By Casey Newton of Crumbler
Fifteen years ago, “You Oughta Know” turned Alanis Morissette into a pop icon. She couldn’t get away from it fast enough. Why?
As a girl who aspires to be famous, your basic path to riches has been clear since the days of Frankie and Annette. Start out on a children’s television show, sing your way onto the pop charts, and transition gracefully to the movies. With any luck your face will peer out from the cover of every magazine, your greatest-hits collection will hit stores the day you turn 19, and your virginity will be claimed by a Jonas brother.
But now is not the time to rest: You must grow up along with your fans, or they’ll lose interest. Starlets today understand this on a primal level. Look at them hustle! With the final season of Hannah Montana set to air this summer, Miley Cyrus threw a party in the U.S.A. and began starring in indie romances. Hilary Duff crapped out a Barbie doll, is playing the lead in a loose adaptation of Bonnie and Clyde, and will star in the forthcoming Provinces of Night, in which “Duff plays Raven Halfacre, the teenager daughter of a promiscuous, alcoholic mother.” It’s called staying relevant and you’re welcome. Why else do you think that Olsen Twin showed up smoking pot on Weeds? They may look cute today, but I assure you right now iCarly and Justin Bieber are sitting around wondering when to play heroin addicts in a remake of Trainspotting. A year? Six months?
Once upon a time in Canada, a starlet found herself in this exact predicament. Like Hilary and Miley she starred in a children’s television show, and gained a modicum of fame with a pair of dance-pop albums. Eager to break through to the next phase of her career, this starlet went to Los Angeles and hooked up with a producer known for his pop skills. (He had co-written “Man in the Mirror” for Michael Jackson.) A few months later she emerged with a song rather different than what she had sung before. The new one was a rock song, and its primary concerns included infidelity, sex in public, stalking, heartbreak and voodoo. It was called “You Oughta Know,” and it turned its creator, Alanis Morissette, into a pop icon. The record she released stands among the most successful reintroductions in pop history; Jagged Little Pill sold 33 million copies. (Post-Mouse Club Britney, by way of comparison, sold 25 million.)
It’s easy to take “You Oughta Know” for granted: The song has never really gone away. Every day, thousands of people sing it while playing Rock Band 2. The song is a karaoke staple. Foreign singers perform it without bothering to learn the lyrics. Straight guys perform it without bothering to change the pronouns. To my knowledge, it is the only song to be covered in concert by both Britney Spears and Beyonce. The song has become a kind of audio wallpaper; recently I heard it blaring from a corner cafe in Flagstaff, Ariz.
And yet the story of “You Oughta Know” turns out to be weirder than anyone gives it credit for. Almost as soon as this fire-breathing Alanis had emerged, she disappeared, quickly heading to India to find peace. The woman who came back was interested not in revenge but, as she would tell her audience on VH1 Storytellers, in “closure.” Morissette may continue to sing her signature song, but without the fire that animated it 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the Morissette of “You Oughta Know,” the woman who so famously refused to “fade as soon as you close your eyes,” has faded to the point of being forgotten.
“You Oughta Know” was first played by a DJ at Los Angeles’ KROQ, my radio station of choice in those days. It was half a lifetime ago, but I still remember hearing an early-evening interview with Morissette shortly after the song entered heavy rotation. The DJ was plainly dumbfounded that the former Nickelodeon star would sing about giving BJs at the movies, and he said so. As I recall, Morissette — who was all of 21 at the time — said simply that she wanted to write something honest.
She had good timing. Shocking though “You Oughta Know” was, it also fit firmly into the feminist tradition then ascendant in pop music. The year before had seen the release of Hole’s Live Through This and Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, both of which released singles into heavy rotation on alternative stations. In the musical underground, Liz Phair, Ani DiFranco and the riot grrrls were bubbling up to the surface. Rage was all the rage. Against a backdrop of “Doll Parts” and “Cornflake Girl” and Bikini Kill, “You Oughta Know” was one more cri de coeur from a powerful and unusual woman fronting a rock band.
The first thing that struck me about “You Oughta Know,” besides the unabashedly Canadian inflection in Morissette’s voice, was the way it captured the emotional rhythms of an argument. Over the course of a few words, Morissette goes from playful mocking to grave accusation. It mimics the way a person in a fight flails for any available weapon, so that the transcript reads like a series of non sequiturs. Thus “Would she go down on you in a theater?” leads directly into “I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother.” Anything to wound.
And yet for a song so famously furious, it’s worth noting that Morissette’s rebuke to her ex-boyfriend begins with an arch joke: “I want you to know / I’m happy for you / I wish nothing but / The best for you both.”
That kind of Hallmark greeting would have sounded sweet in 1995 emerging from the mouth of a Mariah Carey or Shania Twain. To Morissette it was a platitude to be mocked and set on fire. This helps explain why, years later, the song still sounds fresh to our ears: There is a playful quality to it that cuts against the anger and the bitterness.
The grammarians who spent 1995 chirping that Morissette didn’t know what “Ironic” meant would do well to revisit “You Oughta Know,” which exudes an irony that feels particular to the ’90s. You hear it when Morissette sings, “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.” (She is thrilled to bug him in the middle of dinner, to disturb his domestic tranquility.) You feel it when she notes dryly, “I’m not quite as well; I thought you should know.” (She knows he doesn’t care how she’s doing; the point is that he doesn’t care how she’s doing.)
Morissette’s ironic declarations do more than lighten the mood. They also reveal that the girl is self-aware — that she knows how she is supposed to feel (“I’m happy for you”) and what she is supposed to say (“I hate to bug you”) but happens not to care at all. One of many liberating things about the song is the way Morissette cuts through the bullshit endemic in post-breakup communication; she has come not to smooth things over but to tell the awful truth.
Her humor diminishes over the course of the song, as the wounds inflicted upon her by Mr. Duplicity upset her more and more. The build-up to the chorus has so many sharp reversals of thought and deft internal rhymes I am tempted to quote it in full. (By which I mean ‘sing it out loud while pounding on my desk.’) But instead I’ll just ask you to remember the first time you heard her catching her ex in that lie -– “Does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you died –- Till you died? –- but you’re still alive.”
I vividly recall hearing this line when I was 15, heading to Disneyland on a Friday night with a friend, and being fascinated by the idea you could hate someone so much that the mere fact of his continued existence could become a source of outrage. (The outrage made much more sense when we began hearing that the source of all this angst was that motherfucker Uncle Joey.) How exciting that someone could wrong you to the point you’d have no choice but to take to the airwaves and remind him of the mess he made when he went away. As the chorus went on, I nodded my head in sympathy with Morissette. Who was he to deny her the cross that she bore that he gave to her? And what did that mean, anyway?
By the time we get to that final bridge, the irony has disappeared. Her ex may have turned Morissette into a joke, but, she vows: “I’m not gonna fade as soon as you close your eyes.” And then that final piece of voodoo — “Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it — aw can you feel it?”
Suffice to say I felt it.
Overplayed though it may be, “You Oughta Know” is one of the great acts of revenge in pop music history. Having been fucked over, Morissette decides to fuck with. The point is not that her ex has to feel those finger scratches for the rest of his life, but that he has to listen to her. Who hasn’t wanted to take an ex to trial after a bad break-up, recounting for a jury all the crimes against humanity that transpired while it lasted? Morissette’s revenge was to take her case to the court of public opinion, and it ruled in her favor.
“You Oughta Know” marked the start of a meteoric ascent. Jagged Little Pill was the top-selling album every week for three months straight, and five of its tracks were hits – “Ironic” was the biggest, grammar Nazis be damned. By 1997 she had won four Grammys. Talk about head over feet.
Brian D. Johnson, writing in Maclean’s, summarized Morissette’s situation deftly.
“You are 23 years old and you have made the biggest-selling album ever recorded by a female singer. You have won four Grammys and six Junos. You have toured the world, and everywhere you go, from Milwaukee to Manila, you can hear echoes of your own voice raging from car radios. … Now everyone wants a piece of you but you desperately want to get away. And get real. Who you gonna call? Mother Teresa?”
As it turns out she did. Morissette was raised Catholic, and as she told Maclean’s, was planning a visit to Mother Teresa’s hospital in India. According to Morissette, she actually called Mother T. on the night before she died, but lost her nerve and wound up not speaking to her. In any case, later that year Morissette traveled to India with her mother, two aunts and two girlfriends. They spent six weeks there on what she would later call “the goddess trip.”
Morissette came back transformed, and you can hear it plainly in her work. Where she had once sought revenge, she now sought peace. In 1998, shortly after her return, she released something called Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie. It was, as the hive mind notes on Wikipedia, “an unusual project because it featured many songs with no hooks or choruses.” That’s one way of putting it. Also not featured on this record: irony, self-awareness, things you can ever imagine yourself saying aloud to another human being. Rhymes.
Morissette had experienced a spiritual awakening in India, and she was eager to share it. “Thank you India, thank you terror, thank you disillusionment,” went the odd refrain of “Thank U,” the lead single. A giddy letter home from camp written by a first-time Buddhist, the song goes on to discuss “getting off these antibiotics,” healthy eating habits, “remembering your divinity,” crying, and “not equating death with stopping.” It is clear there were parts of herself Morissette wanted to be done with: “How ’bout me not blaming you for everything?” she sings. “How ’bout how good it feels to finally forgive you?”
How ’bout keeping it to yourself, Oprah?
The hasty word vomit of “Thank U” is a masterpiece of self-control next to “Unsent,” a series of missives written to former lovers in an effort to reach that mythical 1998 destination, “closure.” Where to start. “Dear Terrance I love you muchly you’ve been nothing but open-hearted and emotionally available and supportive and nurturing and consummately there for me,” Morissette sings in “Unsent.” Or take Marcus. “You wouldn’t let me get away with kicking my own ass, but I could never really feel relaxed and looked-out-for around you though, and that stopped us from going any further than we did. And it’s kinda too bad because we could’ve had much more fun.”
It’s one thing to take a risk, but for long stretches Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is just Morissette thinking out loud. As an aesthetic project, “closure” is a non-starter – the conflict has, by definition, already concluded, and the only thing left to do is eulogize the corpse.
On Storytellers, Morissette explained why she ran away from the songwriting she did on Jagged Little Pill.
“In the past, something would happen to me and I would run somewhere and write about it and not necessarily talk to the person. It was very convenient. And it resulted in a lot of release, but not necessarily in a lot of closure.”
“Unsent,” she tells us, is about “the top five or six people I really wanted to have closure with.” She adds, “It was one of the most closure-inducing songs, to say the least.”
Morissette appears visibly relieved she doesn’t have to be the angry girl any more. It is unclear to me whether she realizes, at that moment, that she has chosen to abandon the part of herself that the world found most compelling. But we can scarcely act surprised that Morissette decided to transform herself after Jagged Little Pill. She had after all done it before.
In the years since SFIJ, Morissette has released three studio albums, none of which began to capture the public imagination like Jagged Little Pill. On its 10th anniversary she re-recorded it as an acoustic studio album, an appalling cash grab that offered tepid re-workings of her biggest hits. As re-recorded for the Starbucks set, “You Oughta Know” is a shadow of its old self. Vocally, Morissette treats the song as something to be tamed, made peace with, like an old lion living out its last days in her back yard.
Since those early days, Morissette’s highest-charting single has been “Hands Clean,” a creepy tale of being preyed upon by an older man early in her career. It’s not bad, really: Morissette stretches herself by telling the story from the man’s perspective, managing to empathize with him in some ways, and as a result the song comes across as thoughtful and even slightly provocative.
In the bridge “Hands Clean” she poses a couple of questions you might apply to her career since “You Oughta Know”:
“What part of our history’s reinvented, and under rug swept?
What part of your memory is selective and tends to forget?”
It’s not that I believe Morissette has forgotten “You Oughta Know,” or swept her old self under the rug entirely. But I do lament that the bold figure that song introduced us to spent so little time on the world stage before disappearing; and that her creator had to distance herself from that person literally, traveling to India in an effort to purge the demons that led her to write it. I regret that we have seen so little of the brainy, deadly Morissette, the one who had employed irony to such great effect.
That Morissette still exists. I know because I’ve seen her. On April 1, 2007, Morissette released without comment or fanfare her savage cover of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps.” The original is Stacy Ferguson’s pathetic exercise in self-objectification; Morissette teased out the desperation by singing her version mournfully over a simple piano backing. Implicit in her version was a critique of the song, and -– if I might be allowed to project a little -– of the hyper-sexualized pop landscape that has grown up since Morissette left it. It’s difficult to watch her take on “My Humps” without feeling somewhat nostalgic for the 1990s, when Courtney and Tori and the ladies from Lilith Fair posited a female existence predicated on something beyond raw sex appeal. That this Morissette was still alive and well and as smart as I’d hoped — it was closure-inducing, to say the least.
Upon seeing Morissette’s video, Fergie, for her part, is reported to have sent her impersonator a cake in the shape of an ass. But the damage was done; it was Fergie who was shown to be an ass. Once again, Morissette had revenged herself upon the culture. She cut through the bullshit and told the awful truth. Did the Black Eyed Peas really think they could get away with their idiocy forever? Fergie should have shut her mouth and kept that cake for herself. She oughta know.