If you polled millennials born in the 1980s, chances are you’d find out that one of the first albums they ever sparred with their parents over was Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. With its casual cursing and tales of movie theater fellatio, it’s no surprise the album released 20 years ago tomorrow (June 13) received a parental advisory warning. Of course, a square-inch of sticker didn’t stop Alanis from selling 13 million records in the three years following JLP’s release. Take that, Tipper Gore.
All this is to say, my story is not unique. But in being utterly commonplace, it represents the cultural ubiquity of Jagged Little Pill, the power of a private album that everyone — even kids residing in small-town Ohio — ended up hearing and, in some cases, framing their experiences around.
Once an active music fan, my dad used his Columbia House membership as a low-risk attempt to keep up with the musical zeitgeist of the 1990s, from Green Day’s Dookie to No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom to all things Collective Soul. With three singles in the Top 10 and her videos in heavy rotation on MTV, Morissette was hard to avoid by 1996; that’s when JLP showed up in my mailbox. At the low price of an eighth of a penny, it didn’t matter much that the album wasn’t exactly my dad’s thing.
The image of my father listening to lines like, “Wine, dine, 69 me” (“Right Through You”) makes me cringe even now, but I’m sure he felt the same way about me when he discovered that I had taken Jagged Little Pill as my own just a few years later. I was ten. I had no idea what “going down on” someone meant, but I did know this: Alanis Morissette spoke to a part of me I could not yet access. Confronted by her songs, they felt to me like unknowable strength. I felt understood, even if I didn’t exactly understand most of what she described in hyper-articulate ways.
With its commentary on the parental pressures to meet high standards, “Perfect” immediately resonated with me. “You Learn” felt like the cool older sister I didn’t have, bringing me back her teachings from the outside world: “I recommend walking around naked in your living room,” she bragged over a slinky melody. “Mary Jane” was my first “slam the door and cry alone in my room” song. “Ironic” was a lot of fun about how fucked we all are, even if it did inspire an irrational fear of flying in me that flares up even now.
“Hand In My Pocket” was the sound of realizing that everything will be OK, even if we’re all hypocrite messes giving peace signs. Morissette was 20 when she wrote the song, but her emotional maturity was well beyond that — she’d loved someone who was too old for her, been dropped my a major label, and, miraculously, ended up in California with songwriter and producer Glen Ballard. But when you’re a kid, adults only come in two ages: grown-up and old person. It wasn’t until much later that it struck me that Morissette was from a different generation than my parents, and that was part of what made her outspoken yet accessible viewpoint crucial to me.
“There’s no question the message was a really strong and unapologetic female who was asserting herself in all kinds of ways, and doing it bravely,” Ballard recently told the A.V. Club. “She was coming from a position of essentially a powerless place when she wrote these songs. She was not rich and famous; she was just telling the truth. In no way did she feel like what she was writing was going to make her rich and famous. There was none of this, ‘I’m doing this to become successful.’ She was expressing herself.”
Jagged Little Pill elicits laughs when you bring it up now. People were so overwhelmed by her feelings, they turned Alanis into a punchline. “You Oughta Know” is cultural shorthand for the crazy ex-girlfriend. Rock ‘n’ roll was built on men getting the final word about their experiences, but when a women did the same thing, they got corralled into an infuriating genre: the angry young woman. Some things — like the ghettoization of women rock musicians — haven’t changed much in the last two decades, but with a little help from Alanis, other things have.
When Adele released what I once described as her generation’s Jagged Little Pill in her smash 2011 sophomore LP 21, the narrative shifted from crazy ex-girlfriend to, “What fool broke Adele’s heart?!” (Julia Roberts practically offered to hire a bounty hunter), despite songs like “Rumor Has It” threatening revenge. Without Jagged Little Pill, the pop audience’s ability to process extreme and nuanced female emotions might very well be further behind than it currently is — and in fact, so might I.