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The Best for You Both: Alanis Morissette, “All Too Well,” and the DNA of the Eff-You Anthem

Taylor Swift’s rerecorded 10-minute kiss-off is scathing, hilarious, and even empathetic all at once—things that Alanis helped lay the blueprint for with her scorched-earth “You Oughta Know”

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

[Ed. note: On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut the second documentary in its Music Box series on HBO: Jagged, which looks at Alanis Morissette’s career and rise to fame in the mid-’90s.]

On Friday, the most lacerating and lavishly acclaimed singer-songwriter of her generation released a bonkers 10-minute version of her best and most lacerating song. “And you were tossing me the car keys / ‘Fuck the patriarchy’ keychain on the ground,” sings Taylor Swift, with her patented, elegant wistfulness that can cut through steel, on “All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (Taylor’s Version),” a supersized reimagining of the deep-cut highlight of her immaculate 2012 album Red. Those are the first lines that deviate from the original, and the thrill of Swift dropping yet another f-bomb is undeniable, but the true genius of this song in any form is subtler, and sadder, and can be roughly summarized thus: You seem very well. Things look peaceful. I’m not quite as well. I thought you should know.

“All Too Well,” at any length, is a delicate and devastating post-breakup killshot nonpareil, and for dedicated Taylorologists, it is the richest text imaginable. The affable-doofus actor widely assumed to have inspired the song, who no doubt had a lovely weekend. The dazzling accumulation of lyrical detail: the scarf, the refrigerator light, the performatively sipped coffee, the autumn leaves falling like pieces into place. The delightful patriarchy-fucking scheme (Red is the second album Swift’s rerecorded so she’ll own the masters) at this project’s core. (Also, she’s currently selling a a “F*ck the Patriarchy” keychain for $20; living well is the best revenge, but monetizing your ex’s disingenuousness is a close second.) If you’re vain enough, this song can be about anyone, anything. It’s heartbreaking, it’s furious, it’s uproariously mean. But these are the new lines I’m stuck on now:

And I was thinking on the drive down
Any time now
He’s gonna say it’s love
You never called it what it was
Till we were dead and gone and buried

You never called it what it was. The tabloid prurience and gossamer savagery of “All Too Well” are crucial, but what makes the song an all-timer is an honesty so relentless it feels like empathy—if not toward him, now, then at least toward them, then. Call it what it was. That’s it. That’s all she wanted from him. And if Swift, now, has to drag the guy on Saturday Night Live for 10 minutes straight to call it what it was back then, that’s what she’ll do, not so much to make him feel worse as to make herself feel better.

Swift learned that lesson, in part, from Alanis Morissette, who is for sure the most lacerating singer-songwriter of her own generation and could always use more lavish acclaim. “I was not writing to punish,” Morissette says deep into Alison Klayman’s new documentary Jagged, which premieres Thursday on HBO as part of Ringer Films’ Music Box series. “I was writing to express and get it out of my body because I didn’t want to get sick.”

Morissette is talking, of course, about her 1995 thunderbolt breakthrough album, Jagged Little Pill, which sold more than 15 million copies in the United States alone and reigns as the second-best-selling solo album by a female artist in world history (behind Shania Twain’s Come on Over). She is talking, more specifically, about that song, “You Oughta Know,” the lewd, profane, electrifying, mystery-celeb-eviscerating nuclear bomb that a quarter century later remains as radiantly angry, as viciously detailed, and above all else as extremely funny as it did the first time you heard it. When I launched a podcast about ’90s songs in late 2020, I couldn’t think of a better song to start with. I must have heard “You Oughta Know” 3,000 times in my life at least, but I still laughed out loud at the line but you’re still alive when I listened to it again yesterday. The Jagged documentary (which Morissette herself has criticized) is careful to celebrate the cleansing fury of “You Oughta Know” and a handful of other more combative moments on Jagged Little Pill—various music-biz shitheads are righteously clowned on “Right Through You”—but the movie also wants to reject the long-standing reduction of Morissette to a mere Angry White Female, as her first Rolling Stone cover put it.

“There’s a kindness—it’s like this velvet kindness,” is how Morissette describes her circa-1995 self as the movie closes. “No matter how pissed off she is. It’s like, there’s mercy in it. There’s empathy in it. There’s hope even when the song is hopeless. There’s a little drag of everything’s gonna be OK. No matter how horrible it gets.”

It is a profound compliment to “You Oughta Know,” truly, if it still crosses your mind whenever you hear another colossal Fuck You–type pop song. Kelis’s “Caught Out There.” Pink’s “So What.” Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” Lily Allen’s “Fuck You.” Hell, CeeLo’s “Fuck You.” Hell, Rina Sawayama’s “STFU!” Lucy Dacus’s “Night Shift” or “Brando.” And of course, Taylor Swift’s mighty “All Too Well.” (And “Dear John.” And “Better Than Revenge.” And “Picture to Burn.” And “Mean.” She calls it what it is a lot.) But don’t forget that all of those songs are also hilarious, and arguably the best of them carry trace amounts of empathy, of grudging affection, of velvet kindness. “Bet you rue the day you kissed a writer in the dark,” seethes Lorde on her 2017 album Melodrama, which cemented her as another master of the form. But what the best Fuck You songs supply, in addition to all that infectious seethe-along rage, is just a tiny sliver of light.

“And all I really want is some patience,” sings Alanis Morisette on the first chorus of Jagged Little Pill’s first song. “A way to calm the angry voice.” It is easy to miss that this record is primarily the work of a mistreated but phenomenally talented singer-songwriter—relocated to L.A. and teamed up with producer/co-writer Glen Ballard after a tumultuous and scarring run as an Ottawa-born teen pop star—calming herself down. The angrier she sounds, the more powerful and centered she becomes. The album touches on what she is not (“Perfect”), and what she hopes to be (“Forgiven”), and what she’ll definitely never be (“Not the Doctor”). But Jagged Little Pill’s best moments are anthemic and empowering while deftly avoiding the zillions of clichés the word empowering implies, even then and especially now. The first verse of “Hand in My Pocket” makes Morissette sound immortal by reveling in her vulnerability and, by extension, yours:

I’m broke, but I’m happy
I’m poor, but I’m kind
I’m short, but I’m healthy, yeah
I’m high, but I’m grounded
I’m sane, but I’m overwhelmed
I’m lost, but I’m hopeful, baby

It’s the line I’m sane but I’m overwhelmed that jumped out at me today, the 2,000th time I’ve heard this one. (My previous listen, it was I’m short but I’m healthy.) Jagged the movie underscores what Jagged Little Pill the album is happy to remind you of, anyplace, anytime: The greatness of “You Oughta Know” notwithstanding—and “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner” is one of the funniest line deliveries in pop history—it took all 12 tracks, working in glorious spiritual unison, to make this record the colossus it became. (Even in the mid-’90s, one song wasn’t gonna sell 10-million-plus copies of an album no matter how great it was.) So: “Head Over Feet” for the lovers, the legitimately heartening “You Learn” if you’re in crisis, and the tender waltz “Mary Jane” if you’re hoping more killer lines will suddenly jump out at you (“I hear you’re losing weight again, Mary Jane / Do you ever wonder who you’re losing it for?”). It is certainly remarkable that “Ironic,” dismissed at the time as a lesser single with some linguistic issues, is now the album’s most-played song on Spotify: That It’s like rain on your wedding day is a broad, melodramatic image doesn’t keep it from being a great one.

It is inevitable—and an eternal testament to Morissette herself—that you’ll hear her, at random, in other songs by other people until the sun finally swallows us all. (The best Alanis Morissette album released in the past five years, with much respect to 2020’s Such Pretty Forks in the Road, is the Chicks’ Gaslighter. Start with “Tights on My Boat” if you’re impatient.) And so it was for me, 48 hours ago, blown away by a superior (and twice as long) version of what was already my favorite Taylor Swift song. By all means, revel in the surgical viciousness of “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”: The lines “And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punch line goes / I’ll get older, but your lovers stay my age” certainly jump out at you. But the song, and the songwriter, and the Fuck You Song pantheon overall, is so much more than the Fuck You part. Never forget the kindness, or the velvet. Taylor learned that a long time ago, and long before that, Alanis taught us all.