One of music’s many powers is provoking decades-old memories from even the most forgetful people, like me. Most of the time I can’t remember my daughters’ names or what I had for breakfast, but a lyric, a guitar riff or even feedback as a song changes from soft to hard can take me back twenty years and recall almost every moment.
Alanis Morissette’s breathy, staccato vocal in the opening line, “I want you to know, that I’m happy for you, I wish nothing but the best for you both” bounced off my car dashboard. I knew it was a loaded line, probably a lie, and what was about to happen next was going to be memorable. As the power chord rolled and the unforgettable piece of naughty poetry occurred, “an older version of me, is she perverted like me, would she go down on you in a theatre” I knew I was listening to my generation’s “Go Your Own Way”, but much angrier, and it was fantastic. Kurt Cobain had been dead just over a year but there seemed to be an torch-bearer, literally and figuratively, to his honesty and rawness.
Twenty years ago today, June 13, 1995, Jagged Little Pill, the American debut album of Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette on Madonna’s fledgling record label, Maverick, was released. Sales were slow at first and it would take over three months for the first single, You Oughta Know, to rule the music world. Morissette’s Canadian invasion of the U.S. pop charts was unique. It would fully usher in an era of dominant popular female artists like Sheryl Crow, Sarah MacLachlan, Jewel, Liz Phair, and many others that would have their own festival tour, Lilith Fair, and break the ridiculous radio taboo of “too many women on the air”. Jagged Little Pill screamed its way into people’s hearts and minds and showed that female entertainers could not only sell millions of records but also fill stadiums.
Just after my July 4th weekend of 1995, I quit my radio job for a local Atlanta radio station, ending seven years in the field. The band I was managing part-time broke up shortly thereafter. While on my way home from one of their bar gigs, I turned on then Atlanta powerhouse radio station 99x, which played alternative and other new forms of music. Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know punched me in the gut and it felt brilliant. She was pissed off and wasn’t relying on flowery metaphors to convey her frustration. It was a well-crafted pop rock song. A waft of stale beer settled under my nose as I arrived home. I called a radio DJ friend of mine to ask him what he knew of this Alanis Morissette person. He reminded me of her appearances on the Canadian comedy show You Can’t Do That On Television, which we both saw as teenagers. I was a few months shy of turning 25 in July, 1995, but I was buoyed by a lack of cynicism over a new artist.
You Oughta Know became one of those touchstone songs. People of both sexes identified with it and the speculation over who it was about flourished for years. After many coy interviews, Full House actor Dave Coulier aka Uncle Joey, denied being “Mr. Duplicity” in 2014. Morissette has kept her secret even better than Carly Simon did with her subject of You’re So Vain. Former boyfriends including ex-New Jersey Devils hockey player Mike Peluso, Friends actor Matt Leblanc (who appear in a Canadian video of Alanis’ in 1991) and Leslie Howe, the producer of Alanis’ first two Canadian albums in the early 1990s are also likely culprits. Mostly people just plug into the rage and brutal honesty of being rejected or mistreated or forgotten by a former lover.
Jagged Little Pill was more than one amazing song. It was a 2-year chart phenomenon. Seven cuts from the record were released as singles including mega hits, You Learn, Hand In My Pocket, Head Over Feet, Ironic, and my personal favorite from the album, All I Really Want. Ironic became famous for not being Ironic. Many stand up comedians performed bits over how the lyrical content was simply a collection of bummers rather the definition of Ironic. Jagged Little Pill’s plug into the culture made it a global success, topping charts in ten countries. It was number one in Morissette’s native Canada for almost 6 months. It hit the top spot in the U.S. for 12 non-consecutive weeks. In 2010, its sales topped 33 million copies worldwide. Billboard ranked the album as the number one Best Selling Pop album for the 1990s decade.
Jagged Little Pill ages well. As the father of a teenage daughter, I recognize the sentiments of the album in her life. But how the record was so well-written and produced by Glen Ballard and Alanis Morissette speaks to its power. You Oughta Know still gets the same reaction from me and many others when it comes on the radio.
Twenty years is a long time for anything. But the memories of what Alanis Morissette was able to accomplish with raw emotion are impressive. She oughta know how much people love that record.
Tell me why you like Jagged Little Pill and your favorite track in the comments.