Music The Audio

While the World Waits, “Jagged Little Pill” Becomes the Anthem of a Lost Generation

Released in 1995, the themes in "Jagged Little Pill" are just as relevant today.

Every generation has one: the album that is era-defining, that we look back at retrospectively in years to come. Released in 1995, Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill has experienced something of a revival thanks to re-releases and a new musical. Known for its frank and almost confrontal lyrics, as well as its grunge and rock vibes, the album made typical male “rockers” look almost uptight at its time of release. While the world is paused, waiting — “something’s gotta give” — Jagged Little Pill has become an anthem to a lost generation. 

Generations are often talked about in generalities and stereotypes, such as how millennials have apparently ruined all things bright and shiny with their love of avocado. (Spoiler: they haven’t.) However, outlets from BuzzFeed News to The Atlantic have pointed out that young adults in America have experienced a lifetime of crisis and a lack of stability. At age 21, in quarantine, and having grown up in the shadow of events such as 9/11, I can only agree. Quarantine has created a “lost generation,” as predicted by different experts — those who will have to deal with the impact of COVID-19 for a long time, and far longer than others.

But music is transplantable. Lyrics are personal to the songwriter, yet songs take on whole new meaning to wider audiences — and the songs in Jagged Little Pill hit differently today.

“All I Really Want” opens Jagged Little Pill. Distinctive from the get-go, thanks to the combined use of harmonica, thundering drum loops and acrobatic vocals, it speaks to a relationship gone wrong. You can almost hear the male speaker of the argument huffing, “How appropriate.” Morissette wishes to find “common ground.” Yet the track speaks to something higher, influenced by Morissette’s spirituality — we want to do better, to “hunt the hunter.” We are in pursuit of “some justice,” “deliverance,” the “intellectual intercourse.” Compared to pop singles of today, something Freddie Mercury worried about becoming “disposable,” the influence of spirituality adds a mark of distinction.

“You Oughta Know” is a classic song. Telling the story of a woman scorned, Morissette has lived and learnt (pun intended) while wishing the man to rue the day. (Because, after a breakup, we’re allowed to wallow, scream, and shout for a while.) Morissette is unlikely to go for “Mr. Duplicity” again — someone boring, self-serving. He can miss her, for all she cares. She is above this — the petty circumstance of just being an interruption “in the middle of dinner.” The undercurrent of aggression is almost a war cry. It’s a declaration of being against the world, a world that has chewed the generation up and spat it out.

When we are hopeful, “Hand in My Pocket” is the soundtrack we need. Akin to the pulse of gatherings — the friendliness, the we’re-all-in-this-together vibe, the connections, the humanity — we have to stay hopeful and upbeat. Quarantine has enforced this on us, to try to “make it” to the other side. The use of “everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine” is a mantra, the messages we tell ourselves to push forward, to push on. We “haven’t got it all figured out just yet,” and may not for a long time, as we are not yet aware of the long-term, economic consequences of COVID-19.

Feminism is also a huge influence in Jagged Little Pill. “Right Through You” has an angry burn to it, overlapped with a repeated chorus. The subject of the song objectifies the narrator, such as being unable to pronounce her name, but willing to take a “long hard look at my ass” and not hearing a “damn word I said.” The lyrics speak to an experience many women share — despite being in command, men still wish to hold their power. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern can set a picture-perfect example of how to lead the response to successfully eliminate COVID-19 while President Trump struggles to lead in the first place. So it goes.

“You Learn” and “Head Over Feet” ought to be paired together because of how alive they are; they speak to a zest for living, despite the dark background. (According to a review in The Cluster, “You Learn” was written in response to a robbery and the impact of being robbed at gunpoint.) The song uses the phrase “you live, you learn” and speaks to embracing life and experiencing all extremes — something which is relatable across generations. “Head Over Feet” speaks to a romantic love, one that is “healthy” and “rational.” A lost generation wants this, but is unlikely to attain this for a while in the traditional sense — that is, without social distancing.

The closing alternative version of “You Oughta Know” is the soundtrack for those born in the ‘90s, a philosophy that’s like a whisper on the wind. (It’s the Jimmy the Saint blend, and is far more aggressive than what we’d consider to be the original.) Remixed to include a fierce guitar riff, as well as emphasis on the drums, this song is a promise — a promise we keep to ourselves. It is permission to be angry, scorned, lost in a destabilized world. We are still here, to remind our leaders of “the mess you made.” It’s “not fair to deny me” the support we so need in a time of such unrest and economic instability.

In quarantine, that instability and sense of unknown unites us. Our unrest is shared, human — and as captured by the themes in Jagged Little Pill, felt across generations.

Lydia Wilkins is a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Readers Digest, The Metro, Refinery 29 and other places. She also used to be a columnist for The Mid Sussex Times. She writes a weekly newsletter for disabled freelancers. She also has Aspergers Syndrome.