Before the year 1995, I have to admit I had never heard of Alanis Morissette. I think its fair to say no one had (outside of Canada)! She had released two studio albums, the first did reasonably well in Canada, but the second completely flopped. Following the poor reception to her second album, Morrissette was encouraged to travel to Los Angeles in an attempt to reinvigorate her career, where she met songwriter and producer, Glen Ballard.
The two instantly hit it off and began mucking around and teasing out interesting sounds around an alternative rock or post-grunge template. What followed was a frenzy of artistic creativity, as the duo wrote and recorded track after track, as a rule one song a day, on what would become Morrissette’s 3rd album Jagged Little Pill. Some might say Morrissette’s bold attempt to move away from the sounds of her previous two albums was a blessing in disguise, and a gamble that create a landmark album in rock history!
The 1990’s was a time when we all longed for hope, but in the same breath it was also still about a time when we dealt with disillusionment. My experiences with working with young people (and I was one of them) was that there was this hovering grey cloud of confusion and angst that came with being a child of the 90’s. So imagine everyone’s surprise when Morrissette burst onto the scene to give us hope and a sense of direction.
I had just finished a degree in youth work, when “You Oughta Know” started getting heavy airplay on mainstream radio here in 1995. By then I had become a Pearl Jam and grunge convert, but something about Morrisette appealed to me, especially her piercing vocals. Morrissette was truly putting on notice the boys club lack of sensibilities. Asserting herself into the mainstream, in the way she did back in 1995, still gives me chills. In short, I think it’s safe to say that she gave young women a booming and unquestionably proud mainstream voice.
Like US radio stations, Australian mainstream radio played “You Oughta Know” with different degrees of editing due, to its sexual innuendos. “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” and “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” were annoyingly butchered by inept broadcasters. Of course, it was understandable that this would happen with broadcasting rules of decency, but enough was enough I thought, as I made a beeline for the record store to buy the song and album, as it was meant to be heard.
What I love about JLP is that it hits you (metaphorically) in the face with unapologetic burst of fierceness and the next with its gentle calmness. This is no more evident than, for example, with Morrissette’s almost hysterical voice in “You Oughta Know” or her fiery preachy vocals in “All I Really Want” which sounds and feels anthemic. On the opposite spectrum songs like “Perfect” and “Mary Jane” highlight the soft quietness of her vocals and nature. People have sometimes commented that this format on her album presents as a slippery slope of uncontrolled emotions, but that’s not true. She was in complete control.
Sometimes I believe that commentators and journalist just want to tear people like Morrissette down simply because they can. Of course, she didn’t help her cause, when “You Oughta Know” became sort of anthem for ex girlfriends to scold old lovers. Interestingly, Morrissette was forced for years to explain its message. I read somewhere once that when people who didn’t like her, referred to her as being an angry young women, she saw it as a compliment. It’s not to say that she really saw herself as an angry person, but that writing about anger helped her to express her feelings.
On the matter of You Outta Know, she also once said: “Well, I’ve never talked about who my songs were about and I won’t, because when I write them they’re written for the sake of personal expression. So with all due respect to whoever may see themselves in my songs, and it happens all the time, I never really comment on it because I write these songs for myself, not other people.”
Another bone of contention mainly amongst the media was the use or misuse of the word ironic, in her song “Ironic” which was by far one of her greatest hits. It became a joke to poke fun at her about the supposedly ironic situations that she describes in the song, which were in fact not necessarily ironic. Really, who the hell cares! If, anything, I hope you finish reading here and simply just go and listen to how beautiful and catchy the tune really is.
Not everything of course is controversial on the album, there are also beautiful elements of storytelling, ballads and out-and-out grunge-pop. Moreover, I’m sure there is something there for everyone on her album to fill that emotional void in your life. “Head Over Feet” is possibly, on a personal level, my favourite song on the album because it describes perfectly my situation with someone I love. Other musical standouts are “All I Really Want”, “Right Through You” and “Forgiven”.
It’s fair to say Alanis easily won over my heart and mind with JLP and I’m sure many others too. In hindsight it’s easy to see now that she had nothing to lose by releasing JLP. She pulled off the biggest gamble of her career and come up trumps with six hit singles. She would later be nominated for nine Grammy Awards, of which she won five, including Album of the Year. What a way to assert yourself in the mainstream Alanis Morrissette!
*This article was originally published in September 2016. It has been updated here with some minor changes.
Interesting post, Robert! I can’t say I’m a fan of her as a performer myself, but some of her songs are very good. If you haven’t already heard it I can recommend Steven Wilson’s cover of her song ‘Thank You’. Superior to the original in my opinion, and it at least taught me respect for her as a songwriter.
In my opinion the best anything she ever did. The years from 94 to 97 saw great music being released. Best wishes
Head Over Feet is likely my favourite too!
And I took your advice, Ironic is playing as I type, nice post!
Great write-up Robert. I love Alanis Morrisette. JLP is so chock full of fantastic songs, it’s like a greatest hits album. And I agree with you re: the silly criticism about the correctness of her ‘ironic’ examples.