Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ Turns 20: Backtracking
Backtracking is our recurring look back at the pop music that shaped our lives. Our friends may come and go, but we’ll be spinning our favorite albums forever.
The biggest talking point from Governors Ball last weekend was how the female acts dominated the proceedings. Florence + The Machine and Björk had the fest’s most powerful performances, and musicians as varied as Charli XCX, St. Vincent and Sharon Van Etten left audiences buzzing. Even a lackluster Lana Del Rey set was still the most discussed moment. Basically, it was a microcosm of the pop scene right now; Beyoncé‘s “Who run the world? Girls!” call-and-response has never sounded truer.
Seeing all this happen, it feels like the long-delayed realization of the post-Jagged Little Pill landscape that people envisioned 20 years ago, back when that Alanis Morissette album shattered every preconception of ’90s pop. The LP arrived on June 13, 1995, days after Morissette’s 21st birthday, at a time when commercial hits were more or less split between neutered grunge runoff (Soul Asylum), pop-rap (Skee-Lo) and pristine princess vocalists (pretty much everything else). The Canadian singer demolished those distinctions — here was a teen pop exile using alternative’s confessional angst and Top 40’s anthemic melodies to serve up the year’s most vitriolic rock sneers and hippy-dippy singalongs.
Without label or commercial concerns, Morissette didn’t have to make concessions, so the finished product was an unfiltered look into the mind of its creator. Whether she was blasting industry sexism on “Right Through You” or lamenting lost love on the secret song, this was eloquent, honest, self-assured material, and it shocked the system. Jagged Little Pill topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks in 1995 and another 10 weeks the following year. It spawned five hit singles and took home four Grammys, including Album Of The Year, making Alanis the youngest artist to win the award at the time. It went 16x Platinum in the US. This sort of frank and confessional stuff, especially from a female artist, simply did not succeed on that level at that time.
The scale of Jagged Little Pill‘s dominance cannot be overstated. It didn’t just shake up the zeitgeist, it shook up people’s entire worldviews. I can’t speak to what this album meant to non-male listeners and women in pop — for that perspective, I recommend this essay by Allo Darlin‘s Elizabeth Morris and this CBC roundtable of feminists discussing the album — but I can say that for many males of my generation, this was our first post-gender pop moment. For those of us who were too young to experience things like Siouxsie Sioux or MC Lyte or riot grrrl, “You Oughta Know” was the moment we learned that “authentic” music had no gender and no genre (and the moment we learned what “go down on” means). And when I found out the person who fired that guided missile of spite was also responsible for “Hand In My Pocket,” I realized it was time to take pop seriously.
“You Oughta Know” is still timeless, the gold standard of breakup songs. But in the modern context, the rest of the album unleashes a barrage of ’90s alt cheese, apparent within the first 30 seconds of opener “All I Really Want”: harmonica, wordy yet exasperated vocals, cheap drum machine presets, distorted guitars with the impact of padded corners on a sharp tabletop. There’s a low-budget sheen and a freewheeling funk-lite groove seeping through most of the tracks, making the whole thing feel like it came with a sticker declaring “CD-quality stereo sound.”
But that’s part of Jagged Little Pill‘s appeal, like it was wearing the minimum amount of flair to be accepted into the system. And no matter how much of a time capsule effect there is, it remains essential because of the lyrics and Morissette’s incomparable vocals. Her voice was an evocative and towering shapeshifter that made Dolores O’Riordan‘s “Zombie, ay, ay” histrionics sound timid. Granted, when she entered her Gen-X yodeling zone (see: middle eight of “You Learn”), it could become grating. But those moments sort of induce the same sensation I get revisiting another essential ’90s artifact, Ace Ventura. On one level, you can’t believe it wasn’t immediately seen as obnoxious, but on another level, you’re in awe of the entire performance and realize nobody else could pull it off.
Oh, but many others would try in the aftermath. Jagged Little Pill unsurprisingly set in motion a “girl power” groundswell. But by the turn of the millennium, facing bling rap, butt rock, boy bands and Britney Spears, it seemed destined for fad status. Yet, a full two decades later, the Alanis aftershocks appear to have truly altered the terrain, perhaps because the people who were raised on this album are now creating their own music. You hear it in Beyoncé’s fierce independence and in Sky Ferreira‘s fearless vulnerability. You hear it in Nicki Minaj‘s anti-pigeonhole approach and in Haim‘s unabashed hooks. You hear it when Taylor Swift ethers her exes. What was once an anomaly is ever so gradually becoming the status quo. And there is nothing ironic about it.