‘Is she perverted like me?’: why Alanis Morissette is rock’s most outrageous rebel

Arwa Haider
A young Alanis Morissette performing in London in 1996, soon after Jagged Little Pill topped the charts - Reuters
A young Alanis Morissette performing in London in 1996, soon after Jagged Little Pill topped the charts - Reuters

A few months ago, just before “social distancing” became the norm, Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette played a captivating up-close-and-personal gig at London’s packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The acoustic set offered a glimpse of her ninth studio album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road – which is released today – but the main feature was a 25th anniversary recital of her breakthrough LP: 1995’s multi-platinum Jagged Little Pill, which won Morissette her first batch of Grammy awards, at just 21, and which recently inspired a Broadway musical.  

When you listen back to it now, Jagged Little Pill is vividly redolent of the mid-1990s. Its insistent, alt-rock anthems – Ironic, Hand in My Pocket, You Learn, the thrillingly furious You Oughta Know – became so ubiquitous, played everywhere from boho coffee shops to 24/7 music TV, that it seemed easy to take its rebellious power for granted. The same could be said for Morissette herself, whose fate was apparently sealed with a snappy-yet-dismissive Rolling Stone cover line in 1995: “Angry White Female”.  

In fact, Morissette was raising her voice about issues like female empowerment and mental wellbeing long before the mainstream was ready to have difficult conversations about them. She would spend a cool quarter-century asserting herself as mistress of her own fate, emoting hard while remaining remarkably good-natured. “I see anger as this gorgeous life force,” she told Vanity Fair in 2018. “It’s actually one of my favourite feelings, because it’s a catalyst.”  

Morissette emerged in this decade of creative ferment and musical crossovers – grunge, rave, R&B, hip hop and more – delivered with the kind of fervour that marks the end of a century, and major-label budgets that are now the stuff of dreams. The realisation that the 1990s was also a conflicted period – both wildly exciting and stiffly reactionary – is a tougher truth to swallow.

When Jagged Little Pill was released, I was a fledgling music journalist, in an industry that both obsessed over strong female voices and seemed utterly terrified of them en masse. (The same couldn’t be said for a steady succession of white rock-bloke cover stars.)  Morissette’s mezzo-soprano range and melodic hooks instantly stood out, as did her boldly sexual lyrics, particularly on the break-up put-downs of You Oughta Know: “An older version of me/ Is she perverted like me?/ Would she go down on you in a theatre?” 

The deftness of the writing was often glossed over in early reviews (or credited to her elder collaborator Glenn Ballard), subsumed by more salacious concerns. Was the song about her sitcom actor ex? Or someone else?  

The mainstream loved a bit of hedonism-as-titillation, but Morissette’s expressions seemed to be coming from a deeper, darker place. Retailers slapped “parental advisory” stickers on her CDs, and radio stations insisted on a censored edit; she was never precious about dealing with prudish playlist bosses – even removing the word “asshole” from her 2004 single Everything. But it was impossible to tone Morissette down.  

Back then, female artists were pitted as fierce rivals for the spotlight, rather than supportive peers; any woman seizing mainstream attention for more than a few moments was deemed “controversial” by default. For Jagged Little Pill, Morissette signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, with the latter superstar likening Morissette to her younger self: “Slightly awkward but extremely self-possessed… like anything’s possible”. Madonna would have empathised with many of the media tags that Morissette was being given – “kooky”, “crazy”, “angry” – though by the 1990s, she was dealing with her own career issues, including (in her late thirties!) ageism.  

Morissette was on her own – a fact on which she reflected in a Billboard interview late last year, when she added the industry title’s Women In Music Icon trophy to her awards cabinet. “There was a lot more isolation and misconception and competition and jealousy,” she admitted, speaking about her initial spell of fame. “I was still the woman doing the show at festivals around the planet with 16 male artists. It was awkward to figure out how I fit into the middle of that.”  

For all the acclaim, Morissette was frequently derided for her supposed 'over-sharing' - AP/Bebeto Matthews
For all the acclaim, Morissette was frequently derided for her supposed 'over-sharing' - AP/Bebeto Matthews

It’s easier to appreciate in hindsight that Morissette was a survivor before she’d even hit international attention. Her experience as a Canadian child star on the zany Nickleodeon show, You Can’t Do That on Television, and as a teen dance-pop starlet after that, has often been unearthed as a fun fact, or a means to mock her rock “authenticity”. (Music is meant to be transformative, but female artists are generally mistrusted for having any kind of past life – take the furore when it transpired that avant-garde Lady Gaga used to sing earnest piano ballads.)  

But those roles meant that Morissette was navigating adulation and vilification at a tender age – viewers who were jealous of her TV popularity would send her hate mail – as well as encountering the more disturbing aspects of the music industry. The latter details form some of Jagged Little Pill’s most lingering moments, notably on the track Right Through You: “You took me for a joke/ You took me for a child/ You took a long, hard look at my ass/ And then played golf for a while”.  

Morissette has often been derided for “over-sharing”, long before countless social media accounts were "spilling tea". Yet her candour in exploring vulnerabilities – eating disorders, sexual trauma, therapy – has proved her enduring strength. Her productions were far too immaculate to ever qualify as “riot grrrl”; she even released music through Starbucks for a while, which is as commercial as you can get (with a latte to go).  

Morissette on stage in 2002 - Getty
Morissette on stage in 2002 - Getty

Yet her awkward honesty made her a rebel leader, in a 1990s industry fixated with surface gloss. The unabashed empathy that was key to connecting with so many listeners, still feels just as liberating on Such Pretty Forks, from the deliciously wry Reasons I Drink to the revelation of Diagnosis, in which she confronts the post-partum depression she experienced after the birth of her third child. Even the album artwork sets the tone: she appears as an iridescent diva, though she still sings with an unmistakeable warmth, like a trusted confidante.  

In a recent interview on The Late Late Show with James Corden, she explained: “In writing about my human experience, it was giving permission in some way to those who were listening to have their own experience, and not apologise for anything like anger, or sadness, or depression, or mental challenges.”  

Despite her record sales and accolades, and her high-profile onscreen performances – she kissed Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, starred in Weeds, was cast as God in Kevin Smith’s satirical film Dogma – it feels like it’s taken 25 years for Morissette to receive full recognition as a trailblazer. Perhaps that’s because of the industry’s reluctance to face up to itself. Her much-mimicked video for her 1998 single Thank U was controversial at the time; she appears naked, on city streets and subway trains.

But, if anything, the most shocking thing was that it wasn’t striving to be conventionally sexy; it would have been far more acceptable to prime-time tastemakers if she’d been shaking her booty – which is exactly what she did a decade later, in the lo-fi vid for her splendidly angsty 2009 cover of the Black Eyed Peas’ song My Humps (its lyrics – “You love my laydeee lumps…” – served as a warbled lament). She deserves more appreciation for her sharp humour, as well as her humanity – not to mention her patient smiles through generations of mansplainers correcting her usage of “ironic”.   

She also deserves credit for consistently addressing industry abuse, well before the MeToo movement arrived. The track Reckoning is another stand-out on Such Pretty Forks, addressing both the victim who has silently suffered, and the predator who will finally get their comeuppance: “Hey hey you denier/ Finally everyone is gathering around me/ Now that we all know better, you’ll be haunted/ I hope you enjoy these drawings in your jail.”  

Morissette was an ally, protectively and creatively, before many of us realised it – though Beyoncé certainly seemed wise to the fact when she delivered her own powerful cover of You Oughta Know at her live shows in 2010. At 46, Morissette now seems settled into her own skin, but still sensitive to the elements and primed to tear things up. She proves that you might never grow out of your angry phase, but you can grow, exhilaratingly, through it. Rage becomes her.

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