The Feminist Confessional Poetry of Alanis Morissette
Personal writing is seen as literary for men, self-indulgent for women. Isn't it ironic?
I’ll never forget riding in my mom’s car as a high school student in the late ‘90s, and hearing a male DJ on the radio introduce the Alanis Morissette song “Unsent” by commenting snidely that “someone should tell Alanis that not everything she writes in her diary needs to be turned into a song.” I laughed along at the joke, but on another level I felt alarmed. If we were all mocking Alanis for sharing her words with the world; for having the self-indulgent audacity to think that her private thoughts and feelings were worthy of the public, what did that mean for me? Like so many women and girls do all the time, I laughed at the joke because I didn’t want to be the butt of it.
To be undeservedly fair to the sexist ‘90s DJ, though, “Unsent” is a lot. It’s four glorious minutes and ten seconds of Alanis’s most personal reflections on her past relationships, naming each ex-boyfriend one by one, i.e. “Dear Lou, we learned so much,” and “Dear Marcus… You got me seriously thinking about spirituality.” The whole thing feels very TMI, but that’s what I love about Alanis. The unabashedly confessional foregrounding of personal detail that characterizes so much of her work ranges from the cringe-y to the profound, but it’s empowering by virtue of how it claims space for an unapologetically complicated, messy female experience—its assumption that duh, of course the world should care. It reads like therapy homework or a NaPoWriMo prompt—”write an angry letter to each of your exes”—but Alanis doesn’t see any reason why her personal catharsis shouldn’t also be on the radio. As a teenager, Alanis’s music often made me feel all at once like maybe she was no good—like the DJ said—but also like, hey, wait, the poems that I wrote in notebooks hidden in my bedroom were maybe not that bad.
After some success as a pop singer in Canada, Alanis Morissette burst onto the music scene in 1995 with “You Oughta Know,” the hit single off of her album Jagged Little Pill: a scathing takedown of a cheating ex-lover. “I’m here / to remind you / of the mess you left when you went away,” proclaimed the song’s chorus. Alanis’s songs shared intimate details about ex-boyfriends and power-abusing record executives alike, sometimes still hot with rage, and always unflinchingly vulnerable, and most people didn’t really know what to do with her. While Morissette has never identified who “You Oughta Know” is about, it was rumored to be Full House’s Dave Coulier—a fact that was widely regarded at the time as laughably absurd (Joey Gladstone, really?) but is actually pretty disturbing when you consider that he was 35 when the song was recorded, and Morissette was just 20. It’s far from the only one of Alanis’s songs to touch on power imbalances and abuses in relationships with men: “You took me for a joke / You took me for a child,” she writes in “Right Through You,” addressing a lecherous music industry gatekeeper, “You took me out to wine, dine, sixty-nine me / but didn’t hear a damn word I said.” And in her 2002 song “Hands Clean,” she reflects on breaking her silence about a secret teenage relationship with a much older man, speaking from his perspective, “If it weren’t for your maturity, none of this would have happened. / If you weren’t so wise beyond your years / I would’ve been able to control myself.” “Oooh this could be messy,” the song’s chorus chides, the sickening words of a manipulative creep seducing a teen girl flipped on their head and turned into permission for other girls to do the same. With Alanis, it always gets a little messy. That’s the beauty of it.
There’s a tricky history of critics and readers conflating the speaker in writing by women with the author herself, but in this case, Morissette has never been shy about her personal investment in her work. Before writing the album Jagged Little Pill, Alanis worked with a team who didn’t encourage her to write her own lyrics, but she said in a 2015 interview that she always knew she was a lyricist — and that once she began writing, her lyrics took on a “hyper-autobiographical” quality. “Only I could write these stories,” she said. Morissette has talked about how her own life has served as the inspiration for many of her songs—but at the same time, whether or not they were purely autobiographical doesn’t really matter. What makes them powerful is that they foreground the experiences of a firmly female speaker, everyday observations that so many women share but are often seen as not valuable or worthy of being called art. They place an emotional female speaker in a position of authority that she’s regularly denied by a patriarchal culture, which so often requires women to subsume our feelings in order to be taken seriously.
Personal writing by women is often seen as indulgent, while personal writing by men is more often lauded as universal, reflective of the human condition, high art. As Lori Saint-Martin writes in Confessional Politics: Women’s Sexual Self-Representations in Life Writing and Popular Media, “The realm of the personal and sexual has always been literary for men (Saint Augustine, Rousseau, Michel Leiris, Henry Miller) and confessional for women (Colette, Erica Jong, Anais Nin).” Many critics were condescending in their reception of Alanis’s work—even in ostensibly positive reviews. In a 1995 profile, Rolling Stone’s David Wild called Morissette “queen of this year’s pop culture prom,” whose live performance is “less like a concert than modern-rock group therapy.” And AllMusic’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote, “Her bitter diary entries are given a pop gloss that gives them entry to the pop charts.” Then there was all the widespread discussion of how the scenarios presented in Morissette’s hit song “Ironic” were in fact not actually ironic.
The brash vulnerability and confessional nature of Alanis’s lyrics often led to sexist critiques and dismissals like the one I encountered in my mom’s car that day. And yet her music felt right on time. Morissette has never framed her work’s expression of anger as overtly political, but it’s hard to imagine that her transition from bubble-gum pop to emotionally charged confessional rock wasn’t influenced by the political moment, centered on women’s outrage, into which she wrote these songs. Or that the vast popularity of Jagged Little Pill wasn’t, in part, the result of a culture ready to hear women divulging the details of their repressed anger; a generation of women that were growing quite angry themselves.
Jagged Little Pill came out just a few years after Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and Rebecca Walker’s subsequent coining of the term “third wave feminism.” In her 1992 article for Ms., Walker writes that the hearings served as an appraisal of women’s credibility and power. “He was promoted,” Walker states, “She was repudiated. Men were assured of the inviolability of their penis/power. Women were admonished to keep their experiences to themselves.” The court’s dismissal of Hill’s account is a particularly abysmal example of a culture in which women’s stories of injustice or pain are not taken seriously. Across a spectrum from the dismissive treatment of Hill—and later, the similar treatment of Christine Blasey Ford—to our culture’s condescension towards confessional women artists like poet Sylvia Plath and Alanis Morissette, the overwhelming message to women is that their stories should be kept to themselves. Walker concludes her Ms. essay by noting that the Thomas hearings have radicalized her, shaken her awake. She ends her article with a plea to other women: “Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger.”
The emotionally charged, truth-telling elements of Morissette’s music also resonate with activism of the past several years centered on women’s discounted experiences of sexual assault and abuse. The past several years have a lot in common with the ‘90s. Both eras brought a “year of the woman“: a record-breaking number of women elected to public office in response to the country’s grappling with high-profile sexual misconduct cases, and women’s rising outrage and resistance. After Hill’s testimony, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991, giving victims of workplace sexual harassment more legal resources, and anti-sexual harassment programs became standard in workplaces across the country due to work by feminist activists. Similarly, the Women’s March and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements brought a long-overdue cultural tipping point in overall tolerance of sexual misconduct. But still, not nearly enough has changed. Twenty-five years after the release of Jagged Little Pill, we’re feeling a cultural déja vu. Perhaps that’s why the album has now been translated into a musical, which debuted on Broadway in December of 2019.
Written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody and featuring songs off the 1995 album and others by Alanis, the Jagged Little Pill musical follows The Healys—Mary Jane (Elizabeth Stanley), Steve (Sean Allan Krill), and their teenage son and daughter Nick (Derek Klena) and Frankie (Celia Rose Gooding)—a suburban Connecticut family that, from the outside, appears picture-perfect. The show deals with sexual assault and trauma—and looks at how trusting women is key to changing a culture of pervasive misogyny and victim-blaming. That the play has been well-received thus far shows how, in some ways, our culture has caught up with the themes of Alanis’ music, at least on the surface. In his New York Times review of the show, Jesse Green writes that it feels like a summation “of our world’s worst ills but also the way song can summon resistance to them.” It’s reassuring to see the general public taking art addressing sexual misconduct seriously. But the play also reminds us of how far we still have to go — there’s still a predator in the White House, after all, and two on the Supreme Court. And the Democratic nomination of a septuagenarian white dude who led the Senate Judiciary Committee that grilled Anita Hill nearly 30 years ago feels like a disappointing thud after so much feminist activism over the past four years—and that was before he was accused of sexual assault.
In the Jagged Little Pill musical, high schooler Frankie performs “Ironic” as an “essay, poem, story-type thing” in a creative writing class. When her classmates tear down her work for not being technically ironic, a nod to the endless criticism of Morissette’s lyrics, a new student named Phoenix defends her: “You’re obviously a great writer,” he says. “Their only defense is to be super literal.” It’s no surprise that confessional women artists like Morissette have been so frequently patronized by cultural gatekeepers. Women have long used their anger and personal stories to call attention to inequities in this country, and when their voices aren’t taken seriously, it’s for good reason. As Rebecca Traister writes in Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, about the many social movements catalyzed by women’s outrage, “What becomes clear, when we look at the past with an eye to the future, is that the discouragement of women’s anger—via silencing, erasure, and repression—stems from the correct understanding of those in power that in the fury of women lies the power to change the world.”
Before the pandemic, Alanis was set to go on tour this summer in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill, and the release of her new album Such Pretty Forks in the Road, which is due out this month. I was planning to go see her at the Xfinity Theater in Hartford, Connecticut, formerly Meadows Music Center, the same place where I saw her perform in the summer of 1996, my second-ever concert. Radiohead opened for her. I went with my older sister and her friends, and I had just been dumped by my 8th grade boyfriend and was about to start high school. I wrote a poem about him recently, just because why not. Our first kiss was in a neighboring town’s two-dollar movie theater. When he broke up with me, I was on a cordless phone in my bedroom and he told me that relationships are like books; you can like the beginning but you might not like the end. And I cried for weeks, until I met a new boy. It was totally earth-shattering, and it was totally ordinary, and if I could sing about it on the radio, I would.