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‘You Oughta Know’ Is About You

The ongoing fascination with which former boyfriend inspired Alanis Morissette’s breakup anthem obscures the fact that any listener can feel indicted by her takedown of a bad ex

Alanis Morissette understands why people want to know who “You Oughta Know” is about. But she’s always amused that some of her exes actually line up to claim they’re the guy who inspired one of her biggest hits. “I don’t know if you want to take credit for being the person I wrote ‘You Oughta Know’ about,” she said a couple years ago, later adding, “I just think: If you’re going to take credit for a song where I’m singing about someone being a douche or an asshole, you might not want to say, ‘Hey! That’s me!’”

When you’re a famous musician and you write a song about love gone bad, it’s pretty easy for the audience to guess who you’re singing about. Taylor Swift has made a career out of this, but whether it’s Ariana Grande or Kacey Musgraves, we can picture the dude who prompted a particular breakup song or a whole divorce album. Such public knowledge gives us a sense that we’re getting intimate clues about the inner workings of a high-profile relationship. But it also can rob the music of its universality: As much as we want to hear about Pete Davidson, we’re probably more interested in being able to take those lyrics and apply them to our own situation. Ultimately, we want to think that they’re providing the soundtrack for our lives, not necessarily theirs. Essentially, we want to think they’re singing about us.  

Unless, of course, you’re the subject of a popular breakup song. What’s always been potent about “You Oughta Know,” which came out in the summer of 1995, is that because Morissette has never named the person in the song’s crosshairs, there is a nonzero chance that it’s actually about… you. I know you never dated Alanis Morissette, but the accusatory tone is so specific, yet just vague enough, that it applies to many ex-boyfriends in all walks of life. Morissette didn’t write the song about you, but there’s a high probability that if you were in a relationship in the 1990s — or any time since — someone has sung that song about you. And that’s the thing that makes you feel guilty.

Morissette turned 47 this past summer, she’s been married since 2010 and has three kids, and now she’s the focus of Jagged, a new documentary that looks at her early days in the music business and the making of Jagged Little Pill, which sold millions and millions of copies back when that was a thing you could actually do. But she grew up in Ottawa, one of three kids — she has a twin brother, Wade — in a family that went to Catholic mass every Sunday. Her teacher mother Georgia said in the early 1990s, “All three children have an attitude that says, ‘I’m going to do this until I reach my goal, not until the first obstacle gets in my way.’” And for Morissette, that meant pursuing a career in entertainment, including briefly being part of You Can’t Do That on Television, a sketch show for preteens. 

“She was a very talented singer and she was only on a couple of shows because she already had a singing career,” Television star Christine McGlade recalled many years later. “[I] was a little older than the other characters and there was some churn in the cast. … Alanis was a true professional who I remember doing improv, and I remember her in the studio.”

In the early 1990s, Morissette put out a couple albums that are now fairly hard to find — Alanis and Now Is the Time — while she was still in her teens. But they sold well in her home country, which led to her experiencing her first crush of stardom, bringing with it the scrutiny of others’ opinions. For Now Is the Time, she wrote in the album’s liner notes, “No regrets … Give yourself credit. Everybody is different. Their view of you may not be correct. Does it really matter? Who matters? … Conquer a fear. Don’t be perfect, be excellent. Falter. Balance. Be grateful. Be real. Never give up. Don’t be afraid. I believe in you.” 

Was she talking to her fans or to herself? Or possibly both?

Jagged Little Pill changed everything for her. Without a record contract, she made the album with Glen Ballard, a songwriter and producer who’d worked with Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul, and the whole record took about two months. “We didn’t have a budget and it didn’t have a recording engineer,” Ballard said last year. “It was just like a songwriting thing, and no one was expecting anything. … Usually there’s this desperate need for every artist to have a hit song and songwriters are supposed to provide that. But we weren’t trying to write a hit song at all. So being with Alanis, it was just like we were free. … We got together 20 times and wrote 20 songs. We couldn’t get anybody to sign the material, and I didn’t think it was going to make it out. So, in no way did we think we were making this huge album. We just hoped that somebody would actually listen and maybe even put it out. Because most of the major record companies passed on it.”

Many of the vocals for Jagged Little Pill were put down in one take, including for “You Oughta Know,” a song about a woman angrily eyeing her ex-boyfriend as he’s with his new flame. She sings directly to him, full of sarcasm and fury:

I want you to know that I’m happy for you 
I wish nothing but the best for you both 
An older version of me 
Is she perverted like me? 
Would she go down on you in a theater? 
Does she speak eloquently? 
And would she have your baby? 
I’m sure she’d make a really excellent mother  

‘Cause the love that you gave that we made 
Wasn’t able to make it enough for you to be open wide, no 
And every time you speak her name 
Does she know how you told me 
You’d hold me until you died? 
‘Til you died, but you’re still alive  

And I’m here
To remind you 
Of the mess you left when you went away 
It’s not fair
To deny me 
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me 
You, you, you oughta know

“There is this illusion of safety for artists, when you’re alone in a room,” Morissette said in 2015, thinking back to the song’s gestation. “Until the crazy fame that ensued, I literally thought maybe 10 people would hear this song. I didn’t think anyone would really hear it. I mean, I wanted to share it with as many billions of people as I possibly could, but I was alone in a room with Glen, and it was safe for me to talk and share and write, and so I did, and it felt really liberating.”

Eventually, she did get signed to Madonna’s personal label Maverick, which was part of Warner Bros., although according to Morissette there was some concern about Jagged Little Pill amongst the higher-ups at Warners. “I think [the label] thought it was a little too caustic, and they were just afraid of how intense it was, to be honest,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m 19 and I’m intense.’” But she held her ground and refused to tamp down the raw emotions of the album, which hit stores a couple weeks after she turned 21. “That was a good boundary to set,” she said, “and then we used the versions of songs that I loved.”

Although Morissette was largely unknown to U.S listeners, what Jagged Little Pill and “You Oughta Know” represented didn’t entirely come out of nowhere. The early-to-mid 1990s was a fecund period for outspoken women artists, with everyone from Bikini Kill to PJ Harvey to Hole making rock music that celebrated feminism and sexual desire. (Before Morissette sang about going down on her boyfriend in a movie theater, Liz Phair had a song called “Fuck and Run” — and that was on the same album that featured a track in which she announced, “I want to be your blow-job queen.”) Musicians like Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Madonna had paved the way for this younger generation, but what this crop of new performers had in common was a complete lack of inhibition about being vocal and angry about what pissed them off. It seems silly to write now, but back then, that was shocking — and Morissette rode that wave. 

“For women sometimes, we’re told we can’t be angry. We can’t be sad and we can’t be… 17 other feelings,” Morissette observed. “You can’t be anything. So just sublimate it all. Just squish it all down. But I think I was really just devastated when I wrote [‘You Oughta Know’], and it’s a lot easier to siphon that through anger sometimes.”

As iconic as the song has become, “You Oughta Know” wasn’t the biggest hit off Jagged Little Pill. (That would be “Ironic,” which is still her most popular track on Spotify.) But as its first single, it established the album’s frank tone, with subsequent hits like “Hand in My Pocket,” “You Learn” and “Head Over Feet” further establishing her vulnerable, bristling honesty. There was a conversational frankness to her lyrics, never more so than on “You Oughta Know,” which talked about jealousy and revenge with a casualness that was novel for mainstream radio. And it made Morissette a sensation. “You Oughta Know” landed in the Top 10, the video was all over MTV and Jagged Little Pill went on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, beating out (among others) Michael Jackson, Pearl Jam and Mariah Carey

“I actually accept this on behalf of anyone who’s ever written a song from a very pure place — a very spiritual place,” she said onstage alongside Ballard, who called her “fearless.”

There was, of course, the expected backlash to all that success. (For instance, everybody made fun of “Ironic” because the lyrics weren’t actually about ironic things.) But the negative reaction to “You Oughta Know,” which won two Grammys, came in two forms. On one side, you had people who complained that the song was whiny and petulant — that its repeated “You, you, you” in the chorus was grating and that her strident tone was off-putting. On the other, there was an annoyance that the alternative-rock movement and riot grrrl aesthetic had been co-opted for this slick, pseudo-rock hit that featured guitarist Dave Navarro and bassist Flea (both of whom were in Red Hot Chili Peppers at the time) and keyboardist Benmont Tench from Tom Petty’s band. After all, Ballard was known for working with pop acts, and no one had heard of this Canadian musician before — weren’t they all just capitalizing on an edgy sound and making it more mainstream?

If that first complaint could be borderline sexist, the second had some legitimacy. Back then, it was hard not to hear “You Oughta Know” (and the whole album, frankly) and not feel like, once again, the music industry was cashing in on hip underground trends, turning them into palatable radio fodder. (Remember, Maverick had done the same thing with grunge, giving the world Candlebox.) And while accusations of “selling out” now seem antiquated and naive, there remains something irritating about watching artists you loved — trailblazers who operate on the margins and do groundbreaking work — become the grist for other musicians to go multi-platinum. 

It’s hard to say if Morissette made it better or worse in 1995 when she appeared on the cover of the tastemaking music magazine Spin and admitted that she’d never heard of PJ Harvey. Sure, she wasn’t consciously ripping off other musicians, but it seemed insulting and embarrassing that she was so unaware of an artist who’d released one of that year’s best and most acclaimed albums, To Bring You My Love. Or, as writer Amanda Marcotte put it in a 2015 Slate piece, “Alanis Morissette was a singer who, in the mid-1990s, capitalized on a small but growing trend of ‘angry woman’ rock acts, such as L7 and Hole, and made an absolute killing, selling 33 million copies of her album Jagged Little Pill worldwide. But while her predecessors wrote songs protesting sexual harassment and rape, Morissette’s big hit protested guys who break up with you.”

Obviously, the thin-skinned misogynists who couldn’t stand Morissette telling off her ex needn’t be listened to. (As for those who might think she wasn’t very ladylike in her language on “You Oughta Know” — she even dropped an F-bomb, which got censored on radio — she noted in that Spin profile, “A lot of people ask my parents, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed that your daughter speaks like that?’ and they say, ‘No, she’s been that way her whole life, she just wasn’t doing it publicly. And we’re glad she is now.’ My mother’s raunchier than I am.”) And, yet, it’s very possible for enlightened listeners to acknowledge that “You Oughta Know” was an important counterbalance to decades of vindictive songs from men about women who done them wrong — and that the song still felt a bit generic and calculated, even if it very much came from the heart. 

Of all of Morissette’s hits, “You Oughta Know” always seemed among the least interesting — the one that was most trying to be a hit with its soft-loud dynamic and roaring chorus. In comparison to all the great kiss-off songs that had been written earlier that decade, this one didn’t have the same wit, originality or complexity.

But I’m clearly in the minority. Lots and lots of people love “You Oughta Know,” and not just women. Scott Welch, Morissette’s manager, once said, “I saw the same thing with Madonna. The girls caught on first, and it was mainly women at her gigs. Then they brought their boyfriends along, and the thing went mainstream. Everyone, male or female, has had a ‘You Oughta Know’ in their life.” Where a song like “Ironic” was more bittersweet and reflective, “You Oughta Know” was bracing in its rage and very relatable in its singer’s desire to get back at this jerk who dumped her and quickly shacked up with someone new. Morissette pinpointed that mixture of jealousy and rejection that makes people want to lash out at the person who hurt them. 

“I didn’t write that song to seek actual revenge,” she later said. “I’m all about revenge fantasy, revenge as art — go for it. I’m not about formal acting out of revenge.” In the song, the best she can hope for is karmic payback: “Every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back / I hope you feel it.”

If Morissette had been famous before “You Oughta Know,” we all woulda known who she was singing about. But because of the song’s scene-setting details — the blow job in the movie theater, the verbal confrontation (“I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner”) — people kept asking her who the guy was, which she refused to disclose. “I see a huge difference between secrecy and privacy,” she said in 2008. “I’ve always been authentic in my songwriting. But I don’t talk about who I write about.” Soon, her stance became so well-established that an early episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm could get laughs by having Larry David ask Alanis if she’ll tell him who the guy was — and her deciding, eh, what the hell, why not?

Again, Morissette’s sealed lips didn’t stop former boyfriends from volunteering themselves as being the “You Oughta Know” guy. The most infamous was Dave Coulier, one of the stars of Full House, who, after years of speculation, admitted in 2013 that he was the bad ex. (“The Angry Alanis, I never met her,” he said at the time. “I never experienced that at all. She was always really funny. Really smart … just very genuine and down-to-earth.”) But then, a year later, he reversed himself:

“I dated Alanis in 1992. You know, it’s just funny to be the supposed subject of that song. First of all, the guy in that song is a real asshole, so I don’t want to be that guy. Secondly, I asked Alanis, ‘I’m getting calls by the media and they want to know who this guy is.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know it could be a bunch of people. But you can say whatever you want.’ So one time, I was doing a red carpet somewhere and [the press] just wore me down and everybody wanted to know so I said, ‘Yeah, all right, I’m the guy. There, I said it.’ So then it became a snowball effect of, ‘Oh! So you are the guy!’” 

I couldn’t care less if Coulier is actually the guy she’s singing about. But the fact that the mystery man has long intrigued the public is the part that has always interested me. Carly Simon similarly long resisted revealing who “You’re So Vain” was about — although she finally acknowledged in 2015 that Warren Beatty was one of the inspirations — and simply by not naming names, she made her targets (and other people who could have been her targets) more notorious. You’d think it would prompt these men to feel ashamed, but at least for Simon, the opposite proved true. In 1983, while denying “You’re So Vain” was about Beatty, the singer-songwriter said, “He certainly thought it was about him — he called me and said thanks for the song.” 

“You Oughta Know” may be about an asshole, but there’s also that weird, juvenile fascination we have about meeting the person who did such a number on someone that it provoked such a vitriolic response. Not unlike Justin Timberlake’s response to the end of his relationship with Britney Spears, “Cry Me a River,” “You Oughta Know” wouldn’t be so scathing if the pain wasn’t so deep — if the singer didn’t love that ex so profoundly. But as opposed to JT and other men who write breakup anthems, Morissette was honest enough to make space within her anger for her sadness as well. You can tell how mad she is, but she also seems to understand that being mad won’t be enough to make her feel better. The anger may be real, but it doesn’t feel ugly. If anything, it feels healing.

“Everybody has to release it somehow,” she told Spin back in 1995 about negative emotions. “If you don’t, it’ll take its toll on you, and it’ll either be a physical thing, or all your relationships will be really negative and full of conflict or something. So you have to deal, whether you go through therapy or get into relationships, or music, or write it out in diaries. Smoking cigarettes isn’t enough. There’s no way around pain. That’s part of the charm of being alive.”

Morissette made a career-defining album with Jagged Little Pill, and while she’s had significant commercial success since, it was inevitable she’d never top that album’s sales or cultural impact. She hasn’t been part of the zeitgeist since, but she’s remained visible and relevant, in different ways. Beyond continuing to put out new material, she’s talked about battling an eating disorder and going into therapy. She was engaged to Ryan Reynolds for years before they split up, guaranteeing that songs she wrote afterward would always be assumed to be about him. 

And in recent years, there’s been a growing appreciation for Jagged Little Pill, and “You Oughta Know,” as a new generation of artists started singing about the shitty men in their lives. The album formed the foundation of a 2018 musical, which won two Tonys. Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato have both performed “You Oughta Know” with her onstage, and it’s very hard to hear Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour and not think of the ways that Morissette opened the door for such brutally raw takedowns of bad boyfriends. Rodrigo has said as much, telling Morissette, “I remember having my mind blown when I was 13. I was in the car with my parents listening to Jagged Little Pill. I remember hearing ‘Perfect,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I told my music teacher a couple days after: ‘You can write songs like that?’ I just looked at music and songwriting in a completely different way.”

In that interview with Rodrigo, Morissette talked about the pressure she felt to follow up her blockbuster album: “After Jagged Little Pill, everywhere I went, every grocery store ever was ‘When’s your next record? I hate men, too!’” Jagged Little Pill was about more than that, but it’s funny that that’s the feedback she got from fans on the street. And no doubt that song has inspired men to think back to their past relationships, wondering how their exes might have viewed them after the whole thing went south. Were we the asshole? Did we tell her lies like we’d hold her until we died? Could we have ended things on better terms? Deep down, do we deserve to have a song as volcanic as “You Oughta Know” written about us? Did we ever say we were sorry?

For a 20th anniversary piece, Maie Pauts, who worked at a Toronto alt-rock radio station at the height of Jagged Little Pill’s popularity, tried to explain what made the album resonate. “What stood out to me was that [Morissette] was accepting her vulnerability but she definitely was not, shall we say, a victim,” Pauts said. “She was very angry, she was very aggressive. And I think the tone of the whole Jagged Little Pill album was one that embraced women for all that we are. Yes, we are women who have emotions and, like anybody else, weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our strengths. And I really think that that spoke to us. To a lot of our audience.”

You hear lots of Jagged Little Pills now, and so the shock of an “angry” woman on the radio isn’t so surprising anymore. (On last year’s Folklore, Swift sang about this directly on “Mad Woman,” condemning guys who drive women crazy and then accuse them of being angry.) It’s both a criticism of and a compliment to “You Oughta Know” that I think a lot of Morissette’s musical descendants have expressed similar sentiments in more articulate, bold and exciting ways. But someone had to sing it first to make those feelings not seem so strange and scary. Who inspired “You Oughta Know”? It wasn’t you, but for someone in your life, it might as well be.