Great Moments in Bad-Ass Rock History: "Jagged Little Pill"

In which Alanis taught a whole generation of girls about righteous rage.

Dec 28, 2011 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

Last week on the finale of "The X Factor," after Alanis Morissette did a duet of "Uninvited" with finalist Josh Krajcik, uber-producer and judge LA Reid called Alanis's "Jagged Little Pill" his favorite album of all time.

It seemed like a weird pick at first, but why the hell shouldn't "Jagged Little Pill" be his favorite album of all time? It's a freaking incredible album.

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Let's just consider the tracklist for a moment:

  1. All I Really Want
  2. You Oughta Know
  3. Perfect
  4. Hand In My Pocket
  5. Right Through You
  6. Forgiven
  7. You Learn
  8. Head Over Feet
  9.  Mary Jane
  10.  Ironic
  11.  Not the Doctor
  12. Wake Up
  13. You Oughta Know + hidden track "Your House"

These songs cover topics from relationships to religion from an unabashedly female perspective. And not a nice simpering female, but an in-your-face, take-no-shit female who spits lines like "I don't want to be your mother/ I didn't carry you in my womb for nine months" and of course, scandalously, "Would she go down on you in theater?" And they were huge hits!

Morissette won "Best Female Rock Vocal Performance," "Best Rock Song," "Best Rock Album," and "Album of the Year, aka pretty much everything, in the 1996 Grammys.

There is a  whole age group of girls, of which I am a part, that know all the words to every song on this album. When it came out in 1995, it shot like a bullet through suburban girl world, offering a snarling, leather-pantsed Alanis Morissette as a kind of role model many of us had never seen before.

In the wake of the album's massive success and musical impact, it's funny to read some of the stuff (mostly male) reviewers were saying about it back then: "As slick as the music is, the lyrics are unvarnished and Morissette unflinchingly explores emotions so common, most people would be ashamed to articulate them," said Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic, and to which I say, welcome to pop music. Robert Christgau said, I can only imagine snidely, "But with help from six or seven arrantly effective songs, she's happy to help 15 million girls of many ages stick a basic feminist truth in our faces: privileged phonies have identity problems too. Not to mention man problems." To which I say, welcome to xoJane.com. Just kidding! Kind of!

"Angry woman rock" became kind of a cultural punchline at some point during this time period, but as a teenage girl (privileged or not) there was a lot to be angry about.

I was a perpetually indignant teenager -- a little Democrat surrounded by Republicans, an activist surrounded by Bible belt ignorance and hate, a humanist surrounded by intolerance. I started a lot of petitions back then.

At the same time, expressions of anger by women just weren't part of the culture I grew up in. At church we learned to "turn the other cheek." At school I learned to be quiet and polite. So while I saw injustice all around me, while I felt the implications of my own inferior girlness everywhere I turned, and while I learned through an adolescent assault how flimsy and easily trampled upon my agency was, I had no clear way of expessing my feelings about it all.

I felt sexualized and marginalized and brushed aside in the land of cowboys and Christians and casual misogyny and homophobia. The experience of being a teenage girl in Moore, Oklahoma for that of a tiny, thumb-sized creature, pounding my fists fruitlessly against a sleeping, oblivious giant.

I didn't go to therapy, but I did scream along when Alanis sang "I see right through-ou-ou-ou you." I didn't know there was anything abnormal about my relationship with my father, but I scribbled the lyrics to "Perfect" all over my folders and notebooks. I hadn't yet realized that men in their 20s and 30s don't want to sleep with me just because I was sooo mature, but I dreamed about having a boyfriend who would "treat me like a princess," even though I wasn't used to "liiiking tha-ay-ay-at."

I wouldn't know how angry I was for another decade, but I damn sure knew it felt good to sing those songs.

I eventually found Bikini Kill, Ani Difranco and Sleater Kinney, whose righteous anger was a bit more seasoned, but Alanis was mainstream enough to be accessible to everyone, tame enough that I could listen to her in the car with my parents. Alanis was a gateway drug to feminism.

Because while some might complain about her prettied-up angst, it was just that glossy sheen that allowed her to reach one sweet little girl in suburban Oklahoma who hadn't yet found her voice, and teach her to scream.