An Open Letter To Anne T. Donahue- RE: Alanis Morisette
Dear Anne T. Donahue,
I am writing this open letter to you because we both have a strong, nostalgic connection to Alanis Morisette’s record-breaking and career-defining Jagged Little Pill. That and because you did not respond to my Tweet, which was, in turn, a response from your piece published by CBC entitled “How I Grew Up and Learned to Connect with Alanis Morissette's Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie".
I was very excited to read this article when I discovered it on my Twitter timeline. I have similar opinions regarding this album, and I found myself identifying with much of what you initially started to say. You were 13 when Jagged Little Pill was dominating the charts, I was 8. I definitely was not “old enough” to order the album from Columbia House but I loved those songs anyway.
You said you scream-sang those songs without knowing what they were about. I hear you. I remember learning somehow that there were two “bad words” in “You Oughta Know” and proudly discovering the F-word but missing that “go down” was not something you should do in a theatre.
You’re absolutely right, Jagged Little Pill was “nothing short of iconic”, but it was not Morisette’s debut, pop star Alanis had already released two albums in Canada. I did love the “cross-eyed bear” part; I definitely didn’t know what she was referencing there either.
And this is where you lost me.
Perhaps in October 1998, you wanted nothing to do with “Thank U”, the first single released from Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie but I did. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting as the follow up to Jagged Little Pill, but “Uninvited” served as a pallet cleanser when it was released earlier in the year as part of the City of Angels soundtrack.
I remember an 11-year-old Kris eagerly anticipating listening to “Thank U” in October 1998. The song still reminds me of sunny autumn days from my childhood much more than the video featuring a nude but blurred out Morisette roaming a city street. I, like you, didn’t identify with that video at all, but “Thank U” found itself sharing space with Britney Spears and the Spice Girls on my own Top 40 Countdown that I would curate and play alone in my room.
I liked Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, albeit it not as much as Jagged Little Pill. I certainly didn’t “get it” in 1998, much like its predecessor. (I actually thought that “ultimatums” were some sort of STD-like illness when I heard the lyric “Are you still mad I gave you ultimatums?” in “Are You Still Mad”, which while we’re at it has to have been an early version of “Uninvited” right? For years I have never found any information on this).
This is a testament to Morisette’s songwriting prowess. You may not have known the themes and subject matter she was singing about but she made it sound damn good and thoughtful. The melodic way she delivers lyrics sounds almost like a rapper at times. She also isn’t boxed into a genre or afraid to deliver lines that don’t necessarily match the music or follow a lyrical pattern.
I didn’t get the whole India thing in “Thank U” or “Baba” (which is actually track two; “Front Row” kicks off the album and is actually quite reminiscent of the often mesmerizing wordplay Morisette displays on Jagged). I definitely didn’t know what cultural appropriation was but I take issue with your claim now.
Why is Morisette committing cultural appropriation? Is it because she went to another country to escape and deal with her newfound superstardom and search for calmness and inner peace? Why do people think it is fair game to criticize others for looking outside their own spheres when searching for what they are looking for? If you are as familiar with Jagged Little Pill as you say you are, then you know that Morisette was disillusioned by Christianity, or at the very least the Catholic church as evidenced in the lyrics on “Forgiven.” In addition, have you actually listened to “Baba?” Morisette is not appropriating, if anything she continues the criticism of organized religion from “Forgiven” and applying them to other faiths. “I've seen them kneel/With baited breath for the ritual/I've watched this experience raise/them to pseudo higher levels/I've watched them leave their families/In pursuit of your nirvana” sounds more sinister and critical to me. “Baba” is less appropriation and more Wild Wild Country.
You write that Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie is “a testament to how, despite having grown and changed, you still do not, under any circumstances, have it all figured out — no matter how open you may now seem, or what belief system you've decided to subscribe to,” and I tend to agree. Three years ago, after a number of personal setbacks, I sort of rediscovered this album and things started to make sense. A lot of things had changed for me in a short time, I had changed, and yet things still weren’t working out. I had started another degree but was already falling into the same study habits, work was not going well and relationships were failing. This album suddenly was making much more sense than it did in 1998 especially songs like “That I Would Be Good”, and “Unsent”.
Surprisingly as I was listening to the album while writing this piece, I realized that Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and Jagged Little Pill are more thematically similar than I’d thought. Both records are deeply personal, but I feel the writing on Jagged Little Pill is much more accessible and perhaps that is why so many people could identify with the songs, even if they were only 8 or 13. The songs on Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie sound as if we are hearing bits and pieces of private conversations Morisette was having. It’s hard to get all the references, and it almost feels wrong to be listening in on something so personal. Perhaps Morisette intended it that way, perhaps we all had to grow, change, and realize we still hadn’t figured it all out before we could figure out the album.