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In Defense of Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ by Letters to Cleo’s Kay Hanley (Guest Column)

Earlier this week, Jezebel published an op-ed in which Tracy Clark-Flory says that Alanis Morissette’s iconic, multiple Grammy-winning 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill,” which she loved when she was younger, is “actually very bad.” Letters to Cleo singer-songwriter and activist Kay Hanley disagrees, and explains why in the column below …

“Would she go down on you in a theater?”

Uh-oh.

Early summer 1995. My band, Letters To Cleo was going for adds at American modern rock radio with a song called “Awake” from our second album, “Wholesale Meats and Fish” (aw, cheeky ’90s album titles!) and we were feeling bullish on our prospects. After all, we were a workhorse band fresh off the success of our debut album and its attendant hit single, “Here and Now.” The momentum was building. Sold out tours! Photo shoots! Fan mail! More expensive liquor and drugs! BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD. We were ready for our logical promotion up the ladder of the rock star apprenticeship program.

Everyone thought “Awake” was a hit song, but there was a problem: literally nobody saw Alanis Morissette coming.

And because it was widely “accepted” that modern rock radio stations in the ’90s only had one slot available in active rotation for songs sung by women (hit me up for a whole ‘nuther story about that, Variety!), the unstoppable contagion of “You Oughta Know” across every radio format, including modern rock, meant the unceremonious death of radio dreams for most female rock artists and bands in the Summer and Fall of 1995. The End.

Just kidding — it wasn’t the end. As with most events of cultural importance, we don’t know their nature or true impact of until later. While the internet assists the loudest among us in amplifying impulsive rushes to judgement, time and context will always provide a broader canvas. Sometimes the real conversation involves both.

In the case of Alanis and her “Jagged Little Pill,” a relatively empty story published on the popular website Jezebel means we all get to have a Twitter-detonating, outrage-machine-feeding discourse about this significant work just shy of the album’s 24th birthday. It’s relevant to our collective interest.

To clear the decks of any appearance of impure motives, the spoiler is that my career survived — not so much in a rock star way (except for my attitude), but in a way that allows me to write music all day, every day, in relative anonymity while collecting a paycheck. So what I’m saying is, no harm no foul, Alanis. We’re good.

I will now tell you some of the things I said out loud about the woman (Alanis), the single (“You Oughta Know”), and the album in 1995 as all three were conspiring to dominate the global soundtrack and visual landscape:

“Pfffft… she’s a Canadian child actor, you know.”

“Pffft… [producer/cowriter] Glen Ballard wrote all of this.”

“Well, there goes modern rock radio.”

“I can’t believe people are buying this fake angst bullshit.”

“Bitch needs a thesaurus.”

“Bitch needs a dictionary.”

“Bitch needs a haircut.”

“PFFFT…!!!!!”

And now I’ll tell you how I felt:  jealous.

I wasn’t jealous for the reasons you might think. I was happy to cede whatever right I thought I had to be the next big thing. As a matter of pure careerism, I was playing t-ball and she was a Silver Slugger. How could I compete? Did I even want to compete? I didn’t.

No. My jealousy was about something far more threatening to me. Alanis was fearless. She was brutally honest. She was telling stories from her life and daring us not to look away. Her singing was guttural, primal, unconventional, terrifying, real. Her descriptions of personal outrage were utterly fresh, her lyricized revenge, fist-pumping catharsis. Her bold use of language, even when she was shamed for her imprecision on “Ironic,” felt expansive and luxurious against the backdrop of increasingly lazy words-schmerds and jaded surrealisms.

I didn’t understand how to write the way Alanis was writing and I found her authenticity deeply upsetting. I had spent my entire life as an Irish Catholic girl from Boston, embarrassed by my feelings, doing whatever was necessary to mask them. I brought this mentality into my songwriting, inventing characters and scenarios, piling on metaphors, carefully embellishing the empty spots with stream-of-consciousness detours, all in the service of wanting you to sing along while diverting attention from the truth about myself. Then along comes this girl from out of nowhere, turning her whole life into Exhibit A, no matter how brash or embarrassing. People were connecting with her.

I had several critical epiphanies in 1995 but the uninvited shift in my perception — mostly about myself as a writer — that was caused by Alanis’ debut, totally knocked me off my axis.

All these years later, I know this was a good thing.

Okay, so what’s the point? Good question. Here goes: Thanks to the aforementioned and strangely infuriating essay titled “Jagged Little Pill Is Actually Very Bad???,” which was published this week on Jezebel, the internet went positively mental. The article triggered thousands of people to rain unrelenting hellfire upon its author, who had constructed her piece around the recent discovery that an important musical work beloved by her in adolescence had not held up well. As a newly enlightened JLP-debunker who had once been young and dumb enough to have had her life changed by it, she felt it necessary to share her sage insight with the world. Amazingly [spoiler alert!], HER HUSBAND KNEW THE ALBUM WAS SHITE ALL ALONG! We know this because in the first paragraph, the author describes how he voiced his condescension for the record and for her, his wife, as the result of her having left a vinyl edition of “Jagged Little Pill” that she wished to purchase in their shared Amazon cart.

From there, the author does nothing to repair her dented credibility, opting instead to traffic in unfortunate self-owns like comparing her teenage reactions to those of her uncomprehending toddler listening to Baby Shark or deferring to her husband’s superior taste in music and gadgets while seeming to develop no real taste of her own in the intervening 24 years between “Jagged Little Pill’s” release and last week.

I don’t fault anyone for outgrowing the music of their youth. I mean, having spent all of my teenage years in the ’80s, I have loved, sometimes lived for, tons of music that sounds awful now. Tangentially, I wouldn’t take issue with anyone who said they straight up can’t stand Alanis or her music. I get it. But neither of these premises anchor the author’s essay.

What pisses me off about the Jezebel piece is the arrogantly reductive re-framing of history and the baffling confidence with which the author is willing to invalidate and erase the opinions of her younger female self. All the while, the inference is clear that anyone continuing to like or respect this music must now be an idiot because apparently no other thoughts or experiences exist outside of her own.

The offensive idea that women’s voices — especially the groundbreaking, revolutionary ones, who leapt nearly impossible hurdles to break through the boys’ club scrum of 90’s rock radio — cannot simply be left to dissolve happily into the fabric of one’s personal experience, but should be aggressively disowned as the vapid blathering of an immature dilettante, makes me want to break things.

There is an endless panoply of judgements and impressions that rational people could claim about “JLP,” both positive and negative, and all be 100% correct. Trotting out dismissive nonsense like the “commercialization of Riot Grrrrl rage” only indicates that the author has paid zero attention to politics and popular culture since her emergence into young womanhood when the “weird, dirty, uncontainable girl just like me” breathed depth and meaning into her existence. Why not leave a space for that impact to maintain its resonance? Why drag a sweet memory out into the town square and shoot it in the head? Here’s an alternative: if you ever feel compelled to publicly express an unreasonable level of shame for having liked something that had (and may currently have) seismic importance to you and about 10-20 million other people, my brave advice? F—ing DON’T.

Let’s not be confused. The passage of time has made Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” more important, more biting, more provocative — not less.

And pro tip: don’t marry anyone who shits on the art you like.

The Actual End.

 

Besides being the frontperson for Letters to Cleo, which reformed for occasional live shows in 2016, Kay Hanley has developed a successful career writing and performing the themes for animated shows like “Doc McStuffins,” “Harvey Street Kids” and this year’s “DC Super Hero Girls: Sweet Justice.” She and writing partner Michelle Lewis are executive directors of Songwriters of North America, an organization of 200-plus professional tunesmiths that led the charge on the Music Modernization Act.

CREDIT: Variety

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