Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 1, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”
In the mid-’90s, “punk” was in. Grunge was in. Alternative rock was in. Guitars. Distortion. Disdain. Terrible attitudes. Strategic profanity. And just a hint of PG-13 perversity. Also, “Women in Rock,” were in, too—a media concept that was never not condescending. But nonetheless, for rock critics anyway, the single biggest album of 1993 was Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, which was extra sexually explicit, and the single biggest album of 1994 was Hole’s Live Through This, which was extra … everything. And then came Alanis Morissette, with a song that consolidates all of it.
Welcome to 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, a new show on the Ringer Podcast Network that will take you through that strange, iconic decade in 60 episodes, one song at a time. We’re kicking off the endeavor with one of the most monolithic hits of the decade, Alanis’s “You Oughta Know,” which served as much of America’s introduction to the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter—and many young millennials’ introduction to some choice language. In this episode, we’ll examine radio edits, and the power of the anthemic fuck-you song, and somehow the hit TV show Full House, but before we do that, we have to dive into how Alanis arrived at this moment.
In 1995, she was a 21-year-old who’d already put out two albums—in Canada—that did fine, in Canada. (It’s more like dance-pop—she sounds like Taylor Dayne, if you spent any time walking through a mall or driving to a mall or if you ever got your hair cut in the ’80s.) Those early Alanis albums aren’t disowned, exactly, but her origin story really begins when she lands in L.A., and meets her new producer and cowriter Glen Ballard, and learns to channel her disillusionment, and her anger, and her general uncouthness into a new batch of songs, the biggest and angriest of which was called “You Oughta Know.” It is a song of heartbreak, it is a song of romantic betrayal, it is a song about a crap dude, and in essence it serves as the public execution of a crap dude, in the guise of a series of questions posed to the crap dude about the girl he spurned Alanis Morissette for.
So the part when she sings, “And are you thinkin’ of me when you fuck her?” was extremely censored, obviously. There are radio edits in which “down on you” in the line “Would she go down on you in a theater?” is censored, also, which was mystifying if you’d never heard the song before, but delightful if you had, which of course you had, because soon Alanis Morrissette would be on the cover of Rolling Stone with the cover line “Angry White Female”—it’s a movie reference—because her third album, Jagged Little Pill, had hit no. 1 on the Billboard album chart in October of ’95, nearly four months after it was released. The music business used to work like that; the biggest hits used to take awhile to kick in. It came out on Maverick Records, a new label under the Warner Bros. umbrella founded by Madonna a few years back, and Jagged Little Pill would go on to sell 30 million copies worldwide. It is my professional opinion that in the year 2020 it is impossible to explain, to rationalize, to wrap one’s head around the idea of selling 30 million copies of one album, and selling them, which is to say you handed over $16.99 or so in American currency for a plastic disc that had just those 12 songs on it, and you did this gladly, in large part because one of those songs was “You Oughta Know,” which is one of the most important singles of the decade despite not cracking even the top five of Billboard’s Hot 100. It peaked at no. 6. The “Macarena” was big around then, also, if that helps explain anything, which maybe it doesn’t.
Jagged Little Pill has a great deal of anger, and perversion, and messiness, and, y’know, vivacity, and there’s a song called “Ironic” that describes a number of scenarios that are not, strictly speaking, ironic, but primarily it’s about “You Oughta Know.” It’s the worst when you’re the kind of person, like, the angrier you get, the funnier it is, unintentionally, but with “You Oughta Know,” the angrier she gets, the funnier she gets, on purpose, such that my personal favorite line in the song is: “Did you forget about me / Mr. Duplicity / I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.”
It’s just, it’s not a joke, but if it were a joke she’s definitely in on the joke, and the crap dude in question was not. But the question of that crap dude’s identity was a source of intrigue in 1995.
To hear the full debut episode of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.