This post has absolutely nothing to do with movies, but it does have something to do with (very recent) history, and I don’t have time to write the post I intended to write today (looking at Leyrac de la Mole in Queen Margot).
There’s a couple of articles going around the internet about Alanis Morissette’s appearance at a Taylor Swift concert, during which the two of them sang Morissette’s signature hit “You Oughta Know”. Apparently large numbers of Millennials in the audience had no idea who Alanis Morissette is, and tweeted about their ignorance. This was the cue for a Jezebel piece lamenting the ignorance of Millennials and asserting that kids these days ought to know who Alanis Morissette is. That piece elicited a response from Slate’s Amanda Marcotte, “Teens Don’t Oughta Know“, in which she asserts that “Morissette’s big hit protested guys who break up with you” instead of saying anything meaningful. Both articles piss me off.
The Jezebel piece is an example of how previous generations often assert arbitrary standards for cultural literacy. “Kids these days don’t know what kids back in my day knew, and surely it’s a sign of the collapse of Western Civilization.” What the article doesn’t bother to do is offer any justification at all for why teens growing up in the 2010s ought to know about a performer who hasn’t had a major hit since they were in kindergarten. Don’t get me wrong–I love Alanis Morissette; I think she’s a great lyricist. But her cultural relevance rests primarily on 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. Gen Xers complaining that Millennials don’t know Jagged Little Pill is like Baby Boomers complaining that teenage Gen Xers didn’t know The Mamas and the Papas.
Jagged Little Pill was a hugely important album for Generation X, particularly the second wave of Gen X (the ones born in the late 70s and early 80s, as opposed to the ones born in the late 60s and early 70s). But that’s because it spoke to that age group’s needs and experiences. They were a generation that had grown up with the first female rockers but still hadn’t quite absorbed the idea that women’s experiences are just as valid as men’s experiences. All that uber-masculine hair metal and David Lee Roth sexual swagger was still about prioritizing male sexual pleasure, Joan Jett and Pat Benatar not withstanding. Perhaps “You Oughta Know” can speak to Millennials the same way, but if Jezebel wants to say that Millennials need to know this album, it needs a better reason than ‘just cuz’. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in stroking feelings of generational outrage and superiority. So Marcotte was right to push back against the article.
(Also, can I point out that tweeting that you don’t know who Alanis Morissette is may not be a sign of ignorance so much as a way of punning on the title of the song?)
But Marcotte’s form of pushing back was worse. In the article, she argues that the song is basically about a woman who won’t accept that she’s been put into the female version of the “friend zone” and simply won’t “take no for an answer.” She accuses the narrator of “begging” and “clumsy emotional blackmail” and argues that it’s a mistake to view Jagged Little Pill as being feminist.
There’s a lot wrong with that analysis. The narrator of the song is describing a relationship in which the couple has had sex repeatedly and then broke up. So she’s not being put in the the Friend Zone; she’s been dumped. And what she’s objecting to is not being broken up with, but rather being told that her boyfriend will love her until he dies and then immediately being broken up with and quickly replaced. So she’s angry that she’s been lied to, apparently used to get sex, and then abandoned in favor of another woman. Additionally, this other woman is “an older version of me”, suggesting that the narrator’s boyfriend has taken advantage of her youth and inexperience purely to get sex and then moved on to someone else more sexually experienced as if the relationship meant nothing at all. She’s also angry that he wasn’t emotionally available for her (“the love that you gave that we made wasn’t able/To make it enough for you to be open wide”); so she’s been trying to meet his sexual needs (fellating him in theater) but he hasn’t responded by meeting her emotional needs. She’s not refusing to take no for answer, nor is she begging him to take her back; she just feels no reason to take the blame for what happened, because she’s done everything he asked her to. And she’s not letting this bad break-up keep her from exploring her sexual desires; she’s running her nails down some new boyfriend’s back, and not apologizing for it.
Yes, the narrator is having trouble dealing with her experience and has called him at dinner time; she’s expressing her naive faith in his promises of undying love and telling him he’ll be sorry some day because she’s a worthy romantic partner. So she’s being a bit out of control. But what the song is trying to do is express the female side of a bad break-up by insisting that the young woman has a right to feel angry about her ex’s duplicity and shoddy treatment of her. If Marcotte can’t see how the song expresses a feminist viewpoint, perhaps she ought to re-examine the song lyrics.
So should Millennials know “You Oughta Know”? Personally I think they should. It’s a fun album with a lot of great music on it. And Morissette’s rather confrontational song is one of the first big songs I can think of to express female anger at the way men sometimes take advantage of women. Sure, she was hardly the only female rock star of the 90s to make songs like that; my memories of the 90s are heavily colored by the likes of Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple and more. But we don’t have a lot of female performers like that at the moment, and I think it’s too bad. In an era when female performers often have to be sexy and show a lot of skin to get the space to speak their minds (like Beyoncé and Rihanna; compare how Swift and Morisette are dressed in that performance and you’ll see what I mean), Morissette’s barely-controlled fury and ownership of her sexual agency in this song still feel fresh.
Like every generation of teenagers, Millennials need to understand that their cultural moment is predicated on the cultural moments of the previous generation. Taylor Swift was clearly trying to show her audience one of her important influences. I hope the audience listens and takes the time to explore Jagged Little Pill, not because it’s on some useless Buzzfeed list of 50 albums you have to know because arbitrary, but because I think the album still has valuable things to say to kids these days, like what feminist music can sound like.
Update: A female friend of mine just made a very important comment that develops something I said here, and I decided it was worth adding to the post. Women are traditionally taught that expressing anger is inappropriate; good women are supposed to suffer in silence and put in lots of hard work and eventually that’s going to be rewarded, traditionally with a loving relationship that supports them. Complaining is seen as nagging and shrewishness. “You Oughta Know” is one of the first songs in which a woman simply expresses her anger openly and bluntly and refuses to be silent. In the 90s, that was a pretty radical act, and in many ways still is. In that sense, Morissette’s song is very feminist.
Want to Know More?
Jagged Little Pillis available on Amazon.