And I’m here to remind you of an iconic radio hit that invaded our fifteen-year-old imaginations once upon a summer, 15 years ago. It may seem a pedestrian sort of anniversary, but if you were among the nearly two million 15-year-old girls facing immanent banishment to suburban-American high schools, there was nothing pedestrian about Alanis Morissette’s post break-up rock enema, except that by late July 1995, it was everywhere. It’s statistically likely that you shouted the lyrics of “You Oughta Know” from your best friend’s car window on the way to your babysitting job, or casually chimed in from your bedroom while painting your toenails Manic Panic purple. Maybe you participated in a spirit-sister sing-along in a musty Blue Ridge mountain cabin, while the proverbial tampon bloated in a water-bottle. Still speaking statistically, over the next year, you purchased your own copy of Morissette’s third album, Jagged Little Pill, prompted by the first song you heard, the song that still validates your anger when you recall how, at the final co-ed camp mixer, your “sister” made out with the boy you’d been kissing all summer. But doesn’t the fact that Jagged Little Pill was the third best-selling album of a decade (missing second place to The Body Guard soundtrack by a mere 100,000 records), that over 30-million copies have sold, translate into more than petty cash and teeny-bopper angst? Maybe Morissette was actually on to something we oughta know, at least in regards to the zeitgeist and lingering aftermath of the ‘90’s.
“You Oughta Know” was originally released as a B-side to the slightly less tormented “You Learn.” It became the first radio darling of Jagged Little Pill, catapulting the album to highest-selling, three-Grammy status by the song’s first birthday. “You Oughta Know” had all the ingredients: gossip and intrigue (who was “Mr. Duplicity,” beyond the recipient of Morissette’s sexual favors in a theater?), emotional convenience (an attainable vocal range, lyrics that were never obscure), a 20-year-old singer (attractive, but not pretty enough to intimidate) and a seasoned producer (Glenn Ballard, whose prior clients included Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion and Michael Jackson).
Brilliantly marketable, the song played on shock value, while playing it safe. The lyrics spurred radio bleeps and Bible-belt teens to slip liner notes beneath mattresses, but there was nothing new or threatening about the girl-pining-for-boy trope employed in its narrative. Morissette’s hit was just risqué enough to titillate, not radical enough to terrorize, and she was adored by target audience and media alike. Everyone could pretend that “You Oughta Know” was confrontational, but what everyone already did know, was that really, it wasn’t. Various trends were under way that summer of ’95, paving the path for a radio-friendly scorned goddesss to burst upon our collective consciousness. The likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains had already inoculated the commercial industry to shocking lyrics, and anyway, Morissette was an easier sell—younger, more poppy and most importantly, female. She tapped an under represented cohort that craved their own Kurt Cobain but considered pre-Celebrity Skin Courtney Love a bit esoteric. Enter Morissette. Even as she sang “an older version of me,” that’s who teen-suburbia imagined her to be, and the media established her as the standard reference for every young songstress in her wake. Tracey Bonham, Meredith Brooks and Fiona Apple—all with distinct styles of their own—garnered regular comparison. Upon the release of Fiona Apple’s debut album, Tidal, which coincided with that of Jagged Little Pill, Time magazine labeled Apple a “muted Morissette.” Continue reading