Top of the Pops: Jagged Little Pill

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February 16, 2015 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

Critics and fans alike often get excited at the prospect of a young musician’s coming-of-age album, the album that expresses wit and wisdom far beyond their age.  These are the albums that announce a musicians as an artist instead of an entertainer far ahead of schedule.  Most recently it was Lorde’s Pure Heroin, before that it was Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker, and before that it was Fiona Apple’s Tidal.  Arguably the most seminal of these albums of annunciation is Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, an album that in trying to make sense of the world, struggles with the urge to give it the middle finger.

Jagged Little Pill, like most albums released in 1995, is a duplicitous album.  On the one hand it submits itself to all of life’s cruelties (“Ironic” and “You Learn”) in the form of passive understanding; on the other hand, on tracks like “You Oughta Know”, “Perfect” and “All I Really Want” it rages and resists against this objective malice.  No one is spared Morissette’s retribution, as she rather enthusiastically turns the spear point towards chauvinistic record execs, her Catholic schoolgirl peers, and most famously, Uncle Joey from Full House.  All of these unpleasant characters and experiences serve to better her understanding of the world, in an attempt to dispel her anger, taken form in lyrical righteous indignation.

What makes Jagged Little Pill so easy to ingest is that it constantly, yet seamlessly weaves itself between world-weary wisdom that comes with maturity and fiery contempt and unsubdued rage for all who have wronged her, a lingering impetuousness of youth.  Being only 20 years old at the time of recording, Morissette had every right to feel both of these opposing forces weigh on her.  It’s something that every young adult in their early 20s experience, and yet most couldn’t express these feelings and ideas as masterfully as Morissette does.

Lyrically, Morissette’s magnum opus is a colloquial and deeply personal album rooted in casual conversation and base emotions that doesn’t aspire to be poetry or art.  If for no other reason than this, on the strength of Jagged Little Pill, Alanis became the single most influential female song-writer of the 1990s.  Her words are real because they are personal…like really personal.  On “Right Through You” she accuses “You took me out to wine dine, sixty nine me, but didn’t hear a damn word I said”.  Perhaps the most stinging, and therefore cathartic lyrics for Morissetter appear on the ever-popular “You Oughta Know”, a song that’s doubly enjoyable because of Flea bouncy bassline and Dave Navarro’s minimalist approach on the guitar.  On “You Oughta Know”, Alanis plays the all too relatable role of jilted lover, left scorned in favor of an older woman’s embrace.  Morissette aggressively ponders “An older version of me…would she have your baby, I’m sure she’d make an excellent mother” while later on she bemoans “And are you thinking of me when you fuck her”, lyrics indicative of raw and unabashed emotions that can’t be adequately conveyed in any other way.

The emotional seppuku which would put Eddie Vedder to shame doesn’t stop there however, as on “Perfect” she deals with the unfair pressures that parents thrust onto their children, “We’ll love you just the way you are, if you’re perfect”.  On “Head Over Feet”, a rare moment of joy on the album and the album’s most inspired track, Alanis is still helpless in the presence of a force greater than herself: Love.  As she so describes the moment of being overcome and submitting to that force of love “You’ve already won me over in spite of me, and don’t be alarmed if I fall head over feet, and don’t be surprised if I love you for all that you are, I couldn’t help it, it’s all your fault”.  Jagged Little Pill proves that Morissette is a sensitive person, overflowing with overwhelming emotions, “Head Over Feet” channels some of those emotions into a positive direction which goes against the grain of the majority of songs on the album, thereby making it stand out as a cut above.

With all of her personal troubles and emotional ailments laid out before us, Alanis spends the other half of Jagged Little Pill speaking of universal truths revealed to her on her journey into adulthood.  “Ironic” is the realization and acceptance of all of life’s incongruences, some of which often seem like devious machinations of a cruel god.  “You learn” is about the passing on of all the wisdom that Alanis has accrued in her life, a point made evident when she initiates “I recommend getting your heart trampled on to anyone, I recommend walking around naked in your living room, swallow it down (what a jagged little pill)”.  At the end of the day, it’s the jagged little pill called real life that proves to be the most difficult to swallow.  The best we can do is learn from others, and accept that in life “You live, you learn, you love…you cry…you lose”.

The metaphor doesn’t stop there as Morissetter herself proves to be a jagged little pill herself.  On the previously mentioned “You Oughta Know” she is not only presented with a truth that’s hard to swallow, but wants to be that pill to someone else (Uncle Joey).  What Jagged Little Pill is, is the search for catharsis and some sort of reason in a world that doesn’t make sense, filled with people who will inevitably hurt us.  Why it resonated with so many people is because Alanis did something that everyone wants to do: Vent all their frustration and anger at all the people who did them wrong.  What makes Jagged Little Pill even more lucidly delectable is when you realize that for Morissette, catharsis doesn’t come from understanding and wisdom, but from vindication and emotional eruption.  When we’re hurt we don’t want to understand why someone hurt us, or walk a mile in their shoes, we want retribution and to make them hurt in return.  Alanis did just that, and by doing so exorcised the demons plaguing her up until that point.

For however personal and subjective Jagged Little Pill truly is, the most fundamental aspect is that it tells the story of someone’s coming of age, even if she isn’t quite there yet.  In an effort to heal herself, Alanis tells us of her trials and tribulations; she goes a step further in trying to vindicate herself on those who have wronged her, and in that honesty, in that vocalization, there is a sense of justice in trying to balance the scales.  And from that justice, there can eventually be freedom, and from freedom finally comes wisdom.  Ultimately, cheating lovers, disapproving parents, exploitative businessmen, and catty peers are but examples of life’s injustices, and from the opening track Alanis makes her intentions crystal clear with the album’s most omniscient truism, a sentiment that speaks for everyone “All I really want is some justice”.

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