100 Essential Albums: #98 — Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette (1995)
You live you learn, you love you learn
You cry you learn, you lose you learn
You bleed you learn, you scream you learn
If music can be labeled as incendiary, then Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill is an album bursting with fire and flames. It is both a scorcher and a torch.
Released in the summer of 1995, Morissette’s third solo album remains a blistering indictment of sexist attitudes and intransigent gender-based practices to this day. It’s a rage against the evils of misogyny and chauvinism, for some a leap towards liberation, and a collective and unapologetic “fuck you” interwoven into the embittered lyrics dispatched in rock-infused unison. It’s a 13-track generational manifesto of young female empowerment set mostly to thundering bass riffs and wailing guitars punctuated by angry drums — all topped off with Morissette’s scale-blasting vocals. For some, the voiceless victims who understood and in many cases experienced the angst Morissette was singing about, the album served as psychotherapy. For others, notably the mostly male targets of Morissette’s eviscerating libretto, the album was a bitter pill to swallow — had they bothered to stop and listen.
Instantly, Jagged Little Pill became the soundtrack for a generation desperately in search of a voice. It sold 14 million copies and earned five highly-deserved Grammy Awards, including “Album of the Year.” It spawned six smash hit singles, including a handful of songs widely familiar to this day. It made a worldwide recording and touring superstar out of a Canadian-born then-21-year-old singer-songwriter, previously little known outside Ontario — seemingly the unlikeliest of musicians to infuse rock with social sermons.
Like other transformative pop albums throughout history, it both represented the times in which it was created, yet stands as a timeless collection of exceptional work. It was (and is) an almost perfect symphony of sound and voice — an outlet and a safety valve — for buried frustrations. It was born of the anger so many young women feel who left at home on Saturday nights, who were treated so poorly, repeatedly taken advantage of mostly by men indifferent to their emotions, and ultimately disregarded as a disposable commodity. Jagged Little Pill became a sort of lyrical lovechild of Gloria Steinem channeling the outrage of Paddy Chayefsky. To Morissette’s catchy music and impeccable poetic phraseology, twentysomething women everywhere roared back, “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”
Sure, several other female pop icons had covered this familiar territory long before with their own neo-feminist anthems. Aretha Franklin (“Respect”), Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman”), Carole King (“Natural Woman”), Sinead O’Connor (“No Man’s Woman”), and countless other singer-pioneers came long before Morissette. However, nothing quite compares to Jagged Little Pill.
I first heard the album at age 33 but don’t recall ever sitting down and listening to the entire collection from start to finish. So, in preparation for this project, I went back and listened to Jagged Little Pill and came away with an entirely new perspective, and a renewed appreciation.
Six songs midway into the album, I started asking myself — hey, where’s the filler? Where are the B-Sides? Fact is, there are none. Every single one of Morissette’s recordings is a catchy in-your-face track that belongs. After listening to 57 minutes of entirely original music, I still wonder how someone of such a young age (Morissette wrote and/or co-wrote most of the songs) managed to pack so much energy into the punch of one album. The sum of these parts amounts to an explosion.
Here’s one of the most popular hit singles from the album, titled “You Oughta Know.”
Alanis Morissette didn’t appear to fit the mold of a soon-to-be generational torchbearer nor musical messenger when she entered Westlake Recording Studios in Hollywood in late 1994 tasked with recording her first album on the Maverick label intended for international release and mass marketing. Maverick, then a start-up record company co-founded by Madonna, opted to take a chance on the young unproven singer. Until her Maverick deal was inked, every major music producer and entertainment company passed on the opportunity to sign Morissette. The mass reluctance was understandable. She’d already released two lackluster albums, marketing and distribution limited to her native Canada. In fact, both solo albums came out when she was still attending high school and were littered with instantly forgettable dance tracks. It was hard to foresee those Hollywood sessions igniting not only an earthquake of sound but also a collective stream of self-consciousness and seismic shift in confidence. Morissette as a newly-arrived singer-songwriter, spoke to and for young women everywhere. She tapped into something big.
Little Jagged Pill often gets mislabeled as an album of so-called “alternative music” — whatever that means. In reality, this is grunge rock-driven album that still sounds edgy nearly a quarter-century later, yet also contains just enough catchy melodies to appeal to mainstream tastes. Well, that is, mainstream aside from a song reference to performing oral sex and another set of lyrics taking down Catholicism. Morissette, heavily tainted by her guilt-driven Catholic school upbringing, bravely tosses her own past onto a flaming bonfire. In the process, she walks away free, head held high.
Regretfully, as popular music began reflecting the increasing fragmentation between sexes, races, generations, and cultures, as years passed Little Jagged Pill became pigeonholed as an angry manifesto exclusively for women, and I’ve done nothing to alter that misperception in this retrospective. Allow me now the chance to correct this false impression, or at least expand upon its importance.
Little Jagged Pill was swallowed hook, line, and sinker by mostly young women when it initially came out. But the real audience for outreach needed to be men, those devilish dumb foils of Morissette’s lyrical ire. Switch out Morissette’s angst-ridden vocals and replace them with any famous male pop singer, and dudes everywhere would have tattooed song verses on their bodies and worn this album out. Had Mick Jagger, Steven Tyler, or Kurt Cobain plugged in instead of Morissette on lead vocals, every (male) fanboy would be hoisting this album up alongside Beggar’s Banquet, Done With Mirrors, and Nevermind. Ironic isn’t it, that the sexism so pervasive in a society Morissette rails against so deeply still infects our collective tastes in popular music.
Jagged Little Pill’s influence has endured. The album recently spawned a hit Broadway rock-musical. It’s the soundstrack to a stage performance written by Diablo Cody (best known for the movie Juno). This revival is sure to give Morissette’s album a well-deserved reawakening. It’s a chance to reflect once again. Perhaps some who are younger, preferably male, will give this album a listen, fill the void missed by my generation 23 years ago, and make up for lost time.
This album is essential to any serious collection of great pop music.
Here’s a stunning follow-up to Jagged Little Pill — the 1998 single and official video of “Thank you.”
No, Ms. Morissette…..we thank you.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” expected to be posted here regularly on my website over the next year or so.