikipedia article on Third-wave Feminism, you’ll find this quote from feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans: “(the) confusion surrounding what constitutes third-wave feminism is in some respects its defining feature.” The Third Wave emphasis on individuality freed the movement from the dogmatic nonsense that caused people to grow weary of the first two waves, but it also meant that nearly any woman could claim feminist status and get away with it. I don’t know if Alanis Morissette considers herself a feminist, but I’m sure that millions do. To me, she was a hanger-on who capitalized on a trend, did little to advance the status of women in society and made a whole lot of money.
I mentioned at the end of my review of Exile in Guyville that I found it “ironic” that Liz Phair was opening for Alanis Morissette on the latter’s 25th Anniversary of Jagged Little Pill tour. If this were a just world, it would be the other way around.
I know I’m only one against 33 million, but I’m good with that.
Go to the next post in the series: Ani DiFranco’s Not a Pretty Girl