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What a jagged little pill

Do I stress you out? My sweater is on backwards and inside out and you say, “How appropriate.”

I was about eight or nine years old when I first heard that opening line from an album my aunt played in its entirety while visiting one day. I most likely had heard of Alanis Morissette before that point as she had written the ultimate break up song that had exploded to the top of the radio charts and it was impossible to avoid hearing her beautifully and bitterly singing about an unnamed ex-boyfriend who had moved on quickly.

I may have been too young to understand the adult themes, but I did understand that it was a solid album with good music. So I did what most kids would do when they wanted something and asked grandma to buy it for me for Christmas.

My mother was rightfully concerned about letting her daughter have an album with themes that were inappropriate for a child–after all, Alanis sings about being “wine, dine, 69’d” by a man with “meal ticket taste” and questions her ex if his new lover “would go down on you in a theater”. She took my grandma aside to tell her I could have anything else on my Christmas list, but that under no circumstances was she to get me the “Alanis Morissette album”. My grandma and my mother loathed each other so it should have been no surprise the following Christmas when I pulled the expensive Hallmark wrapping paper from a meticulously wrapped CD-case shaped sized present to reveal the Jagged Little Pill album underneath.

“I thought I told you she was not to have that CD,” my mother said.

“Well, she wanted it so bad so I just had to get it for her!” my grandma said.

My grandma could be a manipulative drama queen in those days so I suspect I only got to keep the album because my mother decided that the fallout wasn’t worth the headache. Every now and then I would hear my mother complain about the time my grandma pulled one of the biggest dick moves by getting me that album after she was told not to.

When I got older, I had different feelings about this infamous dick move. I used to think it was distasteful of grandma to do that, but my feelings changed when I finally moved out of my mother’s house for good after years of mental and emotional abuse following the divorce. It’s still a petty and immature dick move regardless, but it was done to someone who became an abusive monster towards me when my dad had enough of her abuse and got the sense to leave so I’ll relish at any sort of “fuck you” that was given to that woman.

A 25th anniversary tour where the entire album would be performed was announced. My husband and I immediately jumped on the opportunity to buy tickets. Unfortunately, we later realized the show was the same weekend as the yearly convention we went to and ended up selling the tickets to a friend. Of course, the tickets were purchased before the pandemic that would cancel both the tour and convention. The friend we sold them to would not be able to make it to the rescheduled show so we ended up buying them back from her.

The week leading up to the show, I couldn’t sleep. Not from pure excitement over being able to see Alanis Morissette, but recalling the true reason why Jagged Little Pill had such an effect on me.

There is a song on the album titled “Perfect”. The song is from the perspective of a parent attempting to live vicariously through their child by pushing them to excel—gently, at first, and then more forcibly as the song continues. But I always had seen it from a different perspective. Those beginning vocals aren’t just gentle, but quivering and quiet and they build up to a frustrated, wailing breaking point. To me, it felt like it was coming from the child who feels broken and defeated while recalling the parental expectations they weren’t able to live up to.

I connected to this song somewhere between the ages of 12-15—sometime after the divorce got underway, but before the bank foreclosed on our house. My mother didn’t really push me to excel in the way the parent in “Perfect” did, but she made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. My one brother was the golden child I couldn’t measure up to and my mother always questioned why I couldn’t be more like him. My other brother could do no wrong in my mother’s eyes and got away with things I would have gotten my ass reamed for. I was the only other woman in the house and my mother constantly said, “There’s too much estrogen in this house”. She would say I should know how to do certain things like get a job or an apartment even though no one taught me how to do those things or how to work through my anxiety about those things. I wouldn’t say she lived through me, but she sure as Hell let me know when I did something that supposedly reflected poorly on her. She would criticize me if I felt anything negative much like the song’s parent questioning why their child is crying. I feel like I was set up to fail, but I was still expected to be perfect.

It wasn’t the only song I connected to. I viewed title character of “Mary Jane” as being depressed yet not allowing herself to feel anything and trying to shut out everything while trying to please everyone to the point of not taking care of herself–just like me. “Forgiven” has themes of religion being confusing and oppressive yet being a coping mechanism. “Hand in my Pocket” reassures that things are fine even when everything goes to shit while “You Learn” states that everything happens for a reason.   

The concert took place on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. While my whole country remembered those who died that day, I was remembering all those memories of being shut in my room while listening to the Jagged Little Pill album and feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I was ecstatic for the show, but you wouldn’t know it since I could barely show it through the exhaustion from the lack of sleep and all the nightmares throughout the previous week.

Alanis Morrisette was memorizing to watch as she quickly paced back and forth across the stage in an oversized t-shirt over a long sleeved shirt. When standing at the mic, she would throw her head to the right whenever she hit the higher notes as to not deafen the audience with the sheer power of her voice by singing directly into the microphone. Towards the end of the show, she spun around and whipped her hair just like she did in those concert videos I saw on VH1 back in the 90s. She may have missed a couple cues, but she was otherwise on point and she just rolled with it—she looked like she was having the time of her life.

No surprise that I cried during “Perfect”. If the people next to me had looked at me, they would have thought I was a bit out there bawling while wearing a backwards and inside out hoodie. It didn’t help that the screen behind the band showed a video of a growing collection of shiny trophies that are covered in dust and cobwebs by the end of the song. Yet the whole experience was cathartic.

What I hadn’t realized until that concert is the titular jagged little pill is describing a hard pill to swallow. It can be difficult to accept things like parents that don’t have your best interests, exes that were terrible, or general things that you have little to no control over. But maybe it’s a pill we have to swallow in order to start healing, even though it may hurt doing so.

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