Falling Head Over Feet (All Over Again): ‘Jagged Little Pill’ And Her Hold On Me

 © Alanis Morrisette, 1995

By Neve Robinson

Warning: This is by no means a ‘professional’ article. It reads more like a personal essay. Die-hard avid Alanis fanclub members, please do tolerate my ramblings, there are some glimmers of Ms Morrissette in here, and not just my diary, honestly…

Recently, I revisited an album that I hadn’t listened to in eons. Do you ever have a record that you once played cover to cover, and you just one day abandoned, never really to be returned to again? Musical maturity seems to dictate that we don’t return to old favourites, that we seek the new, bold and exciting. This of course is completely fine – it’s what we’re all about on this blog, of course. But the nostalgia that ensued from my sitting down and relistening to this record in full was more blissful than even the most sparkling epiphany one experiences at new discoveries. The moment that I shuffled this on Spotify and let it flood gratefully into my auditory nerves, illuminating my ear canals with glorious rainbows and celestial seas…God, I’m even drifting off dreamily into this sentence as Mary Jane plays from my battered soundsystem. I can’t even tell you the incredible contentedness that en-swathed me. I had, within about ten minutes, opened up Ebay, purchased a vinyl copy of this record, and in another tab opened up Google Docs to pen this very article you are currently privy to. The sense of urgency that this rediscovery inspired in me was remarkable. I suppose it is because it is an album that is nothing short of remarkable. This is an album that resonated with me in my youth. An album that, at that juncture of my life, seemed to mainly appeal to my general teenage angst, but upon relisten has touched me in a totally different. That album is of course, Jagged Little Pill, by the imitable Alanis Morrissette. I’m going to link it below. I want you to shuffle it, or at the very least start from the start. Press play, now. I’m hoping I can express my feelings about this record successfully enough that you will begin to see what I mean.

I was putting together a radio show, a show that focused on the year of 1995 (you can listen to it here, for contextual purposes in relation to this article and not for reasons of self-promotion, of course). Having to favour the cleaner-cut side of ’95, my hip-hop choices were slim to none due to the cursed claws of censorship, and I didn’t want to rely solely on Britpop offerings (I am a musical Mancunian cliche, but not that much, honest). I decided to delve more into alt-rock, and then I had that realisation – of course! Alanis! How could I forget her? She was once a dear companion of mine.

When I was about 14, I went through a slightly difficult part of my life. My friends became sparse and few and far between all of a sudden. I had to work myself out a lot. It’s a strangely formative age, being 14. You’re a teenager, certainly, but not quite old enough to do daring things you’d seen the teenagers in Hollyoaks do. I longed for the normal things all 14 year olds do, really. To be pretty (I struggled with this a lot, I wish I could give little me a big squeeze). To kiss a boy (turns out it’s not all it’s hyped up to be). To have legions of loving mates (this eventually sort of happened, but it took me some time, trust me). I was a lanky emo with braces and cripplingly low self-esteem. I was sweet, though. Naive, but sweet. I was finding figuring myself out a little more difficult than I’d initially anticipated. How did I want to present myself? What kind of people did I want to surround myself with? It’s all well and good having an incredibly loving and supporting family who adore you unconditionally, but trying to navigate high school where nobody has to like you and in fact, not many people do? It’s a whole different ball park. I had a real journey of independence to embark on, and by God, was I going to do it. It was either succumb to shyness and self-doubt, or come out of my shell, and be who I had long-romanticised myself to be. I decided to throw myself into creative endeavours and hope that somehow, the world would maybe start working out in my favour – and that perhaps the girls in the P.E queue for rounders bats would stop kicking the back of my legs and verbally pondering my sexuality. They never quite got it right. I wonder what guess they would hazard now.

Slowly, it worked, and my confidence built up. Though I no longer play and lost interest in the craft with age, I played guitar at this time. I didn’t reckon myself to be very good, but I enjoyed it. My dad taught me bar chords and songs that I liked, while I did scales and boring paint-by-numbers Classical Guitar at school. My guitar teacher at school was a bit dull to say the least, and didn’t really want me to tackle more contemporary stuff. But the one thing he did bring me, the one pivotal album he taught me pretty much in full? Jagged Little Pill. This guy was obsessed with Alanis. I’m talking borderline Stan and Slim Shady level. I’ve been lucky to have had the most fortunate of musical educations and upbringings, and yet I didn’t even know who she was before our lessons. My guitar teacher had a specific songbook for the album, and he lent it to me. I’ve always been one for words. I remember poring over the lyrics, marvelling in how this woman that I hadn’t even known existed was somehow opening my mind to experiences and opinions that I either already had, or would go on to have as I grew. The way that she responded to things that I struggled with intrigued me. She was defiant, she was boisterous, she was angry. Her self-worth and respect are evident throughout the record, not just in the way that men treat her, but in the way that society does. A young woman with such a grasp and perspective on herself was, to a lost young lady such as myself, so revolutionary and a breath of fresh air. I had previously aligned myself with musicians who were wracked with self loathing. I guess that’s the allure of being an emo when you’re that age, a strange sense of community. But Alanis immediately made me want to break away from these negative notions I’d long harboured about myself. Within a month or so, my mum had bought me the CD and I had played it until it was adorned with sparkling scratches. I had officially become entangled in the Canadian songstress’ web, and she had become entangled in mine, without ever knowing.

You know that old chestnut, where people say to [insert fairly run-of-the-mill mediocre musician] – “your music saved me”. I finally understood this sentiment. Sure, it can seem silly, cringe or even trite to the more cynical among us. But if words and melodies inspire you, if they offer you support when you’re a bit lonely and don’t really have the comfort of anything else, and really if they spur you to positively grow and adapt? Well, I don’t think it’s a bad assessment to make at all. I don’t think it’s unrealistic, either. Who are we to criticise someone’s bond and personal connection with an artist, even if nobody else really understands it? It’s a plight I empathise with hugely, because I truly do maintain that this album did save me. I slowly but surely came out of my shell. I think on reflection that school and the strange ideals young women are pressured into from a young age really instilled a strange toxic dislike of other girls in me, almost an ugly resentment of girls that I felt were prettier than me and more popular than me. I didn’t understand that we could all be pretty and popular, duh. It’s not a competition. I also think I maybe associated the validation of having a boyfriend with loving yourself and appreciating your quirks far too much, be this from (again) the influence of wider pop culture or just a socialisation thing. I think what I didn’t understand most of all that really, I didn’t need to fully work out my personality just yet to be happy. Everyone has multiple facets of themselves, some parts you will dislike, and some parts that you will love. It’s all about working out a balance that makes you happy. I think Hand In My Pocket really reinforced that for me –

I’m broke, but I’m happy
I’m poor, but I’m kind
I’m short, but I’m healthy, yeah
I’m high, but I’m grounded
I’m sane, but I’m overwhelmed
I’m lost, but I’m hopeful, baby
.

She acknowledged the good and the bad and accepted all of it and everything in between. Because as she said:

What it all boils down to / is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet.

And that’s exactly it. Why should I, a literal child, have panicked and agonised that I hadn’t worked myself out yet? Why was that a thing? It’s messed up how that’s a thing. Alanis taught me to be care-free, to not worry so much what other people thought of me, and most of all to be happy in myself. That summer, soundtracked by my faithful iPod Nano with JLP loaded onto it, I started to connect with people that really made me feel good about myself. I found a bravery that hadn’t really existed before. It goes hand in hand with a heightened self-worth, that. I made one lovely friend in particular who I would listen to Jagged Little Pill with in her attic, feet against the bedframe with our long tangled hair splayed across the carpet with Ironic blasting. I started acting properly, something I’d always felt too scared to do. And it was the strangest thing. As my confidence blossomed and I started making decisions that were truly for my own self-preservation and not out of fear of fitting in, my jealousy, resentment and bitterness against other girls in my class started to dissipate. That’s the thing about Alanis. Her plight for self-love is never at the expense of others. It’s never about tearing peers or other women down, not even when she’s angry like in You Oughta Know. Her feminism was different to the ‘feminism’ I had prescribed to from young-adult gossip magazines – the “hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend” rhetoric (sorry Avril). With my new found friends and self-assured nature, I slowly stopped being bullied and stopped using music as the heavy, heavy emotional crutch I had used it for in those difficult times. I traded it instead for merely a tool for enjoyment now and then. Alanis was pushed to the back of my memory, and I moved on in my musical journey, eating up new artists and interests with every year that passed. But I never forgot the impact that she had on me, or the way that I saw things at that point in my life. You don’t ever truly forget something like that.

So, fast forward to now. Fast forward to the moment that I sat down, pressed play on JLP and felt a swell in my chest and tears prick at my eyes. God, I sound lame. I’d like to blame this sudden serge of emotion on lockdown, I’d like to blame it on the current difficulties in my personal life and mental health. But really, I think it was more just the shock of it. I’ve been in a slump as of late. Low in self-esteem, low in validation, let down by failed romantic endeavours and friends who frittered away. I’ve almost felt in a similar state to how I did all those years ago, but with more pals, better hair and less eyeliner. To be really honest with you, dear readers, I’m worried that I’m losing my confidence and crumbling away. I don’t feel a particular warmth or love for myself that I possessed as recently as a few weeks ago. That’s the thing with self-love, it fluctuates. And you sometimes need a nudge to get you back on track with it. When I let her words wash over me just now, I heard exactly what I needed to hear. Not The Doctor. It’s strange to have lyrics resonate with you in a completely different way than they did when you first heard them. Alanis wrote this record when she was 20/21 (which in itself is baffling). As a 22 year old young woman, I’m now finding that the lyrics are more relatable than ever. Back when I was 14, I modelled myself on Alanis certainly, but I was yet to experience many of the things that she sings about particularly relationship-wise. But now that I’m at exactly the point that she was at, with many a failed relationship under my belt, I empathise and relate with her lyrics and musings moreso. I use Not The Doctor as a key example of this because it is almost exactly how I would summarise my opinions on recent relationships. There’s a plethora of songs about love and heartbreak out there. But for me, this song is different. This is a song that, were I a gifted Bernie Taupin type, I would write myself now.

I don’t wanna be adored for what I merely represent to you. I often battle with this sensation. That men merely romanticise me, and the moment that they realise that I’m actually just a mess of multiple facets of a personality rather than an idea they disappear.

I don’t wanna be your mother / I didn’t carry you in my womb for nine months. I’ve dated many a man who I have babied, and admittedly lost myself completely in because of this bizarre maternal sense I feel in caring for them.

And I don’t wanna be your other half / I believe that one and one make two. That’s my dilemna now. Trying to rebuild myself without this structure of essentially being ‘part’ of someone else. It’s difficult. It’s weird. I can’t help but feel I shouldn’t even have to relocate myself in the first place.

I could go on analysing all day. I just find it incredible, how so many different feelings and attachments to this record have been inspired in me upon listening with a more mature ear. I understand things I never did. I first listened to this record as a little mouse of a girl. I listen to it now as a strong, self-assured woman going through a rough patch. I feel proud of the journey that Alanis and this album have helped me to embark upon and how far we’ve come together.

Enough about the personal connection, though. Factually speaking, this record is genius. It dabbles in a myriad of genres, spanning post-grunge, alternative rock, folk, indie. Vocally, she more than impresses, with a voice that beggars belief that it is coming out of such a young woman. It’s cohesive, and virtually no track is skippable. She explores addiction, heartbreak, It was nominated for NINE, yes, NINE Grammy Awards. And once again, I reiterate – TWENTY-ONE YEARS OF AGE! I grilled a pizza this evening by putting the oven on the wrong setting. It’s funny how usefully others can utilise their short time on this Earth, isn’t it? It’s even been adapted into a Broadway musical that’s been nominated for FIFTEEN Tony Awards. You don’t need to do the maths. Jagged Little Pill is something special. Her exploration of emotions and truths that she realises throughout the tracks reminds me of the songcraft of artists like Carole King. Her emotional maturity and sensibility helped me and has probably helped countless other little girls in the world. I feel privleged to have had her be so pivotal in my own personal growth. Even young starlets who would grow to be some of the biggest artists in the world felt that inspiration, too – Katy Perry said of the record that “Jagged Little Pill was the most perfect female record ever made.” She said that she related to every track. “They’re still so timeless.” Perry has hit the nail on the head there. Timeless. For a record to have this profound effect on me so many years on confirms one thing clearly to me – this record will always be everpresent in my life. No matter how long I leave her unplayed, she’s something special, and she’ll always be waiting for when I need her.

Alanis Morrissette thank you for your honest lyrics and always being the most wonderful role model. Here’s one thing You Oughta Know – Jagged Little Pill changed my life, babe. I hope you know how many other young girls’ lives you changed too. If I ever have a daughter, this will be the first album I’ll ever play for her, rest assured.