The Prescient Power of ‘Jagged Little Pill’

Maybe Alanis Morissette was angry, but mostly she was lucid.

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Morissette performs in 1995. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

“Do I stress you out?” sings Alanis Morissette on “All I Really Want,” in the very first line of her Diamond-certified 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Her sentiment is not angry, contrary to the opinion expressed in countless snarky reviews that pushed those 12 rich, complex songs into the realm of “ladies be raging” parody. Instead, Morissette delivers the quiet provocation with a slight hint of deviousness, mild enough to be almost coy and a little bit … ironic.

At the very least it was a rhetorical question. After all Morissette, then a 21-year-old who’d been a teen-pop artist in her native Canada, knew perfectly well that she stressed almost everyone out — in the way that women who walk straight and steady along their own paths are wont to. For the women who had already begun carving out space in male-centric rock and, specifically, the newly commercially viable world of grunge, she was a dilettante who was making their work seem juvenile by association. To the pop world she was an amusing idiosyncrasy, easy enough to distill into some familiar model of oversexed, irrational, witchy women. To many cynics she was simply too successful to possibly be good.

To many cynics she was simply too successful to possibly be good.

The backlash came despite the fact that artists like Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and Sheryl Crow had already made outspoken women singer-songwriters a common feature of the ’90s pop landscape. Each woman seemingly had to fight the same battles anew, and because of her outsize sales and airplay, Alanis’ were bigger than most.

“Listening to Alanis Morissette’s new album is like hearing your little sister swear at you for the first time,” wrote her hometown paper, the Ottawa Citizen, in the same patronizing tone that was typical of most reviews she received. Because she was young and a woman, any chance at being taken seriously was already next to zero; because her voice was like a bundle of raw nerve endings and she sang, often with irrepressible earnestness, about things she had experienced as a young woman, she was essentially doomed.

But she knew — somehow as she crafted the album — exactly how it would be received. Her gift for observation, which she used to process all the terrifying, reckless things she’d seen as a child who was too quickly treated like a woman, was deeply incisive. Which means that 25 years later, there’s very little to say about how her critics heard Jagged Little Pill that isn’t said on Jagged Little Pill.  

Morissette at the video shoot for the Jagged Little Pill single “Hand in My Pocket”; New York City, 1995. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns.

“You must wonder why I’m relentless and all strung out,” she posits, also on “All I Really Want” — already seeing herself through someone else’s eyes before immediately turning on the judgmental listener: “I like to reel it in and then spit it out/I’m frustrated by your apathy.” That opening manifesto ends with Morissette crying for justice, punctuated with a wordless wail. It’s a final demand that she could and would be detached and self-possessed and anguished all at once, and people were just going to have to deal with it. 

“I confessed my darkest deeds to an envious man/My brothers they never went blind for what they did/But I may as well have,” she sings on “Forgiven,” a song about growing up Catholic, but one that could have easily been about the double-edged sword of putting sex in your songs as a woman musician. She didn’t go blind, but after the monster success of “You Oughta Know,” Morissette was often pinned to the intimate lyric “Is she perverted like me? Would she go down on you in a theater?”

“I don’t want to be adored for what I merely represent to you,” she begs on “Not the Doctor,” intuiting the faint praise of the “women in rock” titles to come.

And yet, in spite of the fact that Morissette saw all the pitfalls to come so clearly, she forged ahead anyway. All the sexism and unfairness and resentment she elucidated line by catchy, singular line came true — again, because it was inevitable. But that painful, prescient honesty found its audience, and it was a massive, nearly unprecedented one, made up mostly of women who, like Morissette, knew all too well how the world saw them and underestimated them. Women who, when confronted with all the ways they were supposedly not quite right, responded with a whole range of open, vulnerable feeling — even when it made them look a little silly.

To lightly paraphrase advice columnist Heather Havrilesky, angry is a name bad men call women who can see them clearly. Maybe Alanis Morissette was angry, but mostly she was just lucid, which was paramount to her ability to connect in a meaningful way with tens of millions of people. “I think what was happening is that, unwittingly, as I was writing about my own human experience, it was giving permission in some way to those who were listening to it to have their own human experience and not apologize for anything like anger or sadness or depression or mental challenges or anything,” she said of the album during a recent TV appearance. “I think it just said, it’s OK to be human.”

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