Jagged Little Pill: An Ode to Alanis and Baby Grunge

je_alanis illustration

Emily Baron Cadloff @EmilyBat January 4, 2016

Illustration by N. Friesen

Everyone gets a couple of light bulb music moments. It’s the first time you hear something that matches the music inside your head. It makes you sit up and look around, wide-eyed, asking “who IS this?”

The light bulb was first lit up for me in early 1996, when I popped Jagged Little Pill into my Discman. The CD was the first I’d ever received as a gift, and I felt like the coolest tween ever (even though that word hadn’t been invented yet).

The guitar came in strong off the top of “All I Really Want,” followed by twanging harmonica.  Alanis’ nasally voice sang out viciously, passionately.

I was hooked.

I listened to the whole album, on repeat, for weeks. I stomped around my room in my Airwalks and wide-legged jeans. I sang along, pouring all my young angst into the songs. Did I understand what lyrics like “Did she go down on you in a theatre” meant? No. Did I ascribe too much meaning to phrases like “If only I could hunt the hunter?” Yes. Was I too young to get most of it? Absolutely. But it didn’t matter. This album spoke to me on a level I hadn’t yet experienced.

And I wasn’t the only one. Jagged Little Pill sold 33 million copies worldwide, and won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year.  Alanis was the first Canadian woman to sit on top of the Billboard 200 chart. But it also introduced a new generation of women and girls to a different kind of music.

Like Janis Joplin before her, Alanis wasn’t concerned about being pretty. Her vocals aren’t perfectly mastered, and she didn’t perform in sparkly crop tops. She was all flannel and greasy hair – and above all else, angry.

It was a revelation to me. At 11, I was a self-conscious mess of hormones and bad fashion sense. I wasn’t sure where I fit in the world, and while I knew I felt … something … but I couldn’t articulate what it was.

I knew it wasn’t fair that sometimes the boys in class got called on more. I knew it wasn’t okay that the pre-pubescent nerds who pulled my training bra strap would get away with it because “he just likes you!” (An aside: this sentiment needs to crawl in a cave and die. People who like you treat you well.)

But singing along to Jagged Little Pill was an outlet. I raged to “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic,” and “Right Through You.” I unloaded all the injustices of young woman-hood, and found a voice that was stronger and sharper than my own.  “You Learn” and “Not the Doctor” were softer and sweeter, but no less potent. I went from track to track, finding more conviction with each listen.

Eventually, I turned away from Alanis. Her followup, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, was just okay. Like the title, the songs were too wordy and pretentious. But through Alanis, I discovered the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (Flea and Dave Navarro played on “You Oughta Know”), eventually falling in love with Tragic Kingdom and worshipping at the altar of Gwen Stefani.

Jagged Little Pill turned on a light inside me that I didn’t know was there. Now 20 years later, if I catch a snippet of the album, I still snarl and sing along with the queen of Canadian alt-rock. And this time, I understand all the lyrics.

Emily Baron Cadloff is a television reporter/reader/writer/binge-watcher. Currently based in New Brunswick, she has lived all over Canada, and credits the Winnipeg Folk Festival with her love of Canadian music. She is always up for dessert.