reclaiming alanis morisette's jagged little pill
What were you doing two decades ago? Tearing holes in your tights, full of teen angst and an overwhelming sense that the world was just, like unfair? If so, there was only one album for you: Jagged Little Pill by Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis...
On Saturday, Jagged Little Pill turns 20 years old. It may seem ridiculous to call an album that sold over 30m copies "a bit under-appreciated", but these days, it feels like Alanis Morissette's masterpiece doesn't quite gets its full dues. Maybe it's because the Canadian singer-songwriter has been less visible in recent years, or maybe it's just too soon for the album to be nostalgically reclaimed. Either way it's a shame, because though JLP's blend of pop hooks and alt-rock production pins it firmly to the mid-90s post-grunge era, the songs themselves remain as relatable and strangely empowering as ever.
When Morissette defines life as,"the conflicts, the craziness and the sound of pretences falling all around" on opening track All I Really Want, any slightly over-analytical Generation Y type will know exactly what she means. The parental pressure to be "flawless" that she dissects on Perfect only grows stronger as us privileged western kids become more and more accomplished. And the way she calls out the casual misogyny of a douchey older guy on Right Through You is still totally spot on. "You took me out to wine-dine-69 me," Morissette seethes, "and didn't hear a damn word I said".
Final track Wake Up finds Morissette encouraging someone who's frustratingly apathetic, perhaps herself, to buck their ideas up. "You like pain but only if it doesn't hurt too much," she goads. "And you sit, and you wait to receive." In 2015, it's easy to imagine the whole song being addressed to Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham's hopelessly entitled character in Girls.
When Jagged Little Pill came out in 1995, the disarming frankness with which Morissette sang about everything was remarkable, especially for an album topping the charts worldwide. I was on the cusp of puberty at the time, and like many others of a similar age, learned what fellatio was thanks to You Oughta Know's infamous "would she go down on you in a theatre?" line. I remember thinking, with a wide-eyed 11-year-old's naivety, 'But why would you want to do that in a theatre?' Oh well... as Alanis herself observes later on the album: you live, you learn.
Two decades later, these cathartic lyrics remain enthralling whether she's singing about a friend's depression on Mary Jane, exorcising the ghosts of her Catholic upbringing on Forgiven, or wading through the wreckage of a destructive relationship on You Oughta Know. Jagged Little Pill may be as messy and angsty as anyone's adolescence, sure, but it's also optimistic. Hand in My Pocket and You Learn see Morissette fumble towards self-acceptance, while Head Over Feet is a hymn to the healing powers of a "rational" romantic relationship.
Though Jagged Little Pill is often mistaken for Morissette's debut, she'd actually released two albums of more straightforward dance-pop in her native Canada before it came out, so this record was her chance to show who she really was. That person, it turned out, was the sort of wonderful weirdo who shoe-horns words like "appropriate" and "intercourse" into super-catchy pop songs and ends many of them singing in a kind of demented yelp. Morissette's idiosyncrasies are an appealing part of the package - they make the album feel even more real.
Perhaps inevitably, Morissette never matched the success of Jagged Little Pill, though she's since released several decent LPs and a handful of songs that rival its best, most notably 2002's scathing post-break-up number Hands Clean. But the influence of her 1995 breakthrough album continues to be felt in pop music today. Beyoncé and Britney Spears have both covered You Oughta Know in their live sets, while Katy Perry has sung the album's praises over and over again. "Jagged Little Pill was the most perfect female record ever made," she said a few years back. "There's a song for anyone on that record, I relate to all those songs. They're still so timeless."
More broadly, Jagged Little Pill paved the way for a pack of female pop artists - some great, some not so great - seeking chart success with a brasher breed of banger. Avril Lavigne, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Ashlee Simpson and Demi Lovato have all operated in the space this album's success helped to create. So as Jagged Little Pill turns 20, it's time to embrace it fully, glorious flaws and all. Sure, spotting a no smoking sign on your cigarette break isn't really ironic; nor is finding a black fly in your chardonnay. But they both suck, and no one else gets that quite like Alanis Morissette.
Text Nick Levine