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A.R.T. Guide: A Shock to the System

MAY 11, 2018

Jagged Little Pill writer Diablo Cody reflects on the impact, and the influence, of the iconic album

I was sixteen years old the first time I heard the voice of Alanis Morissette. Well, technically that isn’t true—I grew up watching “You Can’t Do That on Television,” the Canadian kiddie show on which a young Alanis starred. But when I say “the voice of Alanis Morissette,” I’m not referring to the literal vibrations created by her laryngeal folds. I’m talking about the powerful and primal flow of essential Alanisness that is her legendary album, Jagged Little Pill. This was not just a collection of songs, you understand. This was a seismic event that shifted the plates of pop culture and redefined irony for a generation. Alanis Morissette, rock star, was more than a voice. She was a Voice.

It was 1995, and I was hanging out in my bedroom in Lemont, Illinois, a small town with nine churches and zero bookstores. I was listening to Q101, “Chicago’s Rock Alternative,” like I did every day after school. Though the grunge trend had expired like a tub of old yogurt, rock radio was still dominated by growling, lank-haired dudes with low-slung guitars and Big Muff distortion pedals. Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder had changed the game by championing feminist causes, but the rock scene in general still felt like the same old macho circlejerk it had been since forever. The “girl bands” that did get airplay at the time were all punk bravado and defiance—very necessary, but not always relatable to me as a vulnerable and confused Catholic girl who had SO MANY FEELINGS and was often afraid to express them. There was an Alanis-shaped hole in my heart; I just didn’t know it yet.

So there I was, in my bedroom, flipping through Sassy magazine and painting my nails with Wite-Out as I listened to the radio. As the song ended—let’s say it was “Cumbersome” by Seven Mary Three—the DJ broke in, sounding way more enthusiastic than usual. “I am so psyched to play this next song,” the DJ said—again, this type of editorializing was rare on Q101, a big corporate radio station. “It’s from a new singer named Alanis Morissette, and it’s going to blow your mind. Here’s ‘You Oughta Know.’”

Curiosity piqued, I twisted the volume knob on my Sony boombox. A trembling voice filled the room—not just a voice, but a Voice: Alanis’s brave, forceful, naked Voice revealing itself for the first time. It was an immediate shock to the system. After a parade of grunge singers cocooning themselves in flannel and mumbling purposely vague lyrics, here, at last, was someone ready to expose her soul. And “You Oughta Know” was just the beginning— the beginning of the beginning. As we would soon discover, there was so much more to this artist than just spite and rage; on Jagged Little Pill she revealed herself to be tender, spiritual, shameless, kindhearted, eternally questioning, and utterly assured all at once. Shockingly, Alanis was only nineteen years old when she wrote these songs with producer Glen Ballard—just a skip ahead of me, age-wise, but miles beyond in terms of artistic maturity.

Flash forward twenty-three years later: many other seminal 90s albums feel preserved in amber: beloved, certainly, but with their vitality confined to the era. But Jagged Little Pill, somehow, is more relevant than ever. It’s an album that tells us to wake up, “swallow it down,” and confront our fears. Most popular music encourages the pursuit of pleasure; Jagged Little Pill actually recommends discomfort. These songs suggest that we subject ourselves to that which hurts (and ultimately heals). That we debride our deepest wounds, even though the process itself can be excruciating. This type of therapeutic instruction continues to be a theme in Alanis’s music to this day, and yet somehow, her songs never feel gloomy or pedantic—actually, they feel euphoric. How?! It’s a miracle that Alanis performs over and over; no wonder Kevin Smith cast her as God in Dogma.

Jagged Little Pill was the soundtrack to my seventeenth summer and has become even more meaningful to me as I head into my forty-first. Back in 1995, I never could have imagined I’d someday be tasked with creating a narrative around Alanis’s incredible catalog of songs. Like the music itself, the job has been challenging bliss. Working on this show, I am often struck by how inherently theatrical the music is, even before it’s been rearranged for the theater. The romance, laughter, tears, sex, and loss are already there, embroidered into the lyrics and melodies. I am incredibly proud of my role as translator and midwife in this production. If I’m lucky, I’ll make one of my heroes proud in the process.

Diablo Cody is the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of films including Juno, Young Adult, Jennifer’s Body and Ricki and the Flash. She also created the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning series “United States of Tara” alongside Steven Spielberg, and the WGA-nominated series “One Mississippi” with Tig Notaro.

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