'Jagged': 12 Things We Learned in New Alanis Morissette Documentary - Rolling Stone
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12 Things You Oughta Know About Alanis Morissette After Watching ‘Jagged’

HBO’s controversial new documentary retraces the early days of singer’s career, from her talent-show roots to global superstardom

Alanis Morissette while recording songs that would become the Jagged Little Pill album (circa 1994)Alanis Morissette while recording songs that would become the Jagged Little Pill album (circa 1994)

Alanis Morissette circa 1994, while recording songs that would become 'Jagged Little Pill.'

Glen Ballard/Courtesy of HBO

Do you remember Alanis Morissette? Not the Buddhism-practicing, essential-oil-mixing, Earth-mother figure we know today. The first Alanis Morissette. The one who threw on Adidas low-tops and an oversized T-shirt and thrashed her hip-length, un-straightened, un-blonde hair around any stage she could find while absolutely destroying a hook about how her whole purpose in life is to never let some guy forget what a prick bastard he is. That Alanis Morissette. 

That’s the one Jagged is concerned with, and man, is it nice to re-meet her. Focused first on Morissette’s time as a tween star in her home country of Canada, and then on the making and release a few years later of her breakout album, Jagged Little Pill, the documentary is a time capsule of the mid- to late-Nineties music scene — that brief sweet spot when Courtney Love and Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani and Alanis nudged their way into the boys’ clubs of alt-rock and grunge, no spray-on abs or push-up bras in sight. Charting Morissette’s explosive rise to fame, director Alison Klayman artfully stitches together archival footage and present-day interviews with several of the people who had a front-row seat to the phenomenon: the singer herself; her co-writer and producer, Glen Ballard; bandmates Taylor Hawkins and Chris Chaney; record executive Guy Oseary; childhood friends; and various music journalists and cultural critics. 

Of course, despite the massive success Jagged Little Pill became — it sold 33 million copies, making it the second-biggest-selling album by a female artist of all time — the album wasn’t received sexism-free. Even the cover stories and four-star reviews held their noses at the scent of Alanis’ so-called female rage (her first cover for this magazine, shown in the film, bore the line “Angry White Female”), resting their praise on a bed of skepticism and condescension. 

“Empowerment was exciting for a lot of people, but it was not good news for the patriarchy,” current-day Alanis says in the film. “All of a sudden I started naming it or singing about it — that was not welcome. If you spoke up you were just immediately shut down. And shamed.”

But Morissette took it all in stride for the times, decades before MeToo and Time’s Up; she saved her slings and arrows for her work. “When I write really angry songs about someone I’m not writing to get back at that person,” she explains in an archival interview. “I’m writing because it’s the only environment where I can get angry and not be destructive. It’s just an expression, unjudged, uncensored. It’s a very pure, sacred place to me.” 

So if you want to know about everything going on behind the scenes that made that album what it was — the creepy older producers and the abusive record-company execs and the horny bandmates and the young girl who was left to fend for herself in a very adult world — Jagged fills in some of the blanks. Here are 12 revelations from the film.

Alanis wrote her first song at 10 years old.
Around the same time that she booked a gig on the iconic kids’ show You Can’t Do That on Television, Alanis was discovering her voice — literally. A woman in church complimented her singing, and a light bulb went on. She started writing songs at 10, and by the time she was 12, she had recorded original tracks with titles like “Fate Stay With Me” (sample lyric: “When you left me I was thinking aloud, would there be no end to my sorrow?”) and “Find the Right Man.” Her performance of “Fate Stay With Me” earned her the grand prize at Canada’s Youth Talent Search in 1987, giving her “a vision for what was possible for the rest of my life.”

She developed an eating disorder at 15 after being pressured by music execs to lose weight.
Morissette recounts being tricked into an intervention by her producers and record-company executives after she’d hit puberty and begun to put on a little bit of weight. She was told to come to the studio to “redo [her] vocals,” but when she arrived, they confronted her about her looks.

From that point forward, her food intake was monitored and severely restricted. On video shoots, she says she would sneak Velveeta cheese slices from the fridge at 3 a.m., only to have one of her handlers (who the documentary strongly suggests was her first producer, Leslie Howe) count the slices the next morning. When they went out to dinner, she says, “he’d have a whole large-size pizza and I was allowed to buy a black coffee, but I couldn’t put milk in it.” Morissette became bulimic, which only her high-school friends addressed with her, not the adults around her. She says she is still in “active recovery” today. 

Fifteen was also the age at which she “really started to be hit on.”
A persistent theme in the film is how much time a teenage Alanis spent on her own in a world full of adults who were oblivious or benignly neglectful at best, predatory at worst (including an MCA Records executive who was known as “Uncle” John Alexander). “I was a young girl in a studio from 3:30 or 4 p.m. every day till three in the morning,” Alanis explains. “Y’know, you don’t leave her alone.” But the real problems didn’t start until she hit an age that seemed “safer” in the minds of people who wanted to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior. “Twelve, they were a little scared,” Alanis says. “Thirteen, they were a little scared but they’d still… y’know. Fourteen, less scary but still scary. Fifteen, all bets were off.” She describes reaching a stage where nearly every working relationship she had with a man would “go Dutch-angle,” and thinking that the changed dynamic was somehow her fault. “I would be like, ‘OK it won’t happen in the first week for this one, but it’ll happen.’ And then, sure enough, it would. And it would either end the relationship or there would just be some big secret that we’d keep forever.”

“On the one hand, it was the life of my dreams,” she adds of that time period. “On another hand it was like, ‘Where is my protection? Where is everybody?’”

She has a giant bag full of “letters to and from my ex-boyfriends.”
The bag is… quite large. It could fit a medium-sized child inside. It is in a storage locker. After briefly unzipping it, she says, “I need to sage myself tonight.”

The lyric “My sweater is on backwards and inside out” describes a real moment.
We know that Alanis wrote confessional lyrics ripped from her own life. But that doesn’t just go for kiss-offs to ex-lovers or paeans to India. The documentary kicks off, appropriately, where the album does, with a critic parsing the first words Alanis sings on the opening track, “All I Really Want”: “Do I stress you out?” (Spoiler alert: She did, in fact, stress some dudes out.) Later, the film teases out the second line of that song, conceived the moment Alanis walked into an L.A. studio for a final, Hail Mary writing session with Glen Ballard. The pair had co-written most of what would become Jagged Little Pill but were having no luck getting signed. Defeated, Morissette had retreated home to Canada for a time, and Ballard thought he’d never see her again; when she returned, she walked into the room looking “pale, rail-thin, and [with] her sweater on backwards and inside out,” Ballard says with a laugh. “Even though she’s suffering,” he recalls thinking, “she’s still got this thing.”

Alanis and Glen Ballard wrote 20 songs in just 20 sessions between February 1994 and February 1995 — 13 of which would go on to compose Jagged Little Pill.
Ballard, who prior to Alanis had worked with Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul, marvels throughout the film at the way Morissette “was able to turn phrases right out of her psyche.” Their process was fast: He’d play something on guitar, she would start writing, and eight hours later, he says, they’d have a track. Revealing that he was the only person pushing for “Ironic” — which became the album’s biggest hit — to make the final cut, Ballard raves about Alanis’ imagination: “For her to write ‘It’s like rain on your wedding day’… What a hook! I’m sorry, she just fucking nailed it. […] ‘Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife.’ Who comes up with that shit? Alanis.” 

The song that made Guy Oseary sign Alanis was “Perfect,” not “You Oughta Know.”
The ballad “Perfect,” about “the plight of the overachiever,” as Morissette describes it in the film, was the first song that she and Ballard played for a 19-year-old Oseary in Madonna’s Maverick Records offices. And though they had plenty more ready to cue up, there was no need. “Within 30 seconds, everything changed,” Oseary says. “I was already floored. I had not heard anything like it. The simplicity of the way she was able to narrate yet how complex it was at the same time. […] I said, I’m in. I didn’t have to hear anymore. ‘I love it, I’m all in.’”

She was held up at gunpoint right before meeting Madonna.
…and Madonna was jealous. (“I want to be held up at gunpoint, that’s just such a cool story.”)

A pre-Foo Fighters Taylor Hawkins was Alanis’ drummer, and she hired bassist Chris Chaney (who’s now in Jane’s Addiction) after mistakenly calling him for a tryout.
Hawkins — who appears, baby-faced and wiry, in copious concert footage from the Nineties — describes being called to audition for Alanis’ touring band. He got a cassette of three songs he was told to practice for the tryout, including “You Oughta Know” — “and that’s all you needed to hear. That’s gonna be fucking huge.” Hawkins also reveals that Morissette called back bassist Chris Chaney completely by accident. A jazz guitarist at the time, Chaney was a little confused by the music, so Hawkins gave him some tapes of Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction, and told him to “learn it, live it, love it.” Guitarists Nick Lashley and Jesse Tobias (who had played with the Red Hot Chili Peppers) rounded out the band. Asked if she could have put together a band of female musicians, Morissette says she’d had “challenges” with “women who wanted to be in my seat.” She adds, “There was a scarcity mentality at the time: ‘There can only be one.’ For me, hanging out with the guys was just easier.”

Her band seduced groupies behind her back on an 18-month tour Hawkins describes as the “most debaucherous” of his life.
While Alanis was spouting feminism onstage to thousands of adoring fans, her band members were using the promise of meeting her to lure those same girls backstage every chance they got — and she had no idea. As their boss, Alanis took on a motherly role on the tour, Hawkins says, always asking if they were “being good boys.” Meanwhile, “we literally had a room on the other side of the arena, and our guitar tech would give out passes. […] We were trying to bang as many chicks as possible.” Their antics were so legendary none other than Slash commented years later, “I heard you guys were partying harder than we were!”

Radiohead opened for her on tour… and were kinda dicks.
They would take two hours for soundcheck, using it as a workshop for OK Computer, and they were only friendly to Hawkins, who likes to pronounce the “h” in Thom Yorke’s name for fun. “The fucking aloofness killed me dead,” Morissette says with an exasperated eye-roll. “I was dying from the aloofness.”

She kept her teenage experiences with older men — which she now understands to be statutory rape — a secret to protect her family, “future partners,” and herself.
After the documentary’s September debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, much was made of Alanis’ claim in it that she had been a victim of statutory rape. While the singer seemed displeased with how the subject was framed — she released a statement distancing herself from the film and its “salacious agenda” — she is very forthright in the film about her experiences, and her long road to accepting the truth of what had happened. “There was a lot of shame around having any kind of victimization of any kind,” she says. “I would always say, ‘I was consenting.’ And then I’d be reminded, ‘You were 15. You’re not consenting at 15.’ Now I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. They’re all pedophiles.’”

She says that she “did tell a few people,” but that “it kinda fell on deaf ears. It would usually be a stand-up-and-walk-out-of-the-room moment.” (She even told us, well before this film.) “A lot of people say, ‘Why did that woman wait 30 years?’ I’m like, ‘Fuck off, they didn’t wait 30 years. No one was listening. Or their livelihood was threatened. Or their family was threatened.’ So the whole ‘why do women wait’ thing? Women don’t wait. A culture doesn’t listen.”

 

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