Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was a powerful, DIY feminist statement

Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill was a powerful, DIY feminist statement

Morissette in the "You Oughta Know" video
Morissette in the "You Oughta Know" video

In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines a song that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill which spent two weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart starting on October 7, 1995. The album would then go on to reach No. 1 for 10 weeks in 1996.

Alanis Morissette’s U.S. debut album, Jagged Little Pill, was a cultural earthquake on par with Nirvana’s Nevermind when it was released in June 1995. Thanks to the slash-and-burn single “You Oughta Know,” the rhetoric-defying “Ironic,” and sanguine “Hand In My Pocket,” the former teen pop star from Ottawa, Canada, achieved radio and MTV saturation for the next several years. Three songs from the album reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, while six songs hit the Top 30 of the Alternative charts (including three No. 1s). Jagged Little Pill was a sales juggernaut as well: In its first three years of release, the record sold a mind-boggling 13 million copies in the U.S. alone. The album eventually netted Morissette five Grammys—including one for Album Of The Year and one for Best Rock Song for “You Oughta Know”—and established her as an alternative music giant.

But for such a blockbuster release, Jagged Little Pill had humble beginnings. This was absolutely due to Morissette’s precarious career situation in 1994. Although she was a huge pop star in her native Canada in the early ’90s (and was briefly known in America for being part of a later cast of the cult Nickelodeon show You Can’t Do That On Television), she had been dropped from her record label after her second album, 1992’s Now Is The Time, didn’t fare as well as her eponymously titled 1991 debut. “She had already had the arc of success and then crashing on the second [album], and had been sort of told by the industry, ‘Okay, you’re done. You’re 17, the second record didn’t go, so you’re done,’” Glen Ballard, who produced and co-wrote Jagged Little Pill, tells The A.V. Club. “They cut bait and left.”

However, her publishing company, MCA Music Publishing, still saw glimmers of potential, and sent her to California to write some songs with various people. These collaborators included Ballard, who was known for his work with Wilson Phillips and Paula Abdul, and for co-writing Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror.” The pair met in March 1994 and hit it off almost immediately on a creative level; Morissette’s free agent status and lack of a record deal was actually a huge plus, because she didn’t have the added layers of oversight that came with label involvement. “She showed up in my studio, and we had a cup of tea and were writing a song,” Ballard says. “I didn’t really ask her about what she wanted to do with it, and she didn’t really tell me what she wanted to do. I had a vague idea of what she had been through, but we didn’t listen to any of her music. I had never heard a note of her music.

“The best thing for both of us was that there were no expectations,” he adds. “Whatever expectations there might have been were so wrong or so anemic so people had given up on those particular expectations that we were liberated from that.”

Indeed, making Jagged Little Pill was an idyllic experience for both of them. Ballard’s studio at the time (which he dubs a “creative little workshop”) was a sunlit space in Encino, California, that was conducive to artistry: It featured plenty of windows, and tranquil elements such as a garden and a fountain. The pair would meet for lunch around noon at a trattoria around the corner from the studio and talk about the song they planned to write that day before heading back to the space to get down to work—no engineer, no outside musicians, just the two of them collaborating on music. Ballard says this DIY routine endured for all of their studio sessions: On songwriting days, after what he estimates was “10 to 12 hours of heavy lifting,” they would inevitably emerge with a demo of a song.

“If you push yourself in the right way, you oughta be able to write a song every day,” he laughs. “Of course, a lot of people don’t see it that way—and, of course, that doesn’t always come like that. [But] when you’re collaborating with someone, it’s much easier than writing a song by yourself every day. The two of us, it was just like a cake walk. We were working really hard, but it was sheer joy. All we were doing was making each other happy. If life could just be that simple, you know?”

Ballard says this private studio setup was also aided by then-nascent technology, which gave him the freedom to program drums and add guitars, bass, and keyboards in order to create fleshed-out demos. (“We were right on the edge of digital empowerment, and we took full advantage of it,” he says.) But Jagged Little Pill came together easily because the pair’s disciplined focus and songwriting diligence also came with plenty of spontaneity and emotional openness.

“She had bunches of journals, she had reams of thoughts and ideas, which she did reference,” Ballard says. “But usually it was only as a reference. Most everything, she was just writing it right out based on where we were going musically. She might have a phrase, but the most important thing for me was that she started singing early. I was hearing this incredible voice in the room, even if the words weren’t completely there. It certainly guided me musicallyit was a really wonderful process. The words came out of what we were doing right in that moment and the conversations we had.”

At times, their collaborations were intuitive. Of the laid-back, folksy “Hand In My Pocket,” Ballard says: “I saw her write that in front of me, like, in an hour. I had a 12-string Epiphone electric guitar and we just wrote it on the spot.” Other songs were even more improvised. After some music they were working on wasn’t clicking, Ballard idly strummed an Esus to an E chord on a guitar, and then did it again while Morissette started singing in harmony to the chords—and then she poured out “Perfect,” a brutally honest song about the pressures parents put on their children to live up to invisible ideals.

“It just came right out of her,” Ballard says. “I knew she was gifted at that moment, and we both loved that song. It truly was delivered just right out of her brain and into the microphone. We did it in like an hour, that one. I know it seems unreal, but it actually happened that way. It doesn’t usually happen that way, but it can when everything’s right and you have someone like Alanis.”

“Perfect” embodied Jagged Little Pill’s relatively spare arrangements and instrumentation; the main accompaniment to her raw vocal performance on the song is chiming guitar strums and a subtle dusting of organ. Although the record’s music certainly has depth of field—for example, the hip-hop-tinged “All I Really Want” features overdubbed harmonies and merry-prankster harmonica—it’s not overdone or overstuffed. This allows Jagged Little Pill room to breathe and for its details to pop: Grungy psychedelic guitar slithers underneath “Right Through You,” while “Mary Jane” is dreamier and boasts feathery, keening melodies. Even “Ironic,” which is cut from the same soft-loud-soft cloth as Nirvana, is a perfectly calibrated balance between plucky acoustic riffs on the verses and an explosive chorus with sharp-edged vocal layers.

Ballard gives full credit to Morissette for preserving the homemade, intimate tone of their music. “There were a lot of these songs we were going to try to re-cut, but she absolutely insisted: ‘No, we’re not going to re-cut them, because this is the essence of what makes them good,’” he says. “She was absolutely right; she was so right. She taught me [that] sometimes you can gild the lily, [but] sometimes the lily itself is just fine.”

This confidence in Jagged Little Pill’s musical direction is even more impressive considering that neither Ballard nor Morissette had any idea where the music would go—or even if it would be heard. “It’s not that we didn’t care—we were just unsupervised children playing in the sandbox and we were making our own stuff. It was fun for me,” Ballard laughs. “It was fun for her. It was basically a joyful experience from start to finish. It was without any doubt a pure artistic experience.”

Despite the differences in circumstances and material, Morissette’s time in the teen pop trenches proved to be valuable to Jagged Little Pill. Ballard in particular observed how she harnessed her past stardom and channeled what she had learned toward the second phase of her career. “It was such a gift that she had been through the dance-pop thing,” he says. “She’s a great entertainer anyway, but she sharpened her vocabulary as an entertainer. When I met her, she had this ability to sing, to move, to act, to communicate. But she wanted to use all that in the service of something that was worthwhile, something that meant something to her. If anything, I just helped her to uncover what it is she wanted to talk about—not even uncover it, just to give her the opportunity to go to her real self as an artist and get it out.”

Indeed, Jagged Little Pill has a lack of self-consciousness that’s impossible to manufacture. There’s a sense that Morissette has nothing to lose. That’s evident on the caustic indictment “Right Through You”—a big fuck-you to a guy who doesn’t have the time of day for someone who he feels is beneath him socially—and, of course, on the seismic kiss-off “You Oughta Know.” Yet Jagged Little Pill is also preoccupied with giant philosophical questions and societal conundrums. On “Forgiven,” she questions Catholicism’s rigor and rule-following, yet feels guilty about such inquiries, while on “All I Really Want,” she sets out a list of wants and desires, in a stream-of-consciousness, restless manner. “You Learn” even encourages people to get out of their comfort zone and embrace the painful sides of life.

This emotional immediacy comes through in Morissette’s voice. Although her unorthodox syllabic emphasis receives plenty of attentionrightfully so, because it’s so intriguing and singular, in an ear-grabbing wayMorissette’s vocal dynamics are even more impressive. “Her voiceit was like a hot iron,” Ballard says. “It was on fire, it really was. I had rarely encountered a voice that had much energy, and it was natural energy. It wasn’t any kind of oversinging.” She was also adept at playing different characters as the songs warranted it. Morissette channels a vindictive, scorned ex with snarls on “You Oughta Know,” but she’s an eye-rolling free spirit as she washes her hands of an ill-matched partner on “Not The Doctor” and then transforms into a tender, lovestruck woman pleased by unexpected kindness on “Head Over Feet.”

Ultimately, it was “Perfect” that landed Morissette a record deal, although this last puzzle piece was the most difficult part of the entire Jagged Little Pill saga. Despite Ballard’s rich network of industry contacts, he says countless people passed on Morissette’s demos. “I played this stuff for almost everybody, and everybody passed,” he says. “Honestly, we were getting a little concerned. ... We even talked about putting it out ourselves. [But] the hand of fate came and rescued us and sent us over to Madonna’s label, Maverick.” The label’s hotshot A&R guy at the time, Guy Oseary, who now manages U2 and Madonna, “flipped” when he heard “Perfect,” Ballard recalls. “He loved it. He absolutely, immediately showed how much he loved it. It was the only time we had gotten any reaction like that.”

Oseary’s advocacy and enthusiasm secured Morissette a spot on the label, and Jagged Little Pill came out a few months later. Incredibly, not much was needed to prep the album for release. Auxiliary musicians added extra flourishes on about half the tracks—including “You Oughta Know,” which received some metallic rock flash from Red Hot Chili Peppers members Flea and Dave Navarro—but “that’s really all we did,” Ballard says. “It was basically still the demos. It was a really inexpensive record to make.” The strident “Know” in particular exploded like dynamite, thanks to the support of places such as Los Angeles radio station KROQ, which added the song to its rotation. A week later, the station added “Hand In My Pocket,” which clued Ballard into the fact that Jagged Little Pill had the potential to take off.

“Suddenly we had two songs in the top 10 on a radio station that wouldn’t normally play female artists,” he says. “The music itself just jumped out ahead of any plan that we had to use it in a certain way. That’s the way that record went, honestly. People discovered it on their own and were talking about it—it was being talked about more than marketed. And this was before social media. People just really felt it. It was clearly the honesty of the record—the emotional honesty and intelligence too. It was one of the more fun rides one can take in this business, I can tell you.”

Ballard’s theories as to why Jagged Little Pill resonated with so many people follow along these same lines. “There’s no question the message was a really strong and unapologetic female who was asserting herself in all kinds of ways, and doing it bravely,” he says. “She was coming from a position of essentially a powerless place when she wrote these songs. She was not rich and famous; she was just telling the truth. In no way did she feel like what she was writing was going to make her rich and famous. There was none of this, ‘I’m doing this to become successful.’ She was expressing herself.”

“If you’re really, really good—but all you want is to be popular—I think it corrupts, on some level, what it is that you really have to bring to it,” he adds. “At that point, you’re being derivative. She never was that. She was original from the downbeat. Being original is harder these days than ever; it’s the age of conformity. Her stuff was so completely different and of such high quality, it was undeniable. Initially, the gatekeepers in the record companies thought, ‘Oh, this is too different.’ But people heard immediately what was good about it: It was different.”

Because it was so different, naturally many people weren’t sure what to do with Morissette and went for the predictably sexist (and misguided) assessment that she was an angry young woman. This stereotyping seems especially galling given the serene way the album was put together and the generally optimistic tone of many songs—and, as Ballard puts it, how the record reflects “the sheer joy of [Morissette] expressing herself in a way that she knew that she always could.” If there was a silver lining to this pigeonhole, however, it was that Jagged Little Pill kicked open the door for other strong women playing rock ’n’ roll, especially at modern rock radio: Although acts like Hole and Liz Phair were already enjoying success in the format, artists such as Fiona Apple, Garbage, Tracy Bonham, Meredith Brooks, and Poe received a boost in the coming years.

Plus, legions of teenage girls had a relatable figure in Morissette, who wasn’t much older than them, yet was speaking out about (and fighting back against) blatant sexism and societal oppression in direct, no-nonsense ways. Jagged Little Pill gave young women a loud, proud mainstream voice. In an abstract way, Morissette’s influence today can be found via artists such as Lorde and Courtney Barnett, or via publications such as Rookie. Yet confining Jagged Little Pill’s inspiration just to women is an insult; it’s clear the record’s sound was massively influential on music in the late-’90s—whether it was the hip-hop/folk hybrids that dominated alternative radio or the way so much confessional music crossed over to the Top 40. And Morissette’s nuanced songwriting made grunge (and post-grunge) angst and whininess seem rather puerile by comparison. She crashed the boys’ club by navigating the pop, rock, and folk worlds seamlessly.

Today, Jagged Little Pill still sounds like an oddball record, perhaps because it’s so bracing and unpolished. And perhaps these characteristics make it more of an unsung influence: For any musician of any age fighting for creative control, the album underscores that being stubborn about a particular direction and vision can pay off. “[Jagged Little Pill] was a very powerful statement from someone so young,” Ballard says. “It’s kind of astonishingly powerful. When I listen to it now... it’s actually kind of unbelievable the amount of wisdom and emotional intelligence embedded in all of it. It’s so real, so human. I’m just thinking, ‘Man, I’m just lucky to be around for that shit, believe me,’” he says with a laugh.

“Everything that she taught me started with trust your instincts,” Ballard adds. “In this instance, it was, ‘Don’t write for the marketplace; just write.’ I actually know how to do that, and she reminded me of my artistic soul. I’m forever grateful for that. I’m very proud of all the work I had done up to that point and love some of the great stuff that I had been lucky enough to be involved with. But I think she reminded me: Start with the pure thing, and make that great.”