Monday, April 21, 2014

In Defense Of: Jagged Little Pill, Alanis Morissette

This In Defense Of was contributed by Rachel Brown, a Brooklyn-based writer and native of Hawaii who has dressed up as Catwoman for Halloween three years in a row.

It seems a lot of growing up is realizing that the things you loved as a kid are kind of shitty. It’s a good feeling to throw out the last of your hip-hugger cargo pants and admit that your mother was right: you should brush your hair back to show your pretty face, and just because something is in style doesn’t mean it’s good. But it’s an even better feeling to find something from your childhood or teenage years that’s still good, even seen through the eyes of a person who can get drunk, vote for the leader of the free world, and buy a shotgun to round off the evening.

Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album Jagged Little Pill was the first album I ever bought, and I thought every second of it was pure gold. But I was 11. I also thought my straw cowboy hat with the peacock feather was a good idea. And 19 years after its release, most people talk about Jagged Little Pill with a slight eye-roll or derisive snort. It’s considered a cruder sound from a less civilized age, when people thought unnecessary harmonica solos were a good idea. Cue “Head Over Feet.”

But Jagged Little Pill was a perfect storm. The right artist with the right producer at exactly the right time in music history dropped an album that would define the mid-90s. Morissette came in riding the crest of the grunge wave and found an audience eager for what she was selling: angsty, vaguely intellectual alt-rock. More importantly, she found the producer Glen Ballard, who could take her potentially weird and off-putting sound and turn her into a hitmaker. Ballard’s guitar and Morissette’s songwriting combined to produce six hit singles and sell as many copies as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

And you know what? Good on eleven-year-old me, because Jagged Little Pill is still marvelous.

A lot of credit goes to Ballard, the most famous musician you’ve never heard of. He played guitar, co-wrote, and produced music with everyone who’s worth a damn: Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Aerosmith, Teddy Pendergrass — it would be easier to make a list of hugely popular acts between 1982 and now that he hasn’t worked with. Morissette wrote and composed all the songs on Jagged Little Pill, but Ballard shined them up, added the guitar riffs and the fun, funky little bass parts, and made the whole thing marketable. The best producers know that their job is to make the artist the best they can be, and Ballard turned Morissette’s artsy, confessional ballads into accessible, radio-ready rock 'n’ roll. Case in point, “You Learn.”

That said, Morissette’s voice is going to make or break this album for most listeners. Musically, it’s irreproachable, but even way back in ‘95, the vocals on Jagged Little Pill were like sushi or brussels sprouts: you either loved that shit, or you threw up little in your mouth just thinking about it.

I love her voice, because it’s a radical departure from the narrow range of acceptable women’s singing styles. Women singers are allowed to belt, like Beyonc√©, or croon sweetly in the upper register, like Taylor Swift. Morissette rejects the conventional and hurls herself into the music like Tom Waits, snarling and wailing with unapologetic, fuck-everything panache and style. Just listen to that vocal fry at the end of the second verse of “All I Really Want.” The sound is weird and striking, just like the artist. I think a lot of people forget the singular strangeness of this album because they only remember “Ironic” (more about that later).

Listen: Morissette wasn’t supposed to make Jagged Little Pill. She’d gone platinum when she was only seventeen with her first self-titled album of dance-pop, at which point she opened for Vanilla Ice. By the standard evolution of female musicians, she should have been writhing naked on a wrecking ball in 1995. Instead, she re-invented herself as a legitimate alt-rock goddess.

Jagged Little Pill may draw you in with its catchy guitar riffs and fun choruses, but its greatest strength is Morissette’s confessional songwriting. Not for nothing does this album open with the line “Do I stress you out?” There’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in her lyrics, as on the second track, "You Oughta Know", in which she famously admits to blowing a guy in the back of a movie theater. 

However you feel about Morissette — even if you just regard her as the epitome of mass-appeal 90s grunge who couldn’t transcend her decade — you can’t deny the raw, powerful sincerity of these songs. Great deep cuts from Jagged Little Pill include “Perfect,” possibly the most horribly accurate portrayal of shitty overbearing parents ever (and appropriate, considering that hers let her open for Vanilla Ice) and “Forgiven,” about the spiritual scarring left by a Catholic upbringing. “Right Through You” is a very rock 'n’ roll song about how sleazy record producers prey on young female talent like Morissette, but how she succeeded despite them, because she’s awesome, so fuck 'em.

And then there’s “Ironic.” It was the biggest hit from Jagged Little Pill, and it’s the song everyone remembers today, because they can’t wait to explain how nothing that happens in the song is actually ironic.

I think this reaction might have be revised, considering that the flannel-shirted term “irony” is enjoying a resurgence, and that word still doesn’t mean what people think it means.

                        Nothing about beards or trucker hats.

“Ironic” is a lot of fun to belt out at sleepovers, and it’s not the worst song on the album. That’s about all it’s got going for it. However, it’s worth remembering that another seminal album from the 90s, Nirvana’s Nevermind, was a lot more personal and intelligent than the single most people remember it for. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Ironic” share the indignity of being the least substantial but most remembered songs from their respective albums. They’re basically just the artists screwing around, and it’s not entirely fair to judge Nevermind or Jagged Little Pill entirely on the basis of a catchy throwaway that happened to top the charts.

The whole album is available on YouTube and is definitely still worth your time, especially if you remember liking it years ago and are wondering if it still holds up. Get ready to sing along.

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