Jagged Little Pill at 20: A Roundtable

Three Atlantic writers discuss the seminal Alanis Morissette album two decades after its release.

Maverick Records

On June 13, 1995, the Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette released Jagged Little Pill, an alt-rock landmark of a record that, despite modest expectations, ended up selling more than 30 million copies and winning four Grammy Awards. But beyond its commercial success, the album ended up having a profound impact on music, both in the second half of the ‘90s and beyond, as well as entering the canon of music that defines a generation. To mark the record’s 20th anniversary, Sophie Gilbert, Spencer Kornhaber, and Megan Garber discuss what it meant to them then, and how it sounds two decades later.

Gilbert: When I think about Jagged Little Pill, I mostly flash back to a history trip I took in junior high to visit the French battlefields of World War One (stay with me here). Imagine 50 13-year-olds all screaming along to “You Oughta Know,” but then abruptly stopping any time it got to a vaguely sexual part, thanks to the fact that the trip was chaperoned by our youngish drama teacher, Mr. Graham (hi, Mr. Graham) and we were all too embarrassed to vocalize things like, “AND ARE YOU THINKING OF ME WHEN YOU FUCK HER” in front of him.

The release of Jagged Little Pill on June 13, 1995, happened to coincide with the beginning of my teenage angst, as did that very inappropriate singsong right by the location of the Battle of the Somme. But it’s amazing listening to it 20 years later, because unlike so much of the music from that time, it isn’t dated. It doesn’t have the affectedness of Britpop or the brittle plasticity of ‘90s R&B. Instead, it tapped into a kind of poetic female rage that I don’t think anyone has vocalized quite as well since. Its lyrics practically beg to be quoted in ALL CAPS. Even Alanis herself acknowledged the record’s potency as a kind of female call to arms in the video for “Ironic,” which features a bunch of Alanis clones screaming along to the lyrics on a road trip and grinning at each other. (At the end it appears there’s only been one Alanis all along, so maybe it’s all about multiple personality disorder and I’ve been misinterpreting it all this time, but never mind.)

It’s hard to think of another female artist who’s made a rock album like this one, let alone a record that’s so angry, so unabashedly sexual (“Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it”), and so inventive.

Kornhaber: I bet a lot of people have a Mr. Graham-like moment buried in the memory banks somewhere with regards to this album. Jagged Little Pill was the kind of culture-conquering CD that was in every Ford Windstar, poppy and straightforward enough to seem sonically appropriate for family road trips. I don’t really think I knew what Alanis was screaming about doing in that theee-at-urrr with her ex. I just knew it was a lot more fun to listen to than the Bob Marley best-of compilation that my mom and dad otherwise had in rotation (sorry, Bob).

It was fun, first and foremost, because of that voice, that phrasing. I have a hard time of coming up with mainstream singers who have as much character and verve and comfort with sounding totally ugly as she does (Fiona Apple carries the torch but can barely be called mainstream these days). Apologies both to the rock-and-roll credibility committee and to the gods of overused comparisons, but the precedent that might most be apt is Joni Mitchell; not in the way she sounds but in the thing she does, crafting phrases upon phrases that tumble out in totally original and yet conversation-aping ways. Throughout the album, she sounds totally unfiltered, even though making something as effective as JLP takes high-level creative vision. This wasn’t self-indulgent confession for the sake of it; Alanis wrote anthems, straight bangers, with the hooks ready to be wailed at arenas or, yes, car rides.

It’s easy to see her as a part of the grunge flood, and her angst is indeed very of its time—who other than Eminem and the dudes of mall-metal have had a hit album as angry as this since then? But when I listened to it recently, I was surprised and kind of thrilled to find it wasn’t the deliciously  one-note blast of aggression that my memory had slotted it as. Alanis is, like, living! She is an idealist! Kurt Cobain saw life as a sick joke because nothing mattered; she saw it as a sick joke because everything does. That’s what “Ironic” is about (also hush up, the song is in fact ironic)—“Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you,” she mutters at the end, which explains all that laughing in the possibly schizo video you described, Sophie.

Gilbert: It’s weird what you said about Alanis writing straight-up bangers, Spencer, because JLP wasn’t supposed to be a hit. It was Alanis’s third album, after two Janet Jackson-esque pop records she released as a teenager, and it seems like more than anything it was intended to dramatically shake up her reputation as an artist so that whatever came next could be appreciated on its own terms. But even with all that, you’re so right how self-aware it is in its singalonginess, and its arena-rocking potential. In tumbling down the Alanis rabbit hole this morning I watched the video for “Hands Clean,” which has a similar awareness of its future place in the canon—you see a group of girls singing it awkwardly at karaoke while the lyrics scroll over the screen.

But the other thing I love about the record is its tonal schizophrenia: It jumps from the fury of “You Oughta Know” to the almost lullaby-like first line of “Perfect.” That song is so brilliant in its juxtaposition of soft guitar chords and Alanis’s quiet, gentle voice with the lyrics, which are Dance Moms brutal: “If you’re flawless / Then you’ll win my love / Don’t forget to win first place / Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face.” Then her voice gets harsher, and the rest of the band jumps in. “I’ll live through you / I’ll make you what I never was / If you’re the best then maybe so am I / Compared to him / Compared to her.”

She’s already skewered pretentious boyfriends, abusive guardians (“Slap me with a splintered ruler”), feckless lovers, and pushy parents, and we’re only three songs in.

Kornhaber: The word “schizophrenia” and hints of craziness have come up a few times in this discussion and that’s totally fair; you have to be a little unhinged, at least temporarily, to want to voodoo-torment someone by scratching one’s nails down another’s back. But what’s remarkable is how lucid, precise, and totally logical she is even when she’s at her most volcanic. I mean, listen to how in-control she is on the opener “All I Really Want,” asking why you’re so afraid of silence, stopping the song—Beyonce replicated this trick on “Feeling Myself” last year—and then hitting you with the neurotic’s questionnaire: “Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines? / Or when you think you're gonna die? / Or did you long for the next distraction?” The answer, Alanis, is yes! I did think of those things! All ye who would condemn Millennials as using technology to tune out the world, listen to Alanis; in 1995, she nailed the reason why people distract themselves, which maybe means it’s less generational than eternal.

I also love that song in particular for introducing listeners to that Alanis-y blend of existential crisis and matter-of-fact chit-chat. “All I really want is some peace, man,” she says, and the rest of the record follows up with a lot of other semi-mocking, semi-loving repurposings of the way people actually talk. “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner …” “Yeah, I really do think.” The duality of the language, the roars next to the small talk, is just so fitting for what she’s singing about. I guess I’m trying to explain something that she explained perfectly herself on the thesis statement of the album, “One Hand In My Pocket.” High/grounded, sane/overwhelmed—“what it all boils down to is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet”

Garber: Totally—I love that duality not just because it helps make the album so musically and lyrically interesting, but also because it gives JLP the feeling of being, in ways tiny and huge, just … true. I sadly don’t have a specific Mr. Grahamian memory of the album (save for the fact that, at a certain point in my life, I was a fan of “Full House”); what I do remember, though, is how in a weird way I looked up to it, and to Alanis herself. The album was—just like Alanis, just like many of us—simultaneously sane and overwhelmed. It had this sense of life as this full and rich and fragile and occasionally infuriating thing, this thing that happens both with your help and spite of it. The songs, taken together, take for granted the basic idea that anger and frustration are part of life, and that sometimes, yes, you may find yourself sneering, to an ex who has disappointed you, "I'm sure she'd make a really excellent mother.” But they also, however, assume that the frustration will pass, that things will get better. And that they’ll get better both despite and because of the fact that your ex-boyfriend is kind of a jerk.

[Side note: It is CRAZY that Britney’s “Baby … One More Time” came out just three years after JLP.]

Re-listening to the album today—and it’s amazing how ageless these songs are, all in all—I’m struck again by how optimistic it is, fundamentally. And also, in its way (despite all the rage and the talk of raaaaaaaainnnnnnn … on your wedding ... DAY), wise. It’s like Alanis is self-consciously playing the role of older sister or cool aunt or whatever—someone who will tell you about life, the weird and awkward and occasionally terrible stuff that no one else will tell you about, without talking down to you or sugar-coating things. It’s cliche, today, to assume that female pop stars are role models by default, particularly to young girls; Alanis, or at least the character she plays on JLP, really seemed to see herself that way, though—and to take advantage of it. Some other lyrics that practically beg to be quoted in ALL CAPS are the ones from “You Learn,” which would also be at home in a self-help book (an angsty and poetic one, but still): I RECOMMEND BITING OFF MORE THAN YOU CAN CHEW TO ANYONE (I CERTAINLY DO) / I RECOMMEND STICKING YOUR FOOT IN YOUR MOUTH AT ANY TIME (FEEL FREE).

She adds, “Throw it down (the caution blocks you from the wind) / Hold it up (to the rays).” Which all has a whiff of graduation speech to it (or, more musically, of Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen”): It is straight-up, earnest advice. Especially when we hit the refrain:

You live, you learn
You love, you learn
You cry, you learn
You lose, you learn
You bleed, you learn
You scream, you learn

Gilbert: I totally agree, Megan. Alanis had that awkward older sister thing going on where you wanted to suffer right alongside her. And I’m so happy you mentioned Britney, because it reminds me that Britney has covered “You Oughta Know,” and that Alanis herself covered the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.”

This is why it’s so weird to think about the fact that she was only 21 when the album came out, and yet so poised, and so worldly, and so adamant that everyone else could just GTFO. She’s also just a terrific lyricist. Her verbosity can get a wee bit grating in later records (especially the primer of SAT words that is “Thank U,” and the twee wordplay of Under Rug Swept), but on JLP it’s hard to resist, even though eight billion vocabulary pedants have pointed out her questionable definition of “ironic” over the years. In addition to all the human, conversational stuff you mentioned, Spencer, she writes lyrics like, “You see me as a sweet backloaded puppet / And you’ve got meal ticket taste,” and, “I’m like Estella / I like to reel it in and then spit it out / I’m frustrated by your apathy.” She’s as much of a storyteller on the record as she is a performer, which is why that sense of identifying with her angst that you talked about, Megan, is so sharp.

Garber: And speaking of the storytelling elements … we have mentioned “Ironic”—the video, the Great Grammatical/Literary Device Debate that has swirled around it for decades now—but I think we would be remiss not to return to this gem just one more time. (Yeah, I really do think.) What’s striking to me about the track, in particular, given all the conversation about it that still feels (mostly) fresh and familiar, is how vibrantly the song has endured, and across so many levels of culture. There’s the song itself, and the video, but also the heated argument (it’s totally not ironic) and the heated re-argument (actually, it’s totally ironic) surrounding it. There’s the role it played in the conversation about marriage equality. There are the reaction gifs based on it. There are the parodies of it that double as musical fanfic.

I guess what I’m getting at is that “Ironic” is a song that is also, in its way, a meme. Which is definitely not to say that it was the only song of the era to play that role (hi, everything Weird Al made in the ‘​90s!); it is to say, though, that it’s hard to think of other works of the time that have proven so enduring in their reach—across mediums, across platforms, across decades. JLP’s release coincided pretty neatly with the rise of the web—the years that found so many Americans AOLing and CompuServing and otherwise dialing up for first time—and, though the connections obviously aren’t causal, it striking how neatly the album captures the possibilities that the Internet represented for so many people, especially young ones, at the time: connection, creativity, community. The sense that we’re in this thing together. And the sense of optimism that is both complicated and pure. “Life has a funny way of sneaking up on you,” Alanis notes, at the close of “Ironic.” But life also has a funny way, she adds, of helping you out. Helping you … out.