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22 December 2016

25 years on, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill still articulates my teenage shame and loathing

By Kelly Welles

Despite having sold more than 30 million copies since its release, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill remains a surprisingly divisive album.

On the one hand you have the likes of me. In 1995, I was in my late teens and had, up until that point, understood feminism to be a mysterious sect seeking to eradicate men, femininity and make-up from the face of the earth. I was in a heavily frequented but largely unacknowledged place; filled with shame and loathing, and unable to articulate the confusion of simply being.

But Jagged Little Pill articulated it for me. “Does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you died / ‘Til you died, but you’re still alive,” she sang. “How long before you screw it up / How many times do I have to tell you to hurry up / With everything I do for you / the least you can do is keep quiet”. I let those words lie in clumps on my bedroom floor for months, examining them from all angles. When those closest to me couldn’t understand what I was feeling, how did this woman? Why was she allowed to shout?

On the other hand, though, there were the likes of my mostly male colleagues at HMV, who in the fashion of the time showed their contempt by dismissing Morissette as a bunny boiler and bitterly complaining of squawking while the album was on heavy rotation. But the record company realised it was onto a winner with this “another angry woman” motif, and released six singles from it, so the squawking was to endure for at least 18 months. Morissette’s place in the pantheon of disdain was assured.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when I read an article on Jezebel describing the album as “‘Baby Shark’ for mid-’90s angsty tween girls”. Fair enough. People are entitled to be completely wrong in their opinions without being abused for it.

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But I thought I’d already heard it all when it came to “the Alan Morrison” record, as it was once described to me by a baffled pensioner clutching a bit of paper. The snide remarks about over-production, when DIY was de rigueur. Morissette’s dismissal as the plaything of a rich music mogul, or the mainstream’s attempt to monetise the Riot Grrrl movement. These were all tools to efficiently deconstruct and disseminate one woman’s experience into manageable chunks, at a time when the world wasn’t ready or interested to deal with the ramifications.

To hear the same sort of comments repeated today, in a world of #MeToo and #TimesUp, was startling.

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It would be unusual for words to retain their visceral power after 24 years. But since the author of the piece goes to some effort to describe a happy, aspirational lifestyle, before expressing disappointment that she no longer feels the intensity of those words, I want to counter by saying that I do. So do many others. In 1995, I was unable and unwilling to articulate the fomenting guilt, disgust and shame that I felt when adult men pushed up against me in corridors of the offices where I worked during the summer months of my teenage years. Or when they touched me or bought me flowers from garages, which they shoved into my hands. Or when they told me they’d hold me until they died but I saw them later, not holding me, yet most definitely still alive.

Those events are vivid in my mind to this day. Snapshots like those described by Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against Brett Kavanaugh. The only thing that comes close to countering the feelings they evoke is the empowerment and joy that still rises through my body like a raging fire when I hear Jagged Little Pill, one of the first mainstream records to acknowledge and rail against the silent conspiracy that existed in our culture until the New York Times’s piece about Harvey Weinstein tipped that first domino.

If it means nothing to you, that’s great. You’re lucky. But to dismiss it as affected, grating and corny is to dismiss the experience of thousands of women – something I thought that we had recently agreed to be a bad thing. 

Kelly Welles writes on feminism and football.