A Jagged Little Hit Turns 15

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.”

But the mainstream path for enraged female rockers was hewn from a minutes-older auditory revolution that wasn’t so press-palatable. The Riot Grrls emerged in 1991, figure-headed by Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah. A loose collective of musicians armed with ‘zines and do-it-yourself ethics, they wanted to address sexism and racism in the punk scene. Their lyrics were as flamboyant, and less subservient, than “You Oughta Know.” Two years before Morissette reminded an anonymous someone of “the cross I bear that you gave to me,” Bikini Kill had already castigated his ilk: “Don’t need you to say we’re cute…don’t need you to tell us we’re good…don’t need your dick to fuck.” The Riot Grrls weren’t into bearing crosses. They demanded a complete overhaul of a damaging hegemonic system, and they didn’t limit their fury to the stage or their sounds to convention. America-at-large didn’t flock to see Hanna scrawl “cunt” across her torso like they did to hear Morissette screech “fuck” into a microphone, mainly because Morissette behaved herself in interviews, and her songs offered unconditional corroboration with every broken-hearted hetero-normative girl in the western hemisphere. You didn’t have to accept responsibility for your own role in perpetuating patriarchy—all you had to do was to yell along.

Morissette’s accessibility extended to her musical construction. “You Oughta Know” follows a typical pop pattern—a hook-laden intro, followed by a series of verses, bridges and choruses that march towards a climax in predicable 4/4 time, a break (layered instruments over Morissette moaning) and a final chorus that trails out amidst the whine of a wah-wah pedal. In contrast, the Riot Grrls were raw, heavy and atonal. They wouldn’t have made it onto mainstream radio, even if their lyrics weren’t controversial and they weren’t notorious for avoiding press. Regardless, the press did it’s best to denigrate the movement. Without interviewing Hanna, The Washington Post falsely printed that her father had raped her, and in Melody Maker, Marion Leonard labeled the Riot Grrls “babyish” and suggested they do some reading, “and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine.”  New York magazine’s Kim Frances warned, tongue-in-cheek, “they’ve come for your daughters,” and in an attempt to undermine Bikini Kill, Newsweek ran a tabloid-style photo of Hanna and her friends in bikinis at the beach. Such concerted effort by the media against a small, cacophonous, underground rock movement testifies to the power of the Grrls’ mission. That the same media embraced Morissette illustrates the underlying reinforcement of dominant ideology in the commodified version of “righteous anger” that she peddled like candy-cigarettes.

That Morissette appealed to a generation raised on Ritalin, MTV and school-programmed self-esteem is inevitable. But even if every female in America between the ages of 14 and 24 owned Jagged Little Pill by 2000, the millennial domestic sales figure represents an additional half-million albums. Who else was buying? Many of 1995’s soon-to-be high school freshwomen had mothers who came of age during the second-wave seventies but missed the third-wave schooner. Women of the 90’s decried feminism, even as they benefited from its struggle. In a 1998 CBS news poll, 75% of women agreed that the status of women had improved in the past 25 years but only 27% percent of women claimed to be feminists. Perhaps these women sought some sort of sedated catharsis against the gender-polarized headlines of the mid-90’s, and Morissette nestled neatly amongst the names of wronged and revengeful women: Anita Hill, Nicole Brown Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt and Gennifer Flowers. While their daughters watched The Real World and Road Rules, these mothers huddled in front of Ricki Lake, Oprah and Lifetime, and mother and daughter alike sought advice in the new, faceless public sphere of Internet message boards. Talking is good, but it isn’t mobilizing (or as Hanna’s current band, Le Tigre, puts it, “Get off the internet—I’ll meet you in the street!”) Confession Morisette-style has currency as only as a “feminine” residue of actual feminism.

“I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away,” Morissette still whines today, albeit at the lowered decibel of roughly 300,000 domestic sales a year and vicariously, through Beyonce’s covers of “You Oughta Know,” delivered at concerts that are currently better attended than Morissette’s own. “You Oughta Know” is catchy, but its celebration of sexual freedom is undermined by a subversive, unintentional message of defeat. Catharsis without action offers temporary relief and long-term self-contempt. Rather than empowering 15-year-old girls, “You Oughta Know” has been disarming them for 15 summers, and it may take another 15 summers for them to figure out what’s happened.

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2 thoughts on “A Jagged Little Hit Turns 15

  1. Great essay, Cheree! I love your memorial of the mid-nineties with Alanis Morrisette’s single as a centerpiece. She was so much more palatable than the feminist riot grrrls. It’s strange to think the “grrrl” is even used in cutesy ‘grrrl power’ t-shirts sold en masse by Walmart. The mainstream will always devour a less subversive version of counter-culture. Thank you for outlining this phenomenon so clearly.

  2. Moni-wu, is that you? Thanks for the props…and you’re right, the mainstream WILL devour any subversive subculture…in part to disarm the threat but maybe moreso because ANYTHING can be bought or sold, and there’s nothing corporate America likes more than packaging for sale a “new” idea that they didn’t have to develop on their dime.

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