Living and Learning: Alanis Morissette and carving out a space for women’s rage in the mainstream

Molly Tie continues her Music Herstory series

When we think of all the ways that women are pigeonholed and silenced in society, one of the cunning ways in which women’s voices get diluted is by disapproving of our anger and rage. Think about how women’s anger is often portrayed: it is rebranded as hysteria, psycho behaviour, shrill or unfeminine. The insidious impact of this is to create a society where women feel unable or unwilling to express their true feelings; because rage will sooner or later be one of the feelings we want to express.

There have been many artists across different genres who have sought to challenge this status quo: from the aggressive heroines of the punk movement, through to the slightly quieter but still as biting political activism of folk stars. But there is one particular cohort of artists – and one particular artist from this group – who mainstreamed and validated women’s anger. That group of artists is the female singer-songwriters of the 1990s and the artist we are going to look at now is Alanis Morissette.

The 1990s was an incredible decade for music and for female artists in particular. There were girl bands: TLC, Spice Girls, En Vogue. There were divas: Mariah, Kylie, Whitney. And then there was the ‘Lilith Fair network’: solo singer-songwriters who penned and performed emotional, angsty ballads and pop songs, many of whom achieved incredible success. We all remember the names: Tori Amos, Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Fiona Apple… the charts were dominated by songs such as Cornflake Girl, Building a Mystery and Criminal. The female experience was thrust into the face of every MTV viewer. But Alanis Morissette was the one who was catapulted to the top of that pile thanks to the phenomenal success of her 1995 album Jagged Little Pill and its most notorious single You Oughta Know. But who is Alanis?

Where did she come from, where did she go?

And why did she write, You Oughta Know? (Sing this to the tune of Cotton Eye Joe please).

Morissette was born in Canada in 1974 and played piano as a child. Her first album Alanis was released in 1991 although it was only released domestically in Canada. Her first two albums – 1992’s Now Is the Time being her second album – are both more pop/dance inspired than her later offerings. It wasn’t until her third album and international debut Jagged Little Pill was released in 1995, that the transition to rock chick was complete.

Jagged Little Pill is an incredible work of art, riding the full range of emotions from the obvious hurt and anger of You Oughta Know to the rather sweet love song Head Over Feet, to the affirming and triumphant Hand In My Pocket. There is a palpable sense of shame and dread in Forgiven, this track showcasing Morissette’s incredible voice more than any other track on the album. It also gave her one of her biggest hits- Ironic. And yes, she did get the definition of the word ironic wrong- is that ironic in itself? Was the whole track more meta than we thought? I personally think it is another fabulous example of Morissette articulating rage because I tell you now, if I had 10,000 spoons but not one knife, I would be confused and livid in equal measures. The album was a phenomenal success; it sold 16 million copies in the US and 33 million worldwide which made it the second biggest-selling album by a female artist (Shania Twain takes the top spot).

The lead single from the album, You Oughta Know, is a feminist anthem. Filled with righteous indignation, recrimination, and raw vulnerability, it is not the sugar coated I’ll-do-better-without-you break up song, nor is it the ‘please-take-me-back’ sort either. It captures the messy, unsettling, and obsessive nature of a bad break up and the complicated impact of not having any closure and nowhere to channel your latent anger. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Since the success of Jagged Little Pill, Alanis has continued to enjoy commercial and critical success. In 1998 she released Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie– an album that didn’t quite have the same commercial success as JLP but its even more personal and confessional style won over critics.

Morissette has released 8 studio albums and her latest offering in 2020 – Such Pretty Forks in the Road (released in July) – will be number 9. Her confessional style continues; she has teased some details about songs on the new album with topics ranging from her experience with post-partum depression to more wider meditations on the current state of the patriarchy.

Alanis has other ventures as well as her music. She had a podcast entitled Conversation with Alanis Morissette in which she discusses various topics such as psychology, spirituality, music, and art. There is also a Jagged Little Pill musical, based on the album of the same name. The show does not shy away from difficult subjects: it runs the gamut of issues from drug addiction to sexual assault.

Alanis has been very forthcoming about her battles with issues such as depression and eating disorders. She has recovered from these issues and is very outspoken in raising awareness and funds for them; in 2009 she ran a marathon promoting awareness of the charity the National Eating Disorders Association.

Part of Morissette’s appeal to her generations of fans is her personal-confession style of song writing. She has documented her struggles with mental health and relationship breakdowns in a way that doesn’t shy away from the very real impacts of these issues on those experiencing them, making her a somewhat reluctant role model and feminist icon for nearly 30 years.

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