You’d be forgiven if you assumed that Jagged Little Pill was Alanis Morissette’s debut album. That record, released in the summer of 1995, introduced the world to an intense and moody poetess who used her music to channel dark rage and disappointment. The LP was a seminal work of art for angsty Gen Xers who related to her deeply personal songs of anger, frustration, resentment, and contempt. The album’s breakout hit, “You Oughta Know”, became an anthem for scorned women, with brutally honest lyrics about a woman’s outrage over a former lover. (Curiously, it’s rumored to be inspired by Morissette’s failed relationship with Full House comedian Dave Coulier.) Morissette instantly became a loud and distinctive new voice in music at a time when grunge was cresting and pop was going to make a mighty comeback. Morissette’s emotionally naked Jagged Little Pill was a defining moment for that period.
Because Morissette’s time as a performer before 1995 was largely unknown outside her native Canada, everyone seemed to think that Jagged Little Pill was her first album (and thus, a shockingly mature debut for a young artist). Even Grammy voters thought so, as they nominated her for Best New Artist in 1996 (which she ultimately lost to that other ’90s rock artifact, Hootie & the Blowfish). In actuality, Morissette’s first album came out four years earlier; simply titled Alanis, it saw the then 17-year-old Morissette debuting as a musician after her stint as a child star (her most famous appearance was in CTV’s You Can’t Do That on Television, which aired on Nickelodeon in the States).
The Alanis Morissette of Alanis is unrecognizable from the tormented troubadour who became a household name in 1995. From the minute the first track—”Feel Your Love”—blasts through the speakers, it’s clear that the post-grunge of Jagged Little Pill was a musical evolution. In 1991, Morissette was a dance-pop diva, courting a market dominated by teen pop stars like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany (both of whom Morissette cited as influences back then).
The era in which Morissette entered the music scene was led by mainstream pop musicians like Gloria Estefan, Whitney Houston, George Michael, and Paula Abdul. Dance-pop was entering a new decade after the synthy ’80s, where it smoothed out the subversive edges of New Wave and post-disco to appeal to radio stations and record buyers. Morissette was obviously looking to artists like Gibson and Abdul (particularly the latter) since her sound was also loosely influenced by New Jack Swing, a genre of urban dance music that producer Teddy Riley pioneered. By the late 1980s, dance-pop wasn’t just looking to disco and New Wave, but also hip-hop and R&B.
Collaborating with producer Leslie Howe, Morissette made a sizable dent in Canadian pop music with Alanis. The 10-track LP featured dance tunes and slow jams predominantly written by Morissette and Howe. A competently crafted record, Alanis will not go down in music history as an unheralded gem—the tunes are largely nondescript—but it is nonetheless an important record because it set the stage for one of the most extreme shifts in sound and persona that pop music has ever seen. Only a few years later, Morissette had seemingly banished the big-haired, shoulder-padded pop songbird of her early days as if she were a bad memory.
When watching the videos for Alanis’ singles, it’s clear that there is some cheese. Seemingly slathered with the trappings of 1990s-era camp, the songs and videos both tick off every box when it comes to dance music videos. For example, “Too Hot” finds Morissette dressed in a dapper in a boxy blazer (that is, when she’s not grooving in a motorcycle jacket in the black & white shots) and marching into a warehouse with an army of backup dancers to perform a routine of reasonably intricate choreography. (Morissette is a game hoofer, but she wasn’t keeping Janet Jackson up at night.) The song is thundering pop-funk-lite (very lite), with stabs of loud synths alongside chants and sampled voices of a DJ hyping the tune. It’s a dizzying salad of every dance-pop cliché.
Another video from Alanis, “Walk Away”, is notable because it features a handsome young up-and-coming actor named Matt LeBlanc. LeBlanc is dreaminess personified, with great hair falling just so over one eye. Like “Too Hot”, the song is somewhat standard-issue dance music, with an ebullient Morissette singing lustily over the clattering of the loud drum machines whilst vamping in the many costume changes.
However, the most noteworthy video is for “Feel Your Love”, during which Morissette comes perilously close to copyright infringement of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation-era work. In a vaguely industrial setting with splashes of blue and white light, Morissette wears an oversized black suit with linebacker shoulders and dances up a storm with military-style choreography that seems to be somewhat—let’s say inspired—by Jackson.
The rest of Alanis is not that much different from the singles. Some of the songs are just weird enough that they hint at some of the idiosyncratic rock star leanings of her Jagged Little Pill era. “Plastic” is a house-pop song with just enough queer wit that it could have been a camp classic. Elsewhere, the strangely disjointed funk of “Oh Yeah” features an affected, vocally mugging Morissette who starts off the song with the deliciously bizarre announcement: “My name is Alanis / I’m a white chick singer / The drums are a-smokin’ and so’s the bass”. These two songs manage to stand out amongst the bass-heavy dance-pop and indicate that even at 17, she had the inklings of the eccentric who became a superstar a mere five years later.
As many fans will profess, one of Jagged Little Pill’s most stirring things is Alanis Morissette’s voice. It’s a powerfully loud and keening howl that she rarely tries to keep in check, choosing instead to allow it to run roughshod over the songs’ melodies. She has a distinct phrasing that elongates and stretches vowels, such as on Jagged’s second single, “Hand in My Pocket”, where she sings the steady verses with the slightest hint of a hoot that embellishes the end of every line of her delivery. Likewise, give “Ironic” a spin to hear Morissette using her unique instrument to outsing the crashing wall of guitars on the song’s catchy chorus. (Despite the self-conscious ‘alt-rock’ qualities of Jagged, producer Glen Ballard does sweeten the songs with a subtle pop sheen.)
But on Alanis, Morissette doesn’t yelp or yowl. After all, the songs are far too tightly arranged and produced to allow for Jagged‘s somewhat free and loose caterwauling. That said, her distinctive voice still comes through the crowded, loud instrumentation. Rather than possess the sweet, candy-coated pop trills of Debbie Gibson, Morissette has a darker and more muscular voice that barely flirts with an appealing shrillness. Despite Howe placing her voice in a multi-tracked environment, she manages to stand out. So, even though Alanis isn’t all that memorable or different, Alanis herself still is.
After Jagged Little Pill’s phenomenal success (over 33 million copies sold), Morissette’s dance diva past came to light, and it became a bit of a joke. So much so, in fact, that the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother spoofed Morissette’s past life as a teen-pop queen by making one of the show’s characters, Robin (Cobie Smulders), a former Canadian teen-pop star who attempts to go grunge when her pop career wanes. In the years after Jagged Little Pill, Morissette would continue to record alt-rock, but in 2005, Morissette made a glancing (and maybe affectionate?) nod to her dance-pop past by recording a cover of Seal’s club classic “Crazy” for her greatest hits collection (which did not include any singles from Alanis or its dance-pop sequel, 1992’s Now Is the Time)
Still, Alanis is an important record because it’s the first chapter of a long and interesting story of a brilliantly talented musician who left an incredible mark on her generation. It also illustrates arguably one of the starkest and most profound image changes ever in popular music. Though little more than an esoteric curio now, Alanis is a key album to note women’s autonomy in pop music. It demonstrates how much more creative and brave they become when they can wrest away from the prefab machinations of pop tunes factories.