Rock’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was released 20 years ago this week. Suitably, I remember my discovery of it as purely organic to my life. I was on the brink of turning 30, early in my career and writing about the news, sports and culture for a newspaper. I went dancing one night at a club near downtown Glendale with a co-worker from the newsroom. When the first single, “You Oughta Know”, started softly before unleashing cathartic expressions with strong, rising vocals and Dave Navarro’s looping guitar licks, I knew the song was part of something larger.
It was and it is and Jagged Little Pill ages well. Its brilliance lies in perfect craftsmanship as pop. Lyrics and music are highly intimate and introspective, yet, thanks to co-writer and producer Glen Ballard, the album is remarkably well made and accessible to general audiences.
Each song is a journey and a gem; like a careful, thoughtful step in the artist’s personal progression delivered, shared and expressed with precision, realism and an unyielding desire to grow, to live life to the fullest—for more of the best of everything. In essence, Jagged Little Pill relishes one’s greedy little thoughts on life.
I know that it’s not more complicated than that. Its tunes can, like some of my favorite pop, jazz and rock, be trite, cliched and tidy, which some people can’t stand. But each song, written or co-written by Morissette, contains insight and wisdom and is expressed with originality, honesty and sincerity, rare qualities in pop music, especially in the mid-1990s. Grunge, rap and filth came online back then (some of it with talent) and this encompasses some of Alanis Morissette’s vulgar lyrics, when the world’s bloodiest century was coming to a close and, while no one talked about it, it was abundantly clear that the West’s worst enemy was coming to attack.
The era’s Clintonian malaise and melancholy, or as Smashing Pumpkins put it, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was everywhere, in the haunting “Disarm” and “1979”, in Soul Asylum’s heart-wrenching “Runaway Train” (1993) and in tunes by Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana, Tori Amos and others. Alanis Morissette, contrary to the conventional notion that she was propelled by being an angry young woman, was different; in her upright “Hand in My Pocket” and other songs, while hard-edged rock is the genre, Alanis names the negative to become and stay positive.
The album’s unspoken theme is discovering the virtue of selfishness. Every line, thought, musing and idiosyncratic phrasing upswells toward personal growth and enlightenment with the singer-songwriter as the proper beneficiary of her own actions. She is an egoist, not an altruist. From her opening statement of awareness that the world—and this is the age of O.J. Simpson getting away with murder—is in deep trouble to the knowing, rational counsel to “swallow it down” and accept that life’s unfair in “You Learn”, Alanis goes by reason, not faith. She laments lies in “Forgiven” and croons in “Head Over Feet” about a man who offers her the promise of “something rational”. She is driven by her values, chosen values, including trying to help a lost friend in “Mary Jane” and make sense of her past to make a better future in “Ironic”, an often maligned or mocked and tragically underrated song about realignment with reality.
Jagged Little Pill is not a romantic record, with songs of bitter rejection such as “Right Through You” and “Wake Up”. But Alanis always ends up finding, or striving to find, the good and feeding it. This is a good idea 20 years later and will be 20 years from now, too, whether one is free to listen to music, including an album as free-wheeling as this record is, let alone debate its merits.
So, I’m glad I danced to “You Oughta Know” 20 summers ago, glad I bought the compact disc and played it over and over and packed it when I went to Europe and was almost booked on TWA 800—isn’t it ironic?—and had it to come home to so I could listen, enjoy and think about its meaning for years to come. I’m glad I saw Alanis perform in concert in Irvine when all she had was Jagged Little Pill.
I’m also glad I’ve followed Alanis Morissette in the intervening two decades. I don’t mind one bit if her Jagged Little Pill is 13 tunes of a well-produced, pop-rock middle finger at the status quo in the closing days of the 20th century. This is an outburst of outrage displayed to find the good, at a time when what was wrong with the world ought to have been evident to everyone and wasn’t. The world has gotten worse in the 20 years since Alanis Morissette’s biting Jagged Little Pill went on sale. Whatever the artist’s intention, her hugely successful album exists as an impassioned outcry against what went wrong, seeded with lessons in setting it right and the hard, fierce and unmistakable vow to never swallow poison without a fight.