The other day, my husband said to me, “I decided not to try to reason with you about buying Jagged Little Pill on vinyl and bought what was in our Amazon cart.” I gave him a pitying look and said, “It is an amazing album. You’ll see. You’ll see.”
My husband is the reason we have a record player in the first place, and the only reason we have albums by the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Miles Davis, and the Beach Boys. At this point, my contributions to our vinyl collection had been 2Pac’s All Eyes on Me and Rihanna’s Anti. My taste in music is pretty much either: What the cool kids were listening to back in middle school, or contemporary Top 40.
You see, I am exactly the kind of person who buys Jagged Little Pill on vinyl, and I am exactly the kind of person who buys records via Amazon Prime. (This Venn diagram overlaps completely.)
When that square-shaped Amazon package arrived one afternoon, I ripped it open and put it on immediately, feeling the thrill of nostalgic anticipation. This was more than two decades after I first listened to the album as a 12-year-old. I’d purchased the CD—at a Tower Records, no doubt—after seeing Alanis on MTV angrily stomping around in the desert for the “You Oughta Know” music video. I remember the shock of recognition at her long-ass tangly hair and spastic movements. She was a weird, dirty, uncontainable girl just like me.
That song channeled all of my simmering rage—at dickhead little boys, at puberty’s onslaught, and at the suffocating wave of feminine expectation about to wash right over me.
Needless to say, I was now, as I slipped the vinyl out of its sleeve, in a different era and life phase. I had long ago made it through puberty (although my simmering rage at feminine expectation continued). I was no longer listening on my beat-up Sony Discman, but rather a nostalgically reengineered record player. I had just picked up my toddler from daycare and was becoming the cliche parent imposing youthful cultural artifacts upon her offspring.
As soon as the trippy guitar and harmonica of “All I Really Want” kicked in, my toddler started dancing in stomping circles, and I felt briefly vindicated. “See! You already like it,” I exclaimed to this little human whose favorite song is “Baby Shark.” If I was honest, though, the bing-bing-bing of the electric guitar, the wobbly affectation of her voice, and the feeble lyrics (“Enough about me, let’s talk about you for a minute/Enough about you, let’s talk about life for a while”) had planted a seed of doubt.
Next was “You Oughta Know,” with its halting, haunting opening: “I. Want. You. To. Know. I’m. Hap-py. For. You.” When the electric guitar picked up and she wailed her, “You, you, you oughta know-ohh,” I cringed a little bit. What had once felt enlivening and validating now felt grating and corny. That electric guitar kept on clanging. Are electric guitars usually so... electric? I was finding it hard to think. Hard to be. Hard to exist. In the same room. As this music.
I turned down the volume. Then I checked the RPM on the record player, which my son often tweaks to humorous effect, but all was as it should be. AND YET IT WAS NOT. NOT AT ALL. Where was the album that I had loved so dearly and deeply?
When “Perfect,” a plain, earnest song about the pressure to be “good enough,” came on, I had a realization: Jagged Little Pill was “Baby Shark” for mid-’90s angsty tween girls. It spoke in the simplest language, literally and musically, to that particular psychological stage of development at that particular cultural moment. She was every bit the flip-sides of tender earnestness and fuck-you anger that is so quintessentially middle school. The song begins alongside some light guitar: “Sometimes is never quite enough/If you’re flawless, then you’ll win my love/Don’t forget to win first place/Don’t forget to keep that smile on your face.”
These are not profound lyrics. They are not timeless. But holy fuck did they speak to my sense of not being nearly good enough—according to boys, according to Seventeen, according to MTV spring break specials. Alanis was angry and unruly about not being good enough. She huffed real hard into her harmonica about it and filled me with “You go girl” feeling. The same was true with “I See Right Through You.” I saw right through-ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh the bullshit, too! (Side-note, for another day: Can we talk about the lyrics, “You took a long hard look at my ass and then played golf for a while”?)
It wasn’t even “Ironic,” and its infamous misuse of the word, that ultimately broke me. It was these lyrics: “You live/You learn/You love/You learn/You cry/You learn/You lose/You learn/You bleed/You learn/You scream/You learn.” I screamed. Oh did I. And then I texted my husband a mea culpa: “Jagged Little Pill is actually Very Bad.”
This feels like apostasy. Alanis has lived in my head for the past two decades as the artful embodiment of a powerful, unruly, inspiringly angry woman. The same year that I first listened to Jagged Little Pill, my dad took me to see her perform at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. We stood in the mosh pit, where plaid-wearing, twenty-something Cal students openly smoked pot, looking extremely impressed with themselves. Afterward, as the crowd poured out onto the street, Alanis’s white limo went driving by and I ran after her, screaming, as she lifted a single hand through the moon roof and waved (right at me, I was pretty sure).
She was a statement of possibility for my 12-year-old self, and for many other girls and women at the time. The album’s been called “a powerful, DIY feminist statement.” Some have asked whether it’s “the most feminist album of the ‘90s.” She was, as Allison Yarrow has argued, part of a crop of that era’s women rockers, including Fiona Apple and Meredith Brooks, who represented a commercialization of Riot Grrrl rage. The nostalgia for Jagged Little Pill is such that it’s soon to become a Broadway musical. This makes both Alanis and the album, which she co-wrote and recorded at the young age of 19, culturally significant—but it doesn’t make it good, timeless music.
And, needless to say, it doesn’t mean buy it on vinyl.