Think about ’90s music that changed the aural landscape and you probably think of a trio out of Seattle and an album of theirs with a swimming baby on the cover…or maybe Whitney Houston and her dog-scaring high notes on a song we looked at earlier this week. No question about it, Whitney had a huge hit just as Nirvana’s Nevermind was becoming huge, and changing the sound of the radio airwaves for years to come. It remains a short of shorthand representation of the entire decade now. But… “you oughta know” there was another album that sold more and perhaps shook up the music industry even more. And it was a big day for it, and its artist, Alanis Morissette 26 years ago.
Jagged Little Pill was certified diamond status in Canada on this day in 1996, diamond meaning 10X platinum. The first ever album to hit that mark in the Great White North was Saturday Night Fever in 1978. It had been a dramatic rocket to the top of the charts for the Ottawa singer who’d had a little – emphasis on little – success in her homeland a few years earlier as a teenybopper pop singer in the mode of Tiffany or Brandy. And like them, in the past she’d used only her first name.
But Alanis had matured, gone through a few bad relationships and found that she liked to rock a little. She signed with Madonna’s Maverick Records (a division of Warner Brothers) got super-producer Glen Ballard as well as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea and Dave Navarro to help her and had gone to L.A. to record. What she turned out arguably turned out to be the soundtrack to Gen X angst and “grrrl-power”. Much like Tears For Fears Songs from the Big Chair a decade earlier, Jagged Little Pill was like a trip to the psychiatrist’s couch on disc. Alanis covered dealt with everything from her seething rage at the ex who’d left her (“You Oughta Know”) to confusion (“Ironic”, which as many have pointed out, ironically details all sorts of things which really aren’t ironic at all in the lyrics) to come out with youthful optimism (“Hand in My Pocket”). The result was a power-pop masterpiece that captured the zeitgest of the decade perfectly. As Rolling Stone put it, Alanis created “the ’90s version of Carole King’s Tapestry – a woman using her plain soft rock voice to sift through the emotional wreckage of her youth.”
Released mid-June ’95, it had gone gold in Canada by August and knocked the Smashing Pumpkins out of the #1 spot on the album chart by November. After being replaced on top of the charts by The Beatles compilation Anthology I at Christmas time, it soon went back to #1 and ended up spending 21 weeks there in total. It kept selling and selling all through its second summer, and by fall ’96, was double diamond in Canada, one of only 12 albums ever to reach that level. Little wonder that, as it spawned four-straight #1 singles there – “Hand in my Pocket”, “Ironic”, “You Learn” and “Head Over Feet”, all following in the footsteps of the album’s anthem of anger, “You Oughta Know” which was a top 10 hit.
Now that in itself would be noteworthy, but of course Ms. Morissette’s popularity wasn’t confined to the land of Molsons and moose. The album did almost as well, as quickly in the U.S., spending a dozen weeks at #1, being the best-seller of ’96 and, at the time making her the youngest artist to have a diamond album there. she was 21 when she picked up that hardware. And the story was much the same around the world – it hit #1 in the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Belgium…seemingly almost everywhere they listen to pop music. When all was said and done it had sold 16 million in the U.S. and more than double that worldwide. It ended up being the third biggest album of the decade, globally, behind only two other female artists – Whitney Houston and her The Bodyguard and fellow Canuck Shania Twain’s Come on Over.
That last fact probably sums up the biggest change in music in the ’90s, bigger even than Kurt Cobain’s little band shaking up rock radio. While the previous two decades had seen some popular and big-selling female artists – Linda Ronstadt , Carole King and Olivia Newton-John in the ’70s, Madonna, Whitney and Pat Benatar in the ’80s for example – the music we listened to and bought was primarily male. And that would continue until Alanis unleashed her pent up anger and turned it into over 30 million albums and radio domination for better than a year. Before you knew it, radio – rock, alternative, country, pop – was falling over itself to promote new female artists and yet another Canadian lady, Sarah McLachlan, had begun what was briefly the hottest ticket on the concert market, Lilith Fair.
Maybe it’s “ironic”, but Morissette herself didn’t seem to benefit as much as many other artists from the change she helped bring about. While her follow-up, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sold about four million copies globally and topped North American charts, it was seen as a flop (one of only a handful of examples of a homegrown album that would be 4X platinum in Canada and not seen as “successful”) and she’s still recording, she never again had a mega-selling record nor a song that would be a virtual anthem for a generation. But singers ranging from Sia to Kacey Musgraves should all feel just a little bit grateful to Alanis for the time when she did. If you wish to revisit the age of angst and lumberjack shirts again, Alanis is doing a 25th Anniversary tour for Jagged Little Pill (it was scheduled to happen earlier but pushed back by the pandemic, hence the “odd” math) this summer, with a number of shows in Canada, and a few in England and the States. Most will be opened by a band with another fiery femme singer of the ’90s, Garbage.