There was already a lot to unpack from Rolling Stone’s famous 1995 cover featuring singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette next to the words “Angry White Female.” She was a 21-year-old artist who was and remains beloved by myriad women for her bold rants, musings and love stories. And the magazine was a largely white- and male-run establishment that typically heralded male acts like Nirvana and Green Day for those same sensibilities. In a sense, the moniker was a backhanded compliment.
Twenty-six years later, director Alison Klayman revisits this cover in “Jagged” — the contemplative new HBO Max documentary that reflects on the journey and impact of Morissette’s seminal album, “Jagged Little Pill.” And now, another thought comes to mind: The aforementioned title applied to Morissette has a similar effect as the Angry Black Woman label that is in equal parts affirming and reductive. And there’s not a single Black or brown woman interviewed in the film who might have pointed this out.
It’s not unusual to see these voices left out of pop culture conversations, especially when the subject does not center a Black or brown person. But it’s particularly disheartening that the filmmaker seems to wrongly assume that we’d have nothing to say about an album that helped define and validate our experiences coming of age in the ’90s. “Jagged Little Pill” unapologetically articulated the rage young women of color have but are too often advised to suppress — and Morissette was ultimately well-rewarded for it.
“I remember when I first played the record when it was done for some people, they were like, ‘it’s too in-your-face, it’s too urgent, it’s too emotional,’” Morissette shares in an archived interview featured in “Jagged.” “And I’m like, ‘Well, I am mad right now and when I’m 34, I won’t be and you won’t get a record like that.’”
Cari Garcia, a longtime fan of the album as well as a Latina food blogger and therapist living in Miami, agreed that the response a Black or brown female artist would have garnered for some of these lyrics would have been much more critical. Those include the ones in “You Oughta Know,” the breakup anthem with the line: “It was a slap in the face / How quickly I was replaced / And are you thinking of me when you fuck her?”
“Oh, horrible,” Garcia added. “Forget it.”
But that’s also part of what makes the experience of listening to the album as a young woman of color so specific. Morissette expresses so many thoughts that many of her female fans of color had no space to release at the time. For Garcia, back in 1995, she was 14 and had just lost her father and her relationship with her mother grew tense to the point where she felt she could never do anything right.
She even started acting out. She still gets emotional hearing songs like “Perfect,” which explores feelings of inadequacy, and “All I Really Want,” which is the singer’s unmerciful list of demands. “Me struggling as a youth when [Morissette’s] like, ‘All I really want is some peace, man,’” Garcia said, reciting a line from the song. “That hit me — ‘All I really want is some patience, a way to calm me down.’ Don’t we all want that?”
Garcia said that it was Morissette’s heartache, not what she looked like, that made her songs so palpable. “Growing up in a Latin, Hispanic household, girls are scrutinized for pretty much everything,” she continued. “For the first time, it was an album that got me. [Morissette’s] cultural identity — that’s not something I was thinking at 14. I felt so lost and in a lot of pain.”
While “Jagged Little Pill” is still hailed today as the singular voice of an “empowered” woman, Morissette says in the documentary that she often felt more like Garcia was at the time: the opposite of that. “People would say, ‘You’re so brave, you’re so empowered, you’re so strong,’” the singer recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Sometimes.’ I can’t write all these songs without obviously feeling disempowered. Half these songs are about attempting to become empowered.”
Some of that disempowerment came from the fact that she was contending with the same white patriarchy that exists today, the one that manufactured her as a pop princess dancing in music videos and controlled her eating habits so that her prior two albums would be marketable. But for listeners like the then-19-year-old Colleen Armstrong, a Black independent media consultant living in New York who was too shy to speak her mind for fear of the repercussions, Morissette’s was a singular voice, especially as she fell in love for the first time.
She pointed to songs like “You Oughta Know,” the ballad “Head Over Feet” and “Hand in My Pocket,” which encapsulates what it’s like to grapple with intersecting identities at a time when you’re still figuring out who you are.
“I was just coming into my own,” Armstrong remembered. “An album like that was like the other side of me that didn’t come out yet. The one that maybe if I did have an opinion or if I did get in a relationship with a guy and he treated me bad, how would I respond if I wasn’t so reticent?”
Part of the reason why Armstrong felt the need to control that side of her was because of the way Black and brown women’s emotions were policed in the ’90s. The world hasn’t changed much since then, but she has.
“I was very guarded when it came to my image,” Armstrong said. “I always wanted to present myself like a well-dressed, well-spoken Black woman. That was so important for me back then.”
Women like Armstrong and Garcia, whose feelings were stifled in the ’90s and omitted from “Jagged,” can now turn to Frankie Healy, a central protagonist in the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill” inspired by the album. Now portrayed by Morgan Dudley, Frankie is an outspoken Black bisexual high school student unafraid to fully express herself — including her angst, sexuality and how all she, like Morissette once sang, really wants is some justice.
Dudley wasn’t even born when “Jagged Little Pill” dropped, but was familiar with the songs from her childhood when her mother played them. It wasn’t until her audition for the show that she realized how much she can connect with it today. Like her character, she was raised by white parents and struggled to effectively communicate her experiences with them.
“I have had a lot of difficult conversations with my family that, for a while, I left unsaid because I was uncomfortable,” Dudley said. “I didn’t know how they would react.” She realized that she had felt “boxed in.” Finally breaking her silence helped her family grow closer and more understanding — as it also does for Frankie.
In many ways, Frankie shows the potential for young Black and brown women when they can lean into each of their emotions, even when it’s difficult or falls on deaf ears. Even Morissette says in “Jagged” that she needed to get these thoughts out of her mind or else she’d be sick. We have finally come full circle with Broadway’s “Jagged Little Pill,” because Frankie refuses to suppress how she feels.
“It’s more accepted now,” Dudley said. “I feel like this musical is giving people the space to be honest with themselves, to be honest in their experiences and feel safe to have the emotions that they might have about that. It’s very validating, I think.”