By Janice Pariat
I first heard of Alanis Morissette in August 1995. We were milling around in our school corridor, a bunch of us girls, talking about our summer holidays that had just (woefully) ended. In a time of no Internet and mobile phones, we did our catching up the old-fashioned way, in between or after classes, jabbering non-stop about movies we’d watched (Jumanji, Casper, Babe, Braveheart – on pirated DVDs), and music we’d discovered. All the rage, I remember, were a cluster of sappy boy bands (Boyz II Men, All-4-One, Firehouse), rappers Coolio and The Notorious B.I.G., old favourites Madonna, Michael and Janet Jackson, and in a genre all his own Shaggy, the “Boombastic”.
“But Alanis Morissette, she’s amazing,” proclaimed Tentikala Mannen. Our friend Tenti, as we called her, wore the hippest clothes, had a funky short haircut, and listened to “alternative” music.
“Morissette. Her album’s just out…”
“What kind of music?”
“She sounds really pissed off.”
That failed to convince us.
A month or so later, we held an inter-house music competition, and after a trail of hopefuls (including me) lustfully belting out lovelorn ballads, Tenti walked on stage, holding a guitar, and she sat and sang, in her rough, tuneful voice, “You Learn”.
It was a revelation.
During our short mid-term holiday in October, I went home to Shillong, and rushed to a cassette shop, one of many lining Glory’s Plaza Road in Police Bazaar.
“Yes, yes, we have,” they told me, pushing a (pirated) copy of Jagged Little Pill across the counter. It was the best 90 bucks I’ve ever spent.
Jagged Little Pill opens with a hint of harmonium and an angry twang of guitar on “All I Really Want”. It’s a loud intentional announcement. A swift, confident declaration of wants – some patience, some deliverance, intellectual intercourse. “Do I stress you out?” Alanis sings in the first line. Is she addressing her lover, partner, or you, the listener? She moves from cheeky to jaded, joyful to poetic: “You must wonder why I’m so relentless and all strung out/I’m consumed by the chill of solitary.”
Then begins the angry anarchy of “You Oughta Know”.
Even at 14 I knew about heartbreak.
I’d learnt from Mariah Carey who couldn’t live if living is without you, from Toni Braxton who promised if it ended she wouldn’t breathe again. Talented artists, but sweetly, cloyingly saccharine.
Here was Alanis whose words spilled from her guts.
Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?
Whose lyrics were hesitations, accusations, ugly. Hateful. Real.
Having binged, since the early 90s, on MTV, I hadn’t thought women could sound like this. Angry. Unabashedly sexual. That they could look like this. Alanis’ videos savagely dismantled the expected normative prettiness of female musicians; she wore wild Medusa hair, “ungirly” clothes, an unmade-up face.
In the 20 years since the release of Jagged Little Pill, I’ve drifted from loving one song most to another. In the throes of teenage love, it was “Head over Feet”. A love song like Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Valentine” – startling, shorn of cliché. “Not a red rose or a satin heart,” says Duffy, “I give you an onion.” While Alanis sings, “Don’t be surprised if I love you…I couldn’t help it/It’s all your fault…I’ve never felt this healthy before.”
At university, I was drawn to the languid laidbackness of “Hand in my Pocket”, singing along casually, flicking a cigarette, giving a high-five. Reassured that “what it all boils down to/Is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet.”
No surprise that Jagged Little Pill appears on most “greatest albums of all time” lists. Entirely inventive, it’s been praised for its tonal soundscape, encompassing solid fury, quiet lullabies, playful interjections. The lyrics are refreshingly original, marked by casual colloquialism – “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.” Spencer Kornhaber on The Atlantic called it an “Alanis-y blend of existential crisis and chit-chat.” It sounds rivetingly unfiltered, yet never lapses into confessional self indulgence. For me, the genius of Jagged Little Pill lay in its ability to cross the threshold – from the unreal, unattainable visions of love, happiness, girl/womanhood peddled by MTV (“If you’re flawless, you’ll win my love,” sings Alanis in “Perfect”) to something more damaged, fragmented, flawed, heartfelt. Joyful.
The record captures life as rich, fragile, often infuriating. Though underneath the rage is a sense that somehow things will get better. The song I return to, perhaps more often than the others, is “You Learn”.
Yes, the lyrics might be at home in a (poetic, angsty) self-help book, but they beg to be sung loudly, vehemently, preferably in your living room, naked. In the video, Alanis carries something that Anaïs Nin in A Spy in the House of Love calls what she imagines “a quality possessed exclusively by man: some dash, some audacity, some swagger of freedom denied to woman.” She somersaults along a bridge, rides a horse onto a basketball court, kisses a stranger, leaps off a wall, joins a pie fight, gets knocked down in a boxing ring. Then she picks herself up and walks away.
UPDATE: You have to listen to the updated ‘Ironic’ lyrics.
Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse.