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.
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.
“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?”
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.