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Thinkpieces And Shit

Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’ Taught Me Everything About Being a Woman

As it turns 20, we revisit the record that perfectly encapsulates everything that women are encouraged not to be.

by Emma Garland
09 June 2015, 2:18pm

I was only 6 years-old when Alanis Morissette released Jagged Little Pill, 20 years ago this week, so I’d be a right Bob Cryer if I were to start waxing lyrical about what it meant in context of the socio-political landscape of 1995. But this was an album that endured the 90s and found its way back into my life in a more conscious way when I turned thirteen. Since the only music I was regularly consuming at this juncture was a parental advisory labeled cocktail of pop punk, nu-metal and Nirvana, the fact that a singer-songwriter who sat comfortably next to David Gray and The Lighthouse Family in my mum’s CD collection was also on permanent rotation in my Discman is telling of something much deeper than good musicianship.

Jagged Little Pill was nominated for nine Grammy Awards in 1996, of which it won five. At 21, Morissette became the youngest artist in history to win Album of the Year - a record she held for 14 years until 2010, when Taylor Swift picked it up for Fearless at age 20. The record solidified Morissette as both a cult figure and a pop culture staple, a combination which came to its apex when she logically played the role of God in Kevin Smith’s Dogma.

Twenty years on, Jagged Little Pill still refuses to become a relic. Just last year, it re-entered the charts after featuring heavily on Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip. And though that may speak volumes about its enduring bloody greatness, the merits of the record lie way beyond two middle-aged men belting out the words to “You Ought To Know” as they drive down the Amalfi coast in a Mini.

The album is a reflection of a young woman refusing to compromise. It’s harsh, tender, vulgar, thoughtful, funny, resentful, self-assured, and above all it's emotionally complex, which is precisely what women are encouraged not to be.

It was able to connect with numerous generations of women, resonating with teenage and their mothers in equal measure. The most recent example of a pop star managing to strike the same breadth of appeal is Adele with 21, and arguably she did so for similar reasons. The age-spanning success of Jagged Little Pill was possible not just because of the strength of the songs, but because of their perspective. It plays through like an unedited diary of a young woman dealing with the trappings of adult life for the first time, unfolding in as close to real time as it’s possible to get with a professionally recorded album released by a major label. “Perfect” - one of the softer songs on the album, written about parental expectation - was written and recorded in 20 minutes, which gives you a good idea of the way the album itself is presented: honest, volatile, and unedited.

This 12 song bag of hormonal energy is almost cringe-worthy in its bluntness, but it revels in its own contradictions. Morissette is unequivocally human and Jagged Little Pill is a diary of mistakes: things women aren’t often accepted to be, or make, regardless of their age. Instead of refusing to sand down her edges to fit neatly into a box, she exaggerates them. The album is loaded with anger, jealousy, sadness, sexual frustration, bitterness, embarrassment, regrets and demands. Essentially, it represents the full spectrum of emotions I go through on an hourly basis when I’m menstruating. But in fluctuating between pleasure and pain, confidence and confusion more dramatically than someone being exposed to BDSM for the first time, it addresses “complicated” as a negative quality used to put women down, and turns it on its head.

Writing in NME last year, Lucy Jones stated that Jagged Little Pill “legitimised feelings and discarded shame.” Of course, as with most things, Morissette’s sentiments came from experience and I would still end up making the same mistakes despite having heard her dispatch from their painful aftermath ahead of time. Thirteen year-old me may have got her fair share of rebellious kicks from being able to sing along to things like “You took me out to wine dine, sixty-nined me, but didn’t hear a damn word I said,” in the car without being told off, but the messages implicit within those crudely compiled lyrics wouldn’t really become clear for another few years, after I had begun to recreationally abuse those activities and chalk up my own list of dickheads who would take “a long hard look in my ass and then play golf for a while”.

Still, for my girlfriends and I, Jagged Little Pill played an integral role in the melodrama that was our passage into puberty. It was right up there with maxi pads, long phone calls about an unrequited crush, and buying a book on Wicca then spending every sleepover trying summon Kurt Cobain's ghost via seance so we could take turns necking him. Yeah, the themes were slightly beyond our experience, but they were essentially matured versions of things we had already encountered. Whether it was being called “frigid” by boys who had yet to grow any pubic hair, encouraged to play netball rather than basketball, or made to modify our school uniforms so they were less “distracting”, sexism and gender-based hypocrisy was as prevalent as MSN Messenger and low rise jeans. Even if we weren’t quite ready to understand Morissette’s righteous declaration of feminist values, her voice made sense because it came from a generation we looked up to. She wasn’t destroying drum kits, but she was every bit as angsty as Linkin Park, and every bit as emotional as Taking Back Sunday.

Re-visiting the album now, I can appreciate it with my racked up experiences of sex and dating, and a realisation that the world is a big gaping asshole. The songs still hold up (six hit singles out of a twelve track album don’t lie) even though it’s so 90s that as you reach the end you’ll find yourself wearing a flannel shirt and telling people to “talk to the hand”. Mostly, though, it just reminds me of being a teenager, going on a camping trip with my three best friends, and being told off for shrieking along to it at 3am when we should have been "behaving".

In retrospect, there’s a real cinematic beauty in a bunch of thirteen to fourteen year-old girls singing “You Learn” while on the cusp of making (but not yet having made) any real mistakes for themselves.

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