The recent news that Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” is being shaped into a musical at the American Repertory Theater set off signal flares in alternative nation. Remembering the ’90s might seem like a crucial part of the present-day pop-culture firmament, but giving that 1995 megaseller a spin — or, really, a click — in 2017 is both familiar and strange, an exercise in nostalgia that’s also instructive about the current moment.
At the time of its release, “Pill” was viewed as a super-sizing of the disarmingly frank music that ruled alt-pop in the early ’90s — at times it sounds like a slightly shinier cousin of Liz Phair’s crystalline “Whip-Smart,” or a more matter-of-fact descendant of Tori Amos’s expansive “Under the Pink.” It harnessed the big choruses and arena-ready riffs of MTV-era, pop-leaning rock while firing off extremely pointed lyrics that echoed the frankness of the Lollapalooza set. It’s filled with big thoughts and unbridled emotion, as befitting the then-21-year-old Morissette’s worldview.
I was born a year after Morissette and, despite being immersed in the indie world thanks to my obscurity-filled college radio station, tore through the record on first, second, and 150th listen. I would cast a suspicious glance toward other major-label artists who mined similar territory, but “Jagged” spoke to me as immediately as Kevin Smith’s ode to minimum-wage anomie “Clerks,” another piece of ’90s pop culture that reflected a slice of its audience in nearly terrifying detail. Its lyrics’ emotion is at times overwhelming, but it still provides the sort of catharsis that a great pop record, whether by the Beatles or Carly Rae Jepsen, should.
Musically, too, it still sounds great. While guitars seem anathema to your Kiss 108s and Amp 103.3s at the moment, the way the album’s textures split the difference between slick and messy echoes a style that’s now a staple of Magic and Mix’s more mature pop blend — the confessional pop-rock of Pink, the hooky playfulness of Paramore, the joyful kiss-off riffing of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Morissette’s voice dominates the mix, accentuating her conversational, tumbling lyrics in a way that gives parts of the record an inner-monologue feel.
Before “Jagged” came out, Morissette had been carving out a career of some renown in Canada, winning the Most Promising Female Vocalist Juno in 1992 and releasing dance-leaning albums. She wrote and recorded “Jagged” with Glen Ballard, who was no stranger to the American pop world — he’d co-written Michael Jackson’s change-from-within smash “Man in the Mirror” and shepherded the early-’90s hit debut by rock-royalty vocal trio Wilson Phillips. Little in either’s catalog could have predicted “You Oughta Know,” which introduced Morissette to MTV watchers in the rest of the world. It was a barnburner of a first single, her rage-filled wail complementing the vitriolic lyrics and turning the chorus — “I’m here! To re-MIND YEAAUUU! OF THE MESS! YOU! LEFT! When you went AWAEEHHH!” — into one of the decade’s most memorable, and most likely to elicit a mass response. (Go ahead, try it out in a crowded room.) Ballard took Flea’s bouncing-ball bass lines and Dave Navarro’s glittering guitar lines and gave them a sheen that made them slide right into the pop zeitgeist.
“Pill” wound up being a blockbuster album that sold more than 15 million copies in the States and reeled off six hits of varying levels in the 18 months following its June 1995 release. “Hand in My Pocket” is a saunter through slackerdom, with Morissette tweaking the listener’s expectation of lyrical rhymes while laying out the aspects of her life that feel unfinished. “You Learn” inhabits the “pop song as therapy session” space, with Morissette exhibiting a Plastic Man-like attitude toward her vowels as she ticks off her foibles. “Head Over Feet” is a plush love song about a healthy relationship, with Morissette’s harmonica solo adding a homegrown touch. “All I Really Want” also shows off those harmonica skills, its small-talk-eschewing bridge giving voice to someone who sounds boxed in by the mere idea of existing in the world.
Then there’s “Ironic,” the life’s-a-beach stroll that has tortured the literati since its release. (Is the irony here that a song that fundamentally misjudges the idea of “irony” became a hit? The debate will probably rage on long after the alternative generation dies out.) In a way similar to “You Oughta Know,” it surrounds its big, splashy, yell-along chorus with delicate lyrics that describe specific situations — the nonagenarian who kicks the bucket the day after he wins the lottery, the diligent fare-payer who gets shortchanged on a free trip. “Rain on your wedding day” and “10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife” became shorthand for commiserating over bad days, although the emotional crux comes when Morissette sings of “meeting the man of my dreams/ and then meeting his beautiful wife” — an all too relatable tip-off to what’s really sent her mind whirling.
The idea of turning “Jagged” into a jukebox musical might have horrified listeners back when the term referred to the likes of “Smokey Joe’s Café,” but in the light of 2017 — post-“Rent,” post- “Hedwig” — its pop-rock arrangements and vocal acrobatics seem made for the stage. Morissette’s lyrics combine the everyday with high-grade drama, making the ideal basis for set pieces starring a spunky, yet thoughtful heroine at its center. She’s begging to “talk about liiiife for a while” to a fellow traveler; she’s haunting a former lover who’s trying to have a nice time at the movies with his wife; she’s got one hand in her pocket and the other one’s giving a peace sign — perhaps ironically, perhaps not.Maura Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.