20 Years of Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morissette - Jagged Little PillOn this day 20 years ago, Jagged Little Pill was released.

Jagged Little Pill was one of the biggest albums of the 90s and still today, is one of the best selling albums of all time, selling over 33 million copies. It had five hit singles, won four Grammys, five Junos, and has consistently placed on all-time lists since its release. It also inspired many an artist after its release as many were compared to the stylings of its creator Alanis Morissette. Having experienced Jagged Little Pill as it happened, the only other album to come close to having the constant praise, popularity, attention and sales numbers was 21 by Adele.

Like many people, Jagged Little Pill remains a favourite album of mine. After two decades of hearing it from start to finish on the regular, it still plays as a rollercoaster of emotion, thoughts, and fascination. I can listen to the album today and depending on how I choose to approach it, it can serve as a form of emotional nostalgia, putting me right back to 1996, as a getaway into the depths of its lyrics, music and production, as an acknowledgement to Alanis – who has become one of my favourite artists, as something to sing along to, or even simply as background music.

Initially, I shunned her. Back when You Oughta Know was pretty well exclusive to airplay on MuchMusic, I dismissed it as CanCon they was trying to push and make happen. Whenever I heard the opening line: “I want you to know,” the station switched. I wasn’t interested and didn’t want to be. Shortly after, I warmed up to Alanis through Hand In My Pocket and came around completely by the time Ironic was a newly minted single. Admittedly late on the Alanis bandwagon, I got the actual CD nearly two years later in 1997, but by that time I was already sold.

You Oughta Know was the You’re So Vain of the 90s, with the longstanding rumour that Dave Coulier from Full House is the subject of its lyrical rage, which has been confirmed, denied, retracted, pushed under the unswept rug. Frankly, the song is best enjoyed while the mystery remains.

Ignorance is bliss.

Hand In My Pocket was lyrically easy to grasp, but said so much in comparing how one’s internal self may not match expectations and their surroundings yet, as she sings, “everything’s going to be fine fine fine.”

Ironic was THE ‘it is or isn’t it’ song. Defining a word for a generation, only to have it unravel several years later. I once read that Alanis had said the song itself is ironic because the scenarios mentioned in it weren’t. I think she was backtracking. It’s the one song on the album I choose not to let my mind wander over to enjoy it.


Alanis Morissette on the cover of
Rolling Stone, November 1995.
(article here)

All the attention during Jagged-mania was on the scathing lyrics of You Oughta Know. The angry confession that bluntly reveals the impact he had on her and the impact she hopes to have on him. Everyone swooned over the line “and are you thinking of me when you fuck her,” but my favourite line is “and every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it,” mostly because of the delivery. It’s the most intense five seconds of the song.

Despite that, I’ve come to decide that the sharpest razer blade on the album isn’t You Oughta Know but the most underrated track Forgiven. Even today, it remains the strongest statement on Catholicism I’ve ever heard from anyone, referencing women and the church, accepting what you’re told and why it has the hold it has in the first place. No atheist or O’Connor has said it better than Alanis when she sang “We all had our minds made up for us/We had to believe in something/so we did,” and “We all needed something to cling to.”

The record contains perfect lines in songs throughout the album. The whole of Perfect still applies today in how parents raise their children in a gender-specific image to meet demands of what they themselves were unable to achieve.

The bluntness of “why are you so petrified of silence/here can you handle this/(audio silence)” from All I Really Want is up there with Tori‘s “so you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts/what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts/boy you best pray that I bleed real soon/how’s that thought for you?”

Many of the realizations I’ve had with Jagged Little Pill have come within its second decade. Since it was released when I was 11, most of the references went over my head but gradually over the years, they clicked. You Oughta Know was an angry song and eventually, I realized why. Right Through You (the only song on the record I have any qualm with, because of how abrupt the ending is) now made sense as a song about power imbalance and having the last laugh. When my grade 6 teacher expressed shame and disgust for anyone liking Alanis’ music, I finally understood – and confidently disagree with her.

Mary Jane, a song I didn’t care for for the longest time, can send shivers up my spine because of its lyrics that desire hope where there is none. “I hear you’re losing weight again/Mary Jane/do you ever wonder who you’re losing it for.”

Lately, how the bass is mixed has captivated me. It breathes so well and plays such a prominent role in each song. If the album were to be mixed in today’s environment with today’s technology and software, it wouldn’t sound as good. The sound is clean but it’s so authentic and full of life. During recording, producer Glen Ballard opted to record only a few takes of each vocal track to ensure the pure emotion was captured early on. It worked.

Alanis Morissette - Jagged Little Pill AcousticOn its tenth anniversary, Alanis released Jagged Little Pill in acoustic form. She made minor changes to the arrangement and even some of the lyrics – changing out “beautiful wife” with “beautiful husband” in Ironic. Technically, they’re the same songs but the acoustic version of the album only further highlights the magic of the original Jagged Little Pill recording.

Beyond the album itself, here are some key moments of the era of Jagged Little Pill:
The music video for Ironic.
Alanis performing You Oughta Know at the 38th Grammy Awards, hosted by Ellen – and winning four.
When she performed Your House in the dark on the VMAs.
My favourite video of the album, You Learn.
• Four #1 singles in Canada: Hand In My Pocket, Ironic, You Learn and Head Over Feet. (You Oughta Know only reached #20.)

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