I know. There are more pressing things going on in the world right now than an alternative pop/rock album from the ’90s. But I started listening to and researching this album prior to Criterion Month, and I never got around to writing about it before that month started. So now, here I am attempting to write about it before Shocktober begins.
Album: Jagged Little Pill
Artist: Alanis Morissette
Release Date: June 13, 1995
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 15.3 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Loves An Angry (But Pleasant) White Woman
I am absolutely the wrong person to dissect this, but it seems that feminism tends to invade the mainstream in a very visceral way every other decade. So in the ‘90s, this manifested itself in a few different types of musical artists. Initially, you had the angry female-led members of the grunge establishment that entered the mainstream in the wake of that scene’s culture-shifting influence (I’m thinking Hole and L7). Then you had the more mainstream acoustic singer-songwriters who wielded acoustic guitars while politely asking to be heard (I’m thinking Lisa Loeb, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, and countless others). Then you had the women rocking just beneath the mainstream, in that weird middle ground between indie and mainstream (I’m thinking Liz Phair or the Breeders). And then of course, beneath all that, you had the underground phenomenon that was Riot Grrrl.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that one of the best selling albums of the ‘90s managed to combine all of these styles and aesthetics, but with a little more of a pop sheen to boot. Alanis Morissette seems like an unlikely arbiter of teenage angst, considering she spent her teenage years becoming a squeaky clean pop idol in her native Canada. Though somehow, she moved to LA, met up with producer Glen Ballard, and created something far more ragged and prickly than her early pop singles. Also, she did it in a way that struck a chord with listeners looking for the most digestable version of all that angst that was wafting in the air in the ‘90s.
Overall, I think a big selling point of this album is how it streamlines a lot of the less mainstream emotions found in indie and alternative rock, and in a way that’s easy to sing along with. It’s hard for me to speak to this, since I wasn’t quite old enough to remember when this album came out. But I have to assume that for many women (and some men) of a certain age, the album was a kind of starter set for indie and alt-rock. Much in the same way that pop-punk bands like Blink 182 or Green Day were gateway bands to the underground for kids that longed to call themselves punks, but didn’t know where to start.
As I’ve been reviewing the best selling albums of all time, I’ve found that most of these mega-selling records tend to fall into the category of being either timely or timeless. The “timely” category pertains to albums that were the right record at the right time, hitting on a sound and a feeling that was just right for the particular time period in which it was released. Obviously, Jagged Little Pill is one of those records, though you could make a decent case that it does hold up. After all, there must be something to the enduring power of this album and its relation to teenage girls, since two of the album’s songs (“Hand In My Pocket” and “You Oughta Know”) appeared in the recent coming of age dramedies Lady Bird and Booksmart.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Considering this is such a “right sound at the right time” album, it’d be easy to write Jagged Little Pill off as nothing more than a ‘90s phenomenon that deserves to be relegated to that decade, and not listened to afterward. After all, it’s hard for me to think of another album that sounds quite as ‘90s as Jagged Little Pill. It has so many of the sonic trademarks of the era – the swampy grunge guitars of its rockers, the pristine acoustic sheen of its ballads, and a dollop of dance-pop rhythms throughout. Really all it needs to sound any more ‘90s is a guest verse from Q-Tip.
Though I don’t know that any of this is a bad thing. I’ve enjoyed acquainting myself with this album over the last couple months, and I’m not sure all of it is steeped in pure nostalgia. Sure, girl rock radio anthems similar to Alanis Morissette were something I remember hearing frequently when I was a little kid. Though as I mentioned, JLP was just barely before my time, so I don’t necessarily have a lot of nostalgia for this particular record. That said, I have grown to appreciate both the alt-rock of the ‘90s as well as the pop music of the era, and I think Alanis manages to synthesize the two in a way that feels genuine because she’s singing about things that are genuine to her. It’s not unlike the young woman that would break Alanis’s record for youngest artist to win the Grammy for Record of the Year, Taylor Swift.
However, if you wanted to poke holes in this album, its lyrics would be a good place to start. “Ironic” has been the subject of much discussion over the years for the simple fact that most of the things mentioned in it aren’t actually ironic. It’s also a little weird to hear a 21-year old sing songs like “Hand In My Pocket” or “You Learn”, which have this lived-in quality and are about finding your footing as you learn and grow older. They sound like the type of songs that at the very least would be written by someone in their 30s, if not older. Which perhaps hints at another aspect of Jagged Little Pill’s success – its ability to reach a broader age group than just the teeny-bopper audience of Alanis Morissette’s first two records.
I have to assume that one thing that caused Alanis backlash when Jagged Little Pill was released was her lack of “cred”. Cred isn’t something that’s harped on nearly as much in the music world these days, seeing as critics will talk about pop singers on major labels just as enthusiastically as they would indie rockers. This dividing line was a lot more prominent in the ‘90s, and while there were a lot of bands to make the leap from the indies to the majors with their integrity in tact, someone like Alanis who was such a pop singer cashing in on the alt-rock craze I’m sure rubbed plenty of purists the wrong way.
Though all of that seems a little silly now. Yes, the production on Jagged Little Pill is a little dated, but not in a way that detracts from how catchy and sincere these songs are. And that sincerity certainly shines through in a big way. The album’s defining single “You Oughtta Know” is an undeniably angry track, which is a bit more direct than the muddier emotions of the gloom found in grunge. Meanwhile, the more plaintive ballads have a kind of optimism that sneaks up on you, which I’m sure felt a bit refreshing at the time, and is still enjoyable to listen to now.
Would I Spend Money On This?
I would. Although it seems like CD is the most appropriate format to listen to this album on, and I’m trying to phase CD’s out of my life at this point. Maybe if there was a super deluxe CD version of Jagged Little Pill that came out, I’d seriously consider buying it under the right circumstances.
I can’t say that there are many albums that I hadn’t listened to before reviewing them for The People’s Albums that I truly ended up liking (the other one that comes to mind is Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces), but I would definitely put this one in that category.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: (falsetto) I should be dancing, yeah! But instead I’ll be seeing how deep my love is for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.