You first see her adorably goofing around on an awkward children’s TV show, harmless and saccharine. Her albums are stuffed full of candy cotton, melt-in-your-mouth fluff, pop confection expertly crafted by the genre’s ageless machine of writers, producers and managers.
She is dying to escape, fighting to stay alive, drowning because no one wants to see anything but the kid she outgrew long before anyone thought her audience could handle it.
Lather, rinse, repeat: from Britney to Miley, this is the modern fable of a pop princess.
And then it explodes, sometimes brutally (Britney barefoot at the gas station), sometimes beautifully (Demi rising out of rehab like a skyscraper) -- but more often than not some messy combination of the two.
There were few role models for a successful “not a girl, not yet a woman” transition during the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, and only one clear superstar: Janet Jackson broke free of her infamous family, first as a teenager with the “if you’re nasty,” defiant Control and then a softer, sultry Herb Ritts-ified makeover with janet.
Then Alanis Morissette -- a polite young Canadian best known for cutesy skits on You Can’t Do That on Television and a couple of bubblegum records -- decided she had had just about enough of what everyone expected her to do.
She was sick of guys in the industry who were too busy looking at her body to listen to her ideas. She was totally over cheating ex-boyfriends who had found bland replacements. She wished nothing but the best for them both.
There was just one very important question to ask as she ditched her old image: “Is she perverted like me?” (Also a couple follow-ups: “Would she go down on you in a theater?” and “Are you thinking of me when you f**k her?”)
Jagged Little Pill, the album that changed everything for me and almost every other thirtysomething woman I know, came out 20 years ago -- the same week I graduated from high school, suddenly armed with a soundtrack-slash-survival guide to being a girl in the world.
“You Oughta Know,” Jagged’s first official, most shocking single, had been getting early radio play even in my hometown of Reno, Nev., a mid-sized market of missing-to-mediocre cultural taste.
“I just remember not wanting to stop until I wrote a record that really represented where I was at and all my humanity,”Morissette told ETonline. “I really did think I was the only human being on the planet going through whatever it was that I was going through at the time. So when people connected with it in the way they did, I felt less alone.”
I definitely felt less alone, driving down the street in my beat-up 1981 Toyota Celica, smoking clove cigarettes and screaming along. I hadn’t known before Alanis that women on the radio could be so angry. I didn’t realize that women on the radio could even get bleeped.
Admittedly, I wasn’t particularly cool: I listened to what MTV and the radio played me, which at that time was a lot of white boy grunge. Surly Seattle bands got close to what I was looking for, as a misfit adolescent -- but they were neverquite the right fit. I wouldn’t discover riot grrrl records until I went away to college, and I had no idea that beneath Reno’s seedy casino fronts was a genuine punk scene until I told someone where I grew up and they freaked out about the band 7 Seconds. That was all great news, eventually. But it didn’t help me at 13, or 15, or 18.
“There was a time during Jagged Little Pill's pre-release when radio stations would say, ‘We’re already playing a female,’” Morissette said. That’s despite the fact she was on Madonna’s label -- which for all Madonna obviously knew about making hits, few took seriously, either, at least until Jagged sold almost 19 million albums in a year. There were 15 weeks during which it moved at least 500,000 units. (Last year, only four albums cracked a million in total sales.) It was the number one album, numbers-wise, of the entire 1990s.
“It was a wave,” Morissette said modestly, “and I was on the crest.”
I love Alanis for making that album -- but she’s dead wrong about that part. She was the sound of the dam breaking.