The start of the 90s saw an ongoing tension between edgy – often dark – hard-rocking sounds, and the brighter, mainstream pop aesthetic. Industry expectations and marketing placed most female artists in the latter of these categories. But along came Alanis Morisette – confessional in her writing, raw in her authenticity; she not only changed the game for female artists, but also revolutionized a new post-grunge, hard-rocking sound. Coupling her experiences as a successful teen-idol with a deep desire to experience her own uncompromising artistic vision, she released one of the best selling albums of all time, Jagged Little Pill. The iconic 1995 album was announced with its revolutionary lead single – “You Oughta Know”
Alanis Morisette was born in Ottawa, Ontario Canada, and was surrounded by the support of her teacher-parents, Alan and Georgia, her older brother, Chad and her twin brother, Wade, as she was quickly drawn to the world of music and performance from a very young age. Part of her inspiration came from the Canadian folk duo Lindsay and Jacqui Morgan, who were close family friends of her parents. Seeing them perform for the very first time when she was just a little girl made a career in music seem like a real possibility. Alanis humbly explained: “A lot of people that age are just as capable of doing it as I was. But they may watch Carole King, and Carole King may not be a friend of the family. Whereas, with the Morgans doing it and being my parents’ best friends at the time, I thought it was something I could do.”
Her parents supported her as she declared and charted her own career path; before even finishing her first decade of life. She began piano and dance lessons, and started performing in local music, dance, and theater production – eventually gaining a spot on the Canadian TV show ‘You Can’t Do That on Television.’ At the age of 9, while on a family summer trip to Los Angeles, she tracked down the home of Olivia Newton-John, whose performance in the 1977 film Grease had mesmerized her from her very first viewing. She begged her parents to take her to see it. Once there, she marched right up to the entrance, buzzed the intercom and announced “Olivia? I don’t know if you can see me. But if you can, I’m going to be big like you someday.”
On her own, Alanis enlisted the help of the Morgans – sending them a cassette tape of recordings that she had made. Some were covers of the latest pop hits, like Madonna’s “Material Girl,” while others were her own, original compositions. The originals were full of thoughtful lyrics and romantic topics. When Lindsay Morgan asked the young Alanis where she got her ideas, she responded “certainly not from experience.”
Alanis had the remarkable, sponge-like ability of youth that soaked in all of the musical influences around her. However, her maturity allowed her to meaningfully process all of those ideas into something new. When the Morgans next came to visit her family, Lindsay helped Alanis record and produce her first demo – “Fate Stay with Me”.
While the song only gained local awareness, she signed a publishing contract with MCA Publishing, and in 1991 she released her debut album Alanis. The dance-pop album, produced by Leslie Howe, had two hit singles in Canada: “Too Hot” and “Feel Your Love.” Alanis quickly became a teen pop-star in Canada, and carried the momentum into 1992 with her second album, Now is the Time. While both of these albums made her a well-known name domestically, they weren’t even released outside of her home country.
Seeking new influences, ideas, and someone that she could collaborate with, Alanis first moved to Toronto where she was exposed to the alternative rock scene there. In 1994, she moved to Los Angeles. Alanis was looking for someone to collaborate with, but someone with whom she could express her own vision and voice. She told CNN in 2003: “I knew that I wouldn’t stop in terms of looking for someone to collaborate with until I felt like I was being myself. Whatever that was.” Soon after moving to LA, she was introduced to Glen Ballard and found that connection. Ballard explained: “We were laughing and having a cup of tea within five minutes. And ten minutes later, kind of diving into a creative no-man’s land, really.”
And the creative juices flowed freely. They easily found their groove as a songwriting partnership. Alanis wrote in 2015: “our roles quickly settled into their meant-to-be place for our collaboration. Glen and I writing the music together, me writing the lyrics at the same time, and glen producing up a storm. our songs took anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to write. there was nothing precious about our approach. but it was sacred to me.”
The album’s lead single “You Oughta Know” epitomized Alanis’ new post-grunge, alternative-rock sound and her departure from the teen-idol-pop of her first two albums. It revealed an emotionally-powerful songwriter and performer, who broke the mold about what a first single should be.
The song opens with a drastically unique sound – Alanis’s singular vocal sound against a snare shuffle. Faintly in the background you can hear the synthesizer building into the texture. The starkness of the instrumentation highlights the complete honesty and opening of the song’s lyrics. The song and its singer are now famous for expressing powerful (often angry) emotions, but on a first listening, audiences didn’t quite know what to expect as the opening lyrics began with a wish – “I want you to know, that I’m happy for you / I wish nothing but the best for you both” – full of her iconic mid-word interruptions and phrasings.
However, the song quickly shifts gears and it is clear that the song is detailing the powerful emotions of a scorned young lover. The lyrics hold nothing back, detailing specific moments of memory as well vengeful fantasies.
In addition to Alanis’ iconic vocals, “You Oughta Know” features a cast of incredible musicians. The organ part was recorded by Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s fame. The guitars were played by Dave Navarro and Glen Ballard. The guitars were a relatively new instrument for Glen who was also responsible for the keyboards and programming on the song. Matt Laug played drums on the song which was originally laid down alongside a bass part played by Lance Morrison. Later in the process, however, Flea was brought in to bring in his signature sound on bass for the track.
Alanis’ vocals for the song we recorded in just a couple takes (as were all her vocals for the album). They have a powerful authenticity about them which brings out the biting honesty in the lyrics.
These are lyrics that made some listeners uncomfortable – from explicit language to overt female sexuality. It was raw and it was edgy, and it was completely groundbreaking.
“You Oughta Know” and the rest of the Jagged Little Pill album was recorded at Westlake Studio in West Hollywood. Glen Ballard produced the album and Chris Fogel engineered and mixed it. There are actually two mixes on the album – one by Fogel and one called the “Jimmy the Saint Blend” which was originally used for the music video. Fogel’s mix was the one released as a single and later, replaced the “Jimmy the Saint Blend” on the music video.
“You Oughta Know” helped catapult the entire Jagged Little Pill album to tremendous commercial success. As a single, it hit number 1 on the Billboard US Alternative Airplay and number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. It peaked at 22 in the UK, and number 6 in Canada. It was nominated for 3 Grammys and won The Grammy awards for Best Rock Song and Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1996. It won the Juno award for Single of the Year.
Jagged Little Pill went on to hit the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200, along with the #1 spots in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Holland, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden and the UK, in addition to the top 10 in several other countries. It was nominated for 9 Grammy awards and won 5, including Album of the Year. It remains one of the best selling albums of all time.
When “You Oughta Know” and Jagged Little Pill came onto the scene in 1995, it transformed the rock music landscape, with its post-grunge, aggressive sound and brutally honest lyrics. It took the confessional honesty usually associated with a gentler, singer-songwriter sound and merged it with a raw and powerful edge. In doing so, it not only impacted its own immediate generation, but also inspired generations of songwriters and performers since, especially female artists who felt empowered by Alanis’ unapologetic and authentic performances.