How Alanis Morisette's Jagged Little Pill changed my life

The groundbreaking album is turning 20 this week. Here's what it meant to one young feminist.

Alanis Morrissette
(Image credit: AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber)

It was a set up for a laugh. In 2014's The Trip to Italy, Rob Brydon discover that the only CD he brought for his road trip with Steve Coogan is Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill. "You're kidding me," Coogan says.

But then a curious thing happens. As these two middle-aged men wind around the Italian countryside, they don't mock the lyrics; they start belting them out. And, as Morissette excavates her emotions, we realize how much digging Coogan and Brydon need to do into theirs. The scene helped send Jagged Little Pill back up the U.K.'s album charts last year, almost two decades after it was first released.

The fact that the album, which turns 20 this week, is a powerful antidote to ennui is something we 90s teenage girls knew quite well. Morissette was one of our generation's defining artists, one whose staccato singing and confessional lyrics came with a crucial message that many of us still carry: feel your feelings and feel them proudly.

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Jagged Little Pill was a departure from the shallow pop music of the 80s and the chilly detachment of early 90s grunge. It heralded in a new type of woman, one whose strength lied in her ability to mine her inner life without fear or shame. Morissette and her Lilith Fair playing contemporaries like Fiona Apple, Meredith Brooks, and Paula Cole, and predecessors like Liz Phair, were often pigeonholed by critics as angry young women, but we knew what they were doing was much bigger than just being pissed off.

Their moody ballads and feisty rants were a clarion call to take ourselves seriously, without irony or self-deprecation. It's this earnestness that I miss the most when I think back to my teenage years, the permission to believe we mattered, that it all mattered, and Morissette was right at the center of it.

Full disclosure: I did not like Jagged Little Pill when it first came out. I was your classic teenage contrarian, what kids today call a hater, and my logic was: If it's popular, it sucks. With time, though, Morissette's catchy lyrics and melodic howling got me.

Inspired to listen to it for the first time in a long while, I was surprised to find how well it has held up. The songs sounded fresh, the emotions raw. It felt really good. Sure, it was partly out of nostalgia, but also because the songwriting and singing is really rather tight. Malapropisms aside, "Ironic" still captured the melancholy of bad luck. "You Oughta Know" was a glorious outpouring of post-break-up bile. And "Hand in My Pocket" aptly celebrated the particular freedom one experiences when on the cusp of adulthood.

I'm in my mid-30s now, happily married, tethered to a child and a mortgage. But listening to this album reminded me that I haven't lost all of my 90s teen girl spirit after all. In fact, so much of what I chose to do for a living, which is write about my opinions and feelings, is rooted in the sincerity and edge of 90s music.

Those singer-songwriters took female subjectivity and put it front and center. Their stories, impressions, opinions, and even fashion choices (this was the era of the peculiar skirt over pants look) convinced me that my story could be the story too. And I should be the one to tell it.

I imagine that same goes for many of the women writers who, like me, got their start in the lady blogosphere, which is largely responsible for the feminist revival of the last half decade. Many of us came of age around the same time, and whether they were Sleater-Kinney, Ani DiFranco, or Morissette fans it doesn't matter, because the message was much the same.

"What it all comes down to" — to borrow a line from Morissette — is that we believe we matter, that it all matters. Even if, perhaps especially if, "no one's really got it figured out just yet."

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