20 years ago was June 1995 – I was 18 years old inching closer to 19, completely lost on many levels but focused in others, growing out my hair, just finished CEGEP and was nervous and excited at the prospect of starting university in the Fall. Very insecure, very much living at home and trying to find my way.
Musiqueplus was my gateway to new music and videos. Living in Quebec, we had our quirks – the quirkiest being the shows the channel would air that would be subtitled in French (if it was an English program) or seeing VJs on the spot translate any celebrity anglophone artist who would come in for an interview. (As time wore on, I realized that this was a practice not just reserved chez nous but for any music channel that catered to a language other than English).
As the risk of sounding like Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls, I say Picture it: Montreal, June 1995. The internet existed, but I wasn’t a part of it (yet). You could say I was completely unconnected to the world, but that my TV was my source. The biggest thing that I was listening to that summer was Annie Lennox’s Medusa album and Michael Jackson’s HIStory greatest hits record. I remember seeing the “You Are Not Alone” video featuring him and his then wife Lisa Marie parading nearly nude – yep, this was excitement.
When out of the haze came this woman with long hair, obscuring her face, this whirling dervish beauty, in a video set in the Mojave Desert. Backed by a sharp band, she was singing about a lover gone wrong.
You Oughta Know.
I remember being a bit blindsided by the song – I thought it sounded hard, a bit weird. And then I saw the name at the bottom of the screen: Alanis Morissette.
Is it that Alanis? I had known only of ONE Alanis and she didn’t have a last name.
This one also was signed to Madonna’s Maverick Records. At the time, I was always curious at the roster of artists that were signed on her label – always finding them very varied. Was it the same person?
Sure enough, the media started buzzing about her and I was intrigued. This was the “Too Hot” Alanis? The one whose tapes I bought back in 1991 and 1992? I really liked those songs on those records – but she was a dance artist. THIS Alanis that I was hearing was really not. Snap judgement made: this was an act. Clearly she was now trying on another image to an unsuspecting American audience. I wasn’t fooled – CANADIANS would not be fooled. I ain’t buying this.
And yet I couldn’t escape that song. I couldn’t shake it.
Ok, I thought, maybe I will buy this CD but I won’t tell anyone. I mentioned to my sister that whenever she was near a record store at some point in time, to pick up this album called Jagged Little Pill.
June turned into July – and You Oughta Know was on everyone’s lips. People wondering “who is this singer?” “what is this song?” I remember it being a conversation starter with many of my friends at the time, all of us trying to reconcile that this was the Alanis from a couple of years back.
For my generation, You Oughta Know was a song whose lyrics were unheard of before – such blunt honesty, such frank sexual nature being heard on mainstream radio everywhere.
And let’s be honest. The “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her” lyric is awesome.
It was fascinating.
August rolled around, and my sister had bought the CD for me. She handed it to me in an HMV bag, and I gazed at the album cover. It was a hazy image that didn’t give you a fully clear look of her face. I stared at her profile, thinking that indeed it did look like the Alanis from the past, but an older version.
I popped the CD into my boom box. And “All I Really Want” began – this feverish mix of slight hip hop drum beat, harmonica blowing, yodel voice inflections and lyrics that were slightly indecipherable, and yet relatable.
I was in my mother’s living room. My brother’s wedding was approaching and I remember being really excited about it, sitting on the floor and listening to this album. Her voice was piercing and raw – a quality that I can now describe as someone who was hungry to get these words out of her system – and each song had a real sing-songy chorus to them.
I wasn’t convinced still – and yet I couldn’t stop listening to it.
And the more I kept listening, my opinion began to shift. The album was good. Really good. In many ways that album took the place of the voice in me that wasn’t able to express.
That summer was the summer where I had my first real job working at a day camp. Holding my weekly culture based newspaper in my hand, I saw that Alanis was playing Cafe Campus, a super tiny club. Tickets were $12.00. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t. Missed opportunity.
As summer became the Fall, Jagged Little Pill seemed to show no signs of wearing out. In fact, it was becoming bigger. I’ve read about Beatlemania and what that was like – well, this was my Beatlemania. A wave was coming over me and I dove right in: I devoured any article, any taped interview, any bootleg material I could get my hands on. I made scrapbooks of articles on her like some weird fanatic. My room was adorned with posters of her.
Her simultaneous landing of the covers of Rolling Stone and Spin was a fanboy’s dream – two very different articles and interviews with her. One highly positive and depicting the road that lay ahead for her – and the other poking holes in her musical past and questioning whether she was for real. It would be a conversation that would come up a lot during that time.
And when she returned to Montreal that Fall to Metropolis, there was nothing that was going to stop me from seeing her. I could sing every single song off of that album. And I did – loudly. I remember The Rentals (another Maverick artist, a group fronted by Weezer’s Matt Sharp and also featuring a then unknown Maya Rudolph!) opened for her. I remember Alanis saying “thank you” after every song. I remember when she sang “Head Over Feet” when she reached the line of “I am aware now” she added an I swear to God I am. And I remember when she was called back for an encore, her and her band mates returned throwing apples to the audience as a thank you.
Once that concert was finished, I was completely sold. She was the real deal. Jagged Little Pill was a lesson for me to understand that indeed a person (and an artist) can change and become more authentic. Don’t we all evolve as time goes on?
For the better half of the fall of 1995 and all of 1996, Jagged Little Pill was all that I listened to. There were other artists I would be interested in here and there, and I would buy their stuff. But Alanis was my everything. I pretty much shut off anything else musically for that year. That’s how much I worshipped this sucker.
I’m pretty sure my family thought I was obsessed – for sure I was. I got anyone and everyone I knew to listen to the record. I bought it for people for birthday gifts. I even managed to convert my then 2 year old nephew into a fan (he’s now nearly 21 years old and obviously doesn’t remember all of these instances where his uncle tried to brainwash him)
Seeing her again only nine months later, now at the Molson Centre (now known as the Bell Centre) with 15,000 screaming fans singing back at her was an overwhelming thing to witness. I remember seeing 10 year old kids standing on their chairs trying to get a glimpse of Alanis on the stage. Seeing these kids waving their peace sign fingers, hailing a taxi cab and all of the other actions described in “Hand In My Pocket” was an interesting site.
Also, the audience for that show was a lot more varied than the one at Metropolis. Lots of couples, young and older were there – evidence that her music was now speaking to both men and women of various ages.
20 years on, and a part of me can’t believe so much time has gone by and the other part of me believes it. Time has gone by.
When I listen to the album now, me now inching towards 40, I’m still struck by how honest of a record it still is. I think about the boy I was, and all of the layers with which the music spoke to me.
The marketing machine for Jagged Little Pill was clearly to spin that it was an album that gave a voice to women around the world. Angry women. Like all artists, Alanis had to be labelled in order to be understood and categorized. I think about what about this record connecting so deeply with me – a brown skinned boy,inexperienced with life and love, someone who on the surface was the polar opposite of the audience who was mainly targeted. The audience initially that clamored to her were predominantly women. I saw that the album was never just about anger, but about one coming into their own, being more honest with oneself, and questioning the influences and surroundings – its themes were beyond gender. Alanis’s voice on that record tapped into a movement that was already in motion with other strong, directive women artists before her – but it was Alanis herself who brought it in with gargantuan mainstream success and allowing the path to be cleared for younger artists to come after her.
I think I also connected to its inherent Canadian-ness as well. I think we, as Canadians, by nature always want to say the right thing and make sure everyone feels good, rather than possibly express anything remotely sad, anger filled or sexual for that matter. No wonder after years of wallowing in dance artist mode, there was another part of her wanting to come out.
I can still remember every word to every song – and the entire thing lives on my iPod. It never gets old for me. It represents a huge chunk of my early adulthood. I actually think the album has gotten better with age – a sign of timeliness that really wasn’t predicted for it back in 1995. I mean if you think about it, the other juggernaut of an album that sold a gazillion records during that time was Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View…and you know people don’t talk about THAT album in the same way as they do Jagged Little Pill.
To this day, it’s not very “trendy” to like her – for some people, she represents a vapid point of view that is without substance. Everyone is a critic. For me, it just drew me in like all music does with people who are open to it. Is Jagged Little Pill my favorite record of all time? No, it isn’t – it’s up there though. But, I can say that it’s the one that probably left the strongest mark on my life. A mark that I am grateful for as it served as an entry point for me to discover other singer-songwriters and appreciate the ones that came before her.
She has my loyalty.