I wish we had streaming in 1995 simply so I could see my play count on Jagged Little Pill. I bought the breakthrough sophomore album by Alanis Morissette sometime in between hearing the incendiary “You Oughta Know” on 107.9 The End (everything was an edge or end in those days¹) in July and beginning high school in August. I listened to it every day of ninth grade. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day.
You ought to know, and hopefully you do, just how massive and influential Jagged Little Pill was. JLP is the second-best-selling album of the nineties, just behind fellow Canadian Shania Twain’s Come on Over. It doubled up Nevermind. But that doesn’t really tell the story. People like me only bought it once—and played it a thousand times.
That doesn’t tell the story, either. Because while every mega-selling quazillion platinum record has its own charms², Jagged Little Pill is singular.
“Anger”—the primal howl of the first single about the frustrations of dating Uncle Joey from Full House³—brought people through the door. Some commentators dwell there, in the moments of alt rock angst. But taken in full, with a couple decades of hindsight, the album stands out from contemporaries for its rejection of rage and resentment and its embrace of bright-eyed idealism. All Alanis really wants is common ground, patience, justice, a wavelength. There is anger—about Uncle Joey being a bad boyfriend, about the Catholicism of her youth—but that’s the noise, not the signal. The album’s title comes from “You Learn,” a song in which Alanis celebrates the nobility of smiling through failure. The pill, jagged though it may be, is to be swallowed not bitterly but gratefully. It feels so good, swimming in your stomach. When she performs the song now, after decades of Buddhist practice and having had an experience that revealed to her that our existence is illusory, she channels blissed-out enlightenment.
In the first single from her next record, “Thank U,” Alanis thanks the universe for a smattering of things, both good and bad, while walking around the streets of Los Angeles naked, fully exposed in a non-sexual way. The moment she jumped off was the moment she touched down.
I don’t know if Alanis Morissette made a perfect, timeless record. But she certainly made the right record for a generation that, in a few years, would find itself standing in the parking lot of a Best Buy talking with college buddies about whether they’d enlist to go to Afghanistan to avenge 9/11, or, many fast-moving years after that, having their child’s first day of kindergarten canceled because of a pandemic.
For this tour, marking the anniversary of the landmark album, Alanis planned a perfect moment of triumph with two worthy contemporaries, Liz Phair and Shirley Manson’s Garbage. It was to be a galvanizing moment of female empowerment in the runup to the presidential election. It was scuttled by the pandemic, of course. A few weeks ago, Phair dropped off “due to unforeseen circumstances.”⁴
The jaggedness of it all really is even more appropriate. Thank you, frailty; thank you, consequence.
GO: Alanis Morissette, Cat Power and Garbage at the T-Mobile Center. Sunday, September 19. 1407 Grand Blvd., KCMO. $46-$670.
1. This particular Cleveland station is infamous for playing an on-the-nose R.E.M. song for twenty-four straight hours on its last day of operation.
2. With the exception of Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell—that album’s success will forever remain a mystery.
3. The best detail of this story isn’t that “You Oughta Know” is about Joey from Full Housebut that Danny Tanner himself, Bob Saget, claims to have overheard the fight when Morissette called during dinner.
4. It is perhaps too on-the-nose here to note that this space was originally slated to go to an essay about Liz Phair.