It was said that by the late-90s, when the Spice Girls started appropriating the phrase “girl power” into their marketing campaign that the Riot Grrl movement was dead. Initiated by a group of women in the early-1990s in Olympia, Washington who convened a meeting to address sexism in the punk scene, and eventually given a cool name, the Riot Grrl phenomenon was the manifestation of an uprising within the rock world that had already been building over time. What started in the Pacific Northwest soon grew to a widespread underground punk movement, covering the entire U.S. and spreading to 26 other countries at last count. Riot Grrl bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Excuse 17 (with Carrie Brownstein who would later form Sleater-Kinney the most prolific of all of the movement bands) were formed and performed as part of an overt feminist punk movement, but a girl strapping on her guitar and cranking up her amp has always been something of a political act.
Starting with Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, women breaking into the rock boys’ club has been a feature, not a bug. Rock and Roll is about challenging the status quo, even when the status quo is the power structure of rock itself. Joni Mitchell producing her own records was a revolutionary act apart from the iconoclastic brilliance of the music itself. Patti Smith getting the jump on Johnny Rotten and the whole English punk movement? The women of Heart and Fleetwood Mac crushing the mainstream was a sign of progress nobody could miss. Chrissy Hynde holding her own with the kickass Pretenders might have portrayed her as one of the boys, but the fact that she was a woman with a woman’s point of view and confessional stories out front, leading the band was another in a series of needed advances for rock culture, which was never eager to cede power to anyone. And yes — to even differentiate by gender in order to single out these achievements is a less than empowering act, but equality wasn’t a given for any of these women who all had to push on doors and ceilings to attain the agency to achieve in a man’s world — which, let’s face it, has always been the power structure of rock.
Building on the claim staked by Patti Smith and Debby Harry, and slightly later by Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissy Hynde, women who roughed up the status quo were becoming less of a rarity in punk, new wave, and in “new music” (what would later be termed, “alternative”). Joan Jett carved out a place in the landscape for her rock-punk persona. Kate Bush pushed boundaries as a musical voyager. And modernists like The Talking Heads, X, B-52s, The Pixies, and Sonic Youth all had female members. Moving by increments, the progress of feminism in music was often unspoken but each advance amounted to a forward shift in the attitudes of performers and the expectations of audiences.
A girl strapping on her guitar and cranking up her amp has always been something of a political act
By the birth of the 90s, a full-fledged indie rock movement with fiercely innovative women like PJ Harvey and Ani DiFranco at the center was underway. Liz Phair soon roared onto the scene with her insular, subversive feminism with Exile in Guyville (1991), Tori Amos touched a collective nerve reconciling childhood traumas on her arresting debut, Little Earthquakes (1992), and Sarah McLachlan came down from Canada with her intoxicating 1993 breakout album, Fumbling Toward Ecstacy all helping to pave the way for a decade full of female singer-songwriters. Sarah was to become more than just a symbolic leader, using her increasing clout to organize the all-female massive concert tour Lilith Fair, a phenomenon which ran for three years at the end of the decade and was named after the biblical character Lilith, the first woman to refuse to be subservient to a man.
But before she was an international star, McLachlan was making records in Canada, starting at age 19 with the ethereal Touch album (1988), and then breaking into the Canadian top 20 with Solace in 1991, her first collaboration with Fumbling Toward Ecstacy producer, Pierre Marchand. Also making records in Canada around this time was a 17-year-old “Canadian Debbie Gibson” (as she was known) named Alanis Morissette, whose first album, Alanis (1991) wasn’t anywhere in the vicinity of a rock sound, co-written by the young artist in the new jack swing, hip hop crossover style that was dominating AM pop radio at the time. It made her a pop star, selling 200,000 copies (double-platinum Canadian). It’s out of print and unavailable on today’s streaming platforms but can be found on YouTube — funny to hear one of the biggest rock stars of her generation putting out what sounds like a lost Bell Biv DeVoe album. A second, more lyric-oriented dance-pop album, Now Is The Time (1993) didn’t fare nearly as well and she headed out from her hometown of Ottawa for greener musical pastures on the advice of her manager, first to Toronto and eventually to Los Angeles, where she would hit it off with producer Glen Ballard and start work on what would become the single biggest selling album of the decade, a work that would alter the landscape of rock and of popular music in general and would give a nice little push for human empowerment, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill.
Alanis had been in L.A. for about six weeks, writing with everyone she could, looking for a spark, trying to write anything authentic that she could recognize as herself (writing 50 songs in this short time). An admitted nice person and workaholic, she would finish songs with writers even though she knew she hadn’t found the right collaborator, out of respect for them, she says. At 19, Alanis was nearing a creative peak but still searching for a partner, one without their own agenda and she would soon find Glen Ballard, who would ask the questions that would free her as a writer: “who are you, what do you want to write about, what’s going on with you?”
With his publishing company acting as matchmaker, Ballard and Morissette met in 1994 and it was musical love at first sight. They immediately started writing songs in Ballard’s home studio, recording as they went along. Trying to create a song a day, they had the entire Jagged Little Pill album written and recorded in demo form within three weeks with Glen on guitars, bass, keyboards, and programming drum machines and Alanis on harmonica. A strict rule of limiting vocals to only one or two takes was adhered to keep things moving and, though they would re-record some of the instruments in a professional studio, Morissette’s vocal tracks were kept from the original tapes.
Their ritual was that they would meet for lunch and launch into some philosophical discussion that would be the topic of the day and would often be the subject of the song they would go back to the studio to write. Speaking of their partnership, Glen Ballard said their connection was instant and he was taken by her intelligence despite her age and willingness to go adventuring with no regard for any apparent commercial application. He says Alanis wasn’t sure of which way to go musically but was only concerned that the songs be authentic and come straight from her heart. Their first collaboration, “The Bottom Line” was completed in an hour on the day they met and was unheard by the public until it appeared on disc two of Jagged Little Pill’s 20th-anniversary Collector’s Edition along with nine other demos, also recorded in that flurry of writing and recording in 1994. While slightly softer in musical tone than the 12 songs that were eventually released on the album, the probing, interrogative lyric of “The Bottom Line” echoes the personal mission Alanis outlined in their initial meeting, foreshadowing what we know will be one of the main themes of Jagged Little Pill, the dauntless quest for interpersonal truth and authenticity. Besides, who knows whether the simple, gentle feel of the music is just a byproduct of a fast-moving demo process? It’s a gem of a song, made even more precious when you know the circumstance of its creation and even though “The Bottom Line” was released twenty years later only in demo form, it provides the perfect jumping-off point for the album. Check it out:
As everyone knows, the hallmark of the musical style of Jagged Little Pill is an edgy, emo-adjacent rock feel marked by a blend of strummed acoustic guitars, gritty electric guitar textures, innocuous drum loops, and subtle electronic touches. The rock approach is perplexing given that Alanis was just coming off of a dance-pop vibe and Glen Ballard’s previous discography was heavy into pop R&B crossover, including tracks for James Ingrahm, The Pointer Sisters, Patti Austin, Philip Bailey, Jack Wagner, Thelma Houston, DeBarge, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Paula Abdul, and Sheena Easton, the only substantial deviation being glossy ultra-pop productions for Wilson Phillips. Given that Alanis had yet to learn guitar during their collaboration and didn’t know where she wanted to go musically, let’s credit Glen Ballard for the stylistic pivot into a new territory that marries perfectly with the intensely personal, emotionally purging lyrics of the songs on Jagged Little Pill.
And yet, even though the music of the album is told in the language of rock, we can hear that Jagged Little Pill is not exactly a rock record, treading into the “post-rock” territory of U2’s Achtung Baby album, where rock elements are accompanied with the caveat of a drum loop, where the commitment to a rock style is undercut by disclaimers of funk and bits of noise. And the lead vocal on rock records is not as forward and loud as Alanis is here. From the first track of Jagged Little Pill, we can tell we are in a slightly different world; the feel is more egocentric, the personal stakes are heightened, with more than we are used to pivoting on the lyrics and the singer’s persona. All through the album, Morissette places outrageous bets — and wins every pot.
Nowhere does Alanis gamble and win bigger than on the notorious “You Oughta Know.” A magnum opus of confrontation, disdain, and overt rage, Alanis even drafts future lovers into her service as voodoo dolls (“And every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back, I hope you feel it”). The imagery is graphic, but not in order to titillate. It’s her pushing all of her chips into the pot, gambling for support, and by the second song on the album, we are with her. And for a lot of people, being the first single from the album, this was “hello” — audacity, fearlessness right out of the gate. Whoever this guy is (and that’s been the subject of much conjecture), he should not have made promises because Alanis takes commitment seriously, especially her own.
Alanis wasn’t sure of which way to go musically but was only concerned that the songs be authentic and come straight from her heart
“Perfect” follows, a focused song about the overbearing parents that place demands on kids not quite equipped to be held to the rigid standards of high expectations. With a poignant melody and against a very pretty backing, Alanis tells her story while letting her voice break and travel into guttural regions, an affectation that simulates a child breaking under the pressure. And it’s here that we discover that Morissette is capable of more than merely singing — like Bob Dylan or Johnny Rotten, it’s the sneer in her voice that conveys so much more disdain than the lyrics ever could. It’s the desperation in her voice here that really tells the story.
Jagged Little Pill benefitted from six singles, all but one taking the airwaves by storm and three charting number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 (four singles hit number one in Canada). After “You Oughta Know,” a smart single was chosen, the breeziest song on the album. “Hand in My Pocket” is where Alanis gets to tell you who she is in a clever series of contradictions with lyrics that never rhyme, keeping a loose, beat poet feel throughout. The kicker, however, is when she declares through all of this self-knowledge, that she “hasn’t got it all figured out just yet,” which is a helpful disclaimer, especially given that her next singles, “Ironic” and “You Learn” are a little heavy-handed in terms of the professorial tone coming from someone so young. Overall, “Hand In Pocket” is just a very winning song, with a good attitude about life that serves as the perfect antidote to the bile spilled in the downright vicious “You Oughta Know.”
“Ironic” famously put the panties of grammar nazis everywhere in a permanent twist. A huge single, unavoidable in the spring of 1996 if you got anywhere near a radio or a television, the song either talks about ironic situations or just instances of bad luck depending on one’s definition of that difficult word, irony. Musically, it’s among the strongest songs of its era, in terms of contrasting sections, shifts in dynamics and tone, a strong chorus, and an indelible melody throughout. The bridge (“Life has a funny way…”) is particularly effective in how it introduces some prettier quasi-jazz chords as a meditative deviation, this section also reappearing at the end as a nice, elongated outro. What’s actually ironic about the song is that for all the umbrage taken by the experts at whether or not she was misusing the word throughout the song, it didn’t matter to the young girls that were listening so intently to the messaging of Jagged Little Pill, in the lyrics, in the stories she was telling, and in the rich, empowering subtext of her tone of voice.
All through the album, Morissette places outrageous bets — and wins every pot
And Jagged Little Pill sold like hotcakes, landing Morissette on the covers of Rolling Stone and Spin magazines. Powered by five powerhouse singles and accompanying videos, Alanis’s rise to the mainstream core of popular music meant that her empowering, raw feminist message would be heard by the right audience. While young women, college girls, and teenagers were getting into PJ Harvey and Liz Phair, young girls were rocking out to the songs of Jagged Little Pill in Mom’s minivan, and more than a few boys got the much-needed message as well.
But it almost never happened.
With no outside input, Morissette and Ballard finished the demos in 1994 and started excitedly shopping their completely handmade project but every major label passed. Ballard and his team had a lot of connections so everybody heard the demos, a lot of people liked what they heard but it never clicked with anyone in a position to say yes. Interscope and Atlantic came close. Warner Brothers said no. By Christmas, they were despondent — until the day that the pair got the call from their lawyer to drop everything and rush to a meeting at Maverick with Guy Oseary. They played him “Perfect” and before the song was over, Alanis was signed to Maverick Records, Madonna’s subsidiary of Warner Brothers. They played him “You Oughta Know” and “Hand In Pocket” and they walked out with a “yes.” Oseary, only a few years older than Alanis, was blown away and humbled by the experience, saying afterward that he was lucky to have said yes.
The two principles then entered an L.A. studio to add drums on six tracks, replace some guitar and bass tracks, and also to add Flea and Dave Navarro’s bass and guitar to “You Oughta Know” to give it some added drive (Oseary was best friends with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis). Oseary said that otherwise, his input was minimal, that the album’s outcome was inevitable. Morissette and Ballard had preserved all of the original intensity, rawness, and authenticity and on the occasion of her 21st birthday, Jagged Little Pill was released.
“Who are you, what do you want to write about, what’s going on with you?”
Alanis has said that the intensity scared Warner Brothers and the pair knew that her caustic singing style was not for everyone, but had faith that it would connect with others deeply, as their experience with Oseary bore out. And connect deeply it did, going on to be the top-selling album of 1996 (and the entire decade, in fact), mostly on the strength of that deep bond Alanis forged with her young audience. Taking on the role of an older sister or cool aunt that will tell you how things really are without the need to sugarcoat, Alanis peeled back the veneer of normalcy and prescribed the “jagged little pill” of life lessons, relishing the position of role model for the generation of unquiet dissident girls coming up on her heels. And the unfiltered emotion in the vocals and conversational rhythms and mannerisms of her lyrics made it feel immediate and real.
It’s the desperation in her voice that really tells the story
The rise of Alanis Morissette was explained by Jon Pareles in the January 28th, 1996 issue of the New York Times as the emergence of a new female archetype, the Angry Young Woman. But with the benefit of decades of perspective and a view of history, we can see that she represents something more. The frank observations and revelations, the poetic rage, the unapologetic singalongs of righteous anger and self-actualization that are the songs of Jagged Little Pill fit into a progression that gives shape to, not only the history of women in rock but possibly the overall arc of feminism as well, and ultimately, the forward march of women and girls toward empowerment within society over time.
And even though Jagged Little Pill is not exactly a rock record, through its penetrating success in affecting a large audience, in gaining the attention of media, winning critical acclaim, and garnering nine Grammy nominations (and winning five, including Album of the Year), it’s an album that bent the arc of rock history by its own force. The latter part of the 1990s saw the continued rise of women as bankable artists, culminating in the three-year run of Lilith Fair, the all-female top-grossing touring music festival that raised over $10 million for charity. Alanis Morissette never appeared as one of the roughly 300 female acts that performed at Lilith Fair, but each one owes a debt to her fearlessness, her audacity, her raw intelligence, and her commitment to authenticity, all on display in that landmark 1995 album that moved the world, Jagged Little Pill.
For further reading:
An Oral History of Jagged Little Pill:
The Angry Young Woman: The Labels Take Notice (NYT, Jon Pareles):