The Pajiba Staff Defend 'Jagged Little Pill': Still Dangerous, Still Rocks
Sorry not sorry, Jezebel. Jagged Little Pill is not “actually very bad.” It is still as magical as it was back in the summer of 1995. I can still remember the first time I heard it; I was 14, and at my best friend’s house. “You have to listen to this”, she said, her voice full of reverential tones. She hit play. My first reaction was “It’s a bit shouty”. “Just wait”, she said. And oh boy.
Jagged Little Pill hits you right in the feels. There are so many feelings, and Morissette shows them at their most pure, raw and powerful. The album spoke to a whole generation of People With Feelings, especially those at the stage of life where hormones make everything that much sharper and more intense. Here was a goddess saying “Please, don’t censor your tears.”
One of the guys I knew at university called Jagged Little Pill AVM — “angry vagina music” — and though that nickname was infuriating, speaking as it did of the typical condescension reserved for things beloved of teenage girls, and the alleged universal appeal of music by men compared to music by women, there were days when I could embrace it. Hell yes, this vagina is angry and Morissette is the high priestess of this fury. Behold my angry vagina, and despair!
So this post at Jezebel, which essentially presents Jagged Little Pill as immature, corny and celebrated only for nostalgia, hit a nerve. Here’s a snippet:
Jagged Little Pill was “Baby Shark” for mid-’90s angsty tween girls. It spoke in the simplest language, literally and musically, to that particular psychological stage of development at that particular cultural moment. She was every bit the flip-sides of tender earnestness and fuck-you anger that is so quintessentially middle school.
For a thorough track by track rebuttal of this thesis, I needed some backup. Without further preamble, here’s our tribute to and defense of Jagged Little Pill, which I am now going to refer to as Angry Pajiba Music.
1: “All I Really Want” — Tori
In an album filled with outstanding tracks, “All I Really Want” isn’t necessarily the most memorable. But as the first track on that album, it is an outstanding opener — the perfect introduction to what lies ahead. From the first haunting sounds of the harmonica, backlit by the electrifying guitar riff, to the first line (“Do I stress you out?”), the song was a mission statement for Morissette’s ethos, and a calling card for her listener. This song, more than any other, seemed to see me — who I was at the tender age of 12, and frankly who I still am (sweater on backwards and inside out? Check.). A song about restlessness, and dissatisfaction, and the philosophical contradictions we all hold in our interior selves. It was a gauntlet thrown at our feet, a challenge to acknowledge all our imperfections and driving forces, and see in them the shape of the hole inside of us and what might possibly fill it, futile as that may be. And by the time she asks “Why are you so petrified of silence? Here, can you handle this?” and the song cuts out, leaving us abandoned… I was hooked. The rest of the album may have been a journey for the listener, but “All I Really Want” was the tchotchke you’d buy to remember it all.
2 “You Oughta Know” — Kristy
When this song hit MTV in 1995, it scared the hell out of me. The lyrics were shocking and explicit. Her rage was raw, yet intoxicating. I gobbled it all down, letting it nestle in my too-tender teen heart. Over the intervening—checks notes—decades, I’ve sung along when it’s on the radio or leaned into my ’90s whine-singing for karaoke. But recently, I rediscovered the pure glory of “You Oughta Know” at SXSW. This song is featured in the raved-about teen-comedy Booksmart, part of a karaoke scene at a party. In it, the kids sing along, shedding their awkwardness and insecurities to just live in that moment, and the throbbing, unvarnished emotion that Morissette tuned into.
Afterwards, me and Roxana went to the movie’s after-party, where this song was played by the DJ in a filling bar. While most stood about, playing it cool and waiting for Olivia Wilde and company to turn up, we cut loose. With a circle of friends new and old, we thrashed on the dance floor and screamed out every word still scratched onto our souls. We sang so loud that people stared and that I was hoarse for days after. It was cathartic, majestic, and divine. Because Alanis gets it. She gets what it is to feel wild, wrong, and raw. And she gave us an anthem to remind us we might be messy, but still we are marvelous.
I confess: I often skipped track 3 back in the day. This track — from the perspective of a pushy parent — seemed unusual because it shifted the listener to the recipient of the persona’s anger rather than a co-conspirator. I suspect this one will sound different now for the Alanis generation who have become parents. I see this one differently now I work with teenagers; I’ve seen a few young people struggling with parents like this, and buckling under the pressure to be “perfect”. It still has the power to bruise, this one.
4: “Hand In My Pocket”
Is there anyone who doesn’t feel seen by this song? Wave your hands in the air if you are still most of these things! (I say ‘most’, being neither still short nor young, and definitely not salty about the latter one there.) This is a song that celebrates all those wonderful contradictions that make us whole, and reassures us that it’s OK if you “haven’t got it all figured out just yet” and that “everything is just fine, fine, fine.” We needed to hear that then, and my goodness, we need to hear it now. This is the “just keep swimming” of songs, but with bonus harmonica.
5: “Right Through You” — Seth
The summer after my freshman year in college, I was in a helluva state. I felt like I was being held back at every turn. I had finally settled on a major and what I wanted to do with my life, but my school couldn’t get me the classes I needed. I was in an amazing honors program, but I was practically at war with the woman running it. I wanted to live on my own but was “stuck” splitting time between my parent’s house and my girlfriend’s mother’s house. My job wouldn’t let me take on a better position, my friends all seemed to be having more fun with their college experience and getting whatever they wanted, etc. etc. Fucking teenagers, man.
Jagged Little Pill was a bit of a revelation for me that summer, perhaps no track more so than the tight, three-minute “Right Through You.” The message, with a groove that starts softly only to get hard and angry, was simple. Those people who patronize you today, who are holding you back? See them for what they are. Succeed despite them. Tell them to go fuck themselves by never looking back. Walk right through ‘em. I took that shit to heart and took ownership of my own path. After graduation, I realized that those next three years had been profound for me. Looking back all these years later, that’s still the case.
Last year I saw a musical based on Jagged Little Pill and it was a blast. In my review, I noted that “this show isn’t for the assholes … it’s for the kids of the ’90s who found solace in a former child actor’s raging rock album … [and] the kids of today who have had enough of our bullshit and are going to fix this shit on their own.” After that show, I re-listened to this album for a solid month and it’s true about the album, and “Right Through You,” as well. Jagged Little Pill fucking rocks and I see right through anyone who says otherwise.
Alanis has range, y’all. We see the range in pitch a lot in this album, but here it’s the way she transitions from gentle to all out volume that takes centre stage. Listen to the way she moves from hard, to soft, to hard again here, and tell me that isn’t amazing.
Then there’s the simple matter of taking on the Catholic Church, with all its corruption and double standards, the weaponisation of guilt and the profound personal crisis of wanting to believe and hating it at the same time. This is emphatically not a “tween” song. It felt risky and dangerous to my teenage ears. It feels just as dangerous now.
7: “You Learn” — Dustin
“You Learn,” the lyrics from which the album gets its title, is markedly more positive than the rest of the album in terms of tone and message. It’s this marvelous single about going out there and gleefully doing whatever the hell you want, consequences be damned, a sort of anthem for a more carefree fuck-shit-up attitude. Go out there and get your heart broken! What’s the worst that can happen, right? It was a fantastic song for the 90s — and inspiring on more than one occasion for myself — but maybe not as great in the social media era, where all those mistakes — “walking around naked in your living room” — are cataloged and archived for all time by your nose neighbors with smartphones.
8: Head Over Feet” — Roxana
I am often professionally quite thirsty. You might know this, if you read Pajiba enough and you’ve ever once mentioned the words “Garrett Hedlund” somewhere and I appear before you like a ghost, whispering maniacally about Mudbound. But all of that unquenchable desire is ultimately rooted in me being, well, a gigantic dweeb when it comes to stereotypically romantic shit. I love it! I saw Titanic a bunch of times! I still think Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet is the best Shakespeare adaptation! Mention Doctor Zhivago or The Way We Were to me, and I might automatically tear up! Which is all to say that while I adore all of Jagged Little Pill for its unbridled anger, its resentment, its spite — all of those feelings that over the years have crystallized more and more for me, as the feeling of being a woman is inherently tied to frustration about all the things we’re told we can’t do and can’t be — the song that softens me and reminds me, “Well, love is good, too,” is “Head Over Feet.” The song is basically one long “Thanks, buddy,” message to a lover, complimenting them for their patience and charm and listening skills, “the bearer of unconditional things,” and I just love that. I love love! I’m a dork, I know, leave me alone. But just as intimate as rage is devotion, and so “Head Over Feet” — the fifth single off the album — makes total sense on Jagged Little Pill while being so different from the other singles that came before.
9: “Mary Jane”
I’m not sure exactly when this song became my favourite. It might have been on a solo road trip when I could really belt it out at the top of my lungs. But listening now, from the perspective of the persona rather than perhaps a Mary Jane in need of a supportive intervention, this one always brings a little tear to my eye. Maybe it’s the body positivity: “I hear you’re losing weight again, Mary Jane. D’you ever wonder who you’re losing it for?” Maybe it’s the rallying pep talk: “you’re a sweet crusader, and you’re on your way.” Maybe it’s just the build up and the way Morissette hits that high note on “it’s a long way down.” Maybe it’s because it’s a song about noticing when a loved one needs some help, and being the fierce advocate in their corner. However you look at it, this one’s a beauty.
10: “Ironic” — Kate
Friends, in 1995 when Jagged Little Pill was released, I was deeply in the thralls of Green Day and had no time for Alanis Morissette. The only thrill I got off her first single, “You Oughta Know” was when sometimes, the Podunk radio stations in Anchorage Alaska would forget to bleep out the errant “f*ck” in it, and me and my fellow 10-year-old friends would giggle rapturously. Plus, my dad, and my best friend’s dad, had, and played , the entire album regularly, which was enough for me to think the entire thing was super uncool.
That is, until, Alanis released “Ironic” as a single. I f*cking love “Ironic” (unironically, I might add.) It’s a perfect pop song, and I discovered it by accident, staying up too late, watching The Box one night.
Oh, what is The Box, you might ask? It was MTV for people in areas that either couldn’t get it (hello, Anchorage Alaska, living on a mountain) or couldn’t afford it (yeah, that was us, too.) It was a late-night music video channel that would pop up on our UPN station (From 11 pm until 5 am, if I recall) where you could call in to a 900 number, pay a fee, and have them play your requested music video. It’s how I got my Green Day fix, and it’s how I first discovered “Ironic.”
The ’90s had a habit of making music videos (remember when those mattered?) that had nothing to do with the song. “Ironic” followed in this grand tradition. The entire video is just Alanis, driving weirdo versions of herself, on a road trip, shot in bright colors and the prerequisite mid-’90s sweaters I loved it so much.
Up until then, I found Alanis’s perceived “grunge” sensibility in complete contrast to my preferred pop melodies—but now she had stopped telling Uncle Joey she would do dirty things to him in a movie theater, and finally spoke to me on my level, and it was entirely something I could get behind.
I still think “Ironic” is one of her best songs, ever, even if none of her examples of irony are actually ironic (side note: is that ironic?) You have to give credit where credit’s due: Alanis wrote a hell of a pop song.
Side note: I swear to god The Box used to carry a parody music video of a dude in a moustache (or maybe a little girl?) singing this song, but I can’t find any trace of that. If you know what I’m talking about, post a link in the comments!
11:”Not the Doctor”
Teenaged me loved this song for its series of sassy break up lines. It’s so much more than that. “Not the Doctor” is a bouncing series of metaphors that reject the demands placed on women in relationships. Yes, she’s dumping the partner but not just because of their neediness. This is a refusal to do the incessant emotional labour for someone who is unwilling to do any of that work for themselves. It’s a song about demanding to be valued as a complete person, not just as an object, a naughty secret, a mother-figure or an emotional band-aid. It’s not my job to fix you, dude. I wish this one didn’t still resonate as much as it does…
12: “Wake Up”
Like “Not the Doctor”, this song is about breaking up with a partner, this time an infuriating contrarian who always takes the path of least resistance in life, and never seems to get what’s coming to him. No, you’re relating too hard to this song. Cough. Anyway, this is a great track for the woke generation, if only for this line:
there’s an underestimated and impatient little girl raising her hand
Those little girls are still raising their hands, Alanis. Some of them are all grown up and are confidently calling out the crap that they see. Some are still building up to it, and dreaming of that day when they will raise their hand. Others are still little, but have mastered it already.
Look, I could talk about the weird stalkery a capella track hidden at the end as well, but I don’t think I need to do more to convince you. Plus how many people could wait for “Your House” to come on? Nine times out of ten, we just played the album again from the beginning, right? In conclusion, this album holds up, Alanis is God, and we’re Team Angry Pajiba Music forever.
Header Image Source: Lionsgate Films