The Way It Was: Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill

Alanis Morisette is still doing her thing nearly 30 years after her breakout album, Jagged Little Pill, including a show earlier this month at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Alanis Morisette is still doing her thing nearly 30 years after her breakout album, Jagged Little Pill, including a show earlier this month at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. Photo by Halle Yap, courtesy of The Oriel Co.

On a monthly basis, the Houston Press will deep-dive an album that dropped on that particular month in the '90s. Some were well-received. Others not. Some have held up. Others, far from it. Some marked an artist’s critical or commercial peak. Others simply set the table for more greatness to come. Regardless, they all helped constitute a decade that ranks among the most influential in music history.

This is “The Way it Was.”

The artist: Alanis Morissette

The album: Jagged Little Pill

The release date: June 13, 1995

The backstory: Did you know that Alanis Morissette once opened for Vanilla Ice? This isn’t entirely relevant to the Morissette conversation, but in many ways, it very much is. Some think of Morissette as an overnight success, and this is somewhat true, given she was an international megastar and household name by the age of 21. She was also, prior to becoming a voice of her generation, a teen-pop act who was much more Debbie Gibson than Liz Phair. The Canadian Morissette put out a couple of dance-pop albums in the early '90s (hence, the opening slot for Vanilla Ice), and while they were actually pretty well-received both commercially and critically, she was without a record deal by 1993. She was 19 years old.

So, Morissette did what any ambitious, talented pop act would do in her shoes. She hooked up with a great producer – Glen Ballard, who had previously worked with Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul, among others – changed her sound (no more dance, a lot more rock, including appearances from Flea and Dave Navarro) and put out one of the best, most memorable albums of the decade.

Jagged Little Pill is an emotional nerve set to music, an artist “going for it” (to use a tired but true cliché, in this case) and producing an album that was very much unique and unlike much else in the marketplace. The album was intended as a life raft for Morrissette’s stalled-out career; could it hit well enough to get her another album down the line, enough to hopefully put together a legit musical career? Upon its release, Jagged Little Pill debuted outside the Billboard Top 100. Four months later, it reached No. 1 on that very same chart, where it remained for three months. Some 29 years later, it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and is one of the best-selling albums of all time.

Did it pave the way for a burgeoning career? No. For Alanis Morissette, it busted the f**king door down.

The impact: To call Jagged Little Pill groundbreaking would be both accurate and would simultaneously understate its impact. Once it hit, this album – and, in turn, Morissette – were EVERYWHERE. Half of the 12 tracks were top-10 singles, and four topped the charts. Jagged Little Pill earned five trophies at the 1996 JUNO Awards (aka, the Canadian Grammys) and took home four Grammys in 1996, including Album of the Year.

But this wasn’t just a commercial thing. A lot of albums sold a lot of copies in the '90s and really have no historical footprint whatsoever. Jagged Little Pill mattered in 1995, and one could argue it matters even more nearly 30 years on. Not only did it showcase a generational talent in Morissette; Jagged Little Pill helped pave the way for similar and influential women artists like Fiona Apple, Garbage and, in subsequent years, Pink and Avril Lavigne.

Dozens upon dozens of artists went multiplatinum in the '90s. Very few changed the landscape of music. Morissette managed to do both.

The legacy: Here’s the thing about Jagged Little Pill that a lot of people get wrong. It’s regarded by many, historically at least, as a very angry album. Not really. Sure, tracks like “You Oughta Know” (more on that in a minute) and “Right Through You” certainly have some teeth, but the '90s was a decade where edge was in and, in the end, this is all subjective. Rather, these and other tracks bear out the frustration but, ultimately, the hope that accompanies being young and confused at a time when most people of a certain age are very young and very much confused. And, hell, these songs are counter-balanced by more optimistic fare such as “Head Over Feet” and “You Learn" anyway.

Morissette, despite a three-decade career that would later include a number of other hit albums and singles – and even a current headlining tour that recently stopped in the Houston area – never quite achieved the cultural or commercial feats of Jagged Little Pill. Who could, and who cares? She created a piece of art that will live on forever. Few can say the same.
Biggest track: So let’s just get into it. Is “You Oughta Know” about former “Full House” star – and Morissette ex-boyfriend – Dave Coulier? He says it is. Morissette has either flat denied it or, on other occasions, declined comment altogether. The debate, at least in a comical, urban legend type of way, has somewhat overshadowed one of the best alternative rock tracks of the decade. Oh well, it won two Grammys, went Platinum many times over and is widely regarded as one of the defining songs of its era. Pretty good consolation for both Alanis and (allegedly) Uncle Joey.

Best track: This may be a somewhat unpopular opinion, but not only is “You Learn” the best track on Jagged Little Pill; it’s the most “real.” It’s optimistic, in a “people make mistakes, people get screwed over, might as well learn from it” kind of way. That’s real life right there. The fire trucks are seemingly always comin’ up around the bend. Might as well be ready for ‘em.

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Clint Hale enjoys music and writing, so that kinda works out. He likes small dogs and the Dallas Cowboys, as you can probably tell. Clint has been writing for the Houston Press since April 2016.
Contact: Clint Hale