The song “You Oughta Know” was released just over 20 years ago and though I wasn’t a fan of Alanis at the time due to largely frivolous reasoning – she was infuriatingly inescapable; I had a predilection for dead rock stars; the popular girls at school that I didn’t really like dug Alanis which was enough for me to immediately dismiss her as lame – I’ve come to realise that the song is actually a wonderfully subversive piece of pop. The song’s arrangement is a watered down piece of post-grunge sure, with its quiet/loud dynamic and the addition of Flea and Dave Navarro contributing some of their trademark Chilli Pepper funk sheen for good measure, but it still conveys a feeling of honest aggression largely thanks to Alanis’ arresting vocal performance. Of course it’s no Kathleen Hanna or Courtney Love level riot grrrl admonishment of the patriarchy, but for a class of song that could be best described – to paraphrase a certain voice of the generation – as radio friendly unit shifters, it’s practically revolutionary.
Giving the song another listen all these years later, and reading those lyrics (that bit about the theatre!), it’s hard to imagine a track like “You Oughta Know” being as big a commercial hit today. Perhaps I am overly romanticising the 90s’ in the fashion that many agitated members of Gen-X seem to be partial to in recent years; the exact same kind of grumpy glorification of our youth culture that we accused our baby boomer parents of. But I have to wonder: was “You Oughta Know” a pop anomaly or was it indicative of a cultural shift in the music charts in which “alternative” and “mainstream” were largely indistinguishable? Yeah right, but “Alternative to What?” declared a cover of The Baffler in 1993. Can anything ever truly be “alternative” once it achieves a large audience? What exactly consitutes a large audience?
And what is “alternative” anyway in this day and age? Can it even exist in the music world when a quick Google search produces a seemingly endless audio tasting plate where one can revisit and remix and reimagine and recontextualise? But those alt. vs mainstream feels are still with us. A whole bunch of folk got very upset when Justin Bieber wore a Nirvana t’shirt at an award show despite the fact that Nirvana is a multimillion dollar institution that enjoyed massive mainstream chart success (particularly with the LP Nevermind) and whose merchandise can be found everywhere from Hot Topic to the racks of K-mart (sidenote: last Christmas the latter was selling a t-shirt that featured the famous Nirvana smiley wearing a Santa hat). And who could forget this piece of work, designed no doubt to not only comment on the terrible photoshopping and misattribution that often occurs on the internet, but to also irritate humorless fans. Perhaps it’s more a question of authenticity?
Whatever the case, Alanis’ “You Oughta Know”seems to have maintained it’s vitality, with current pop sensations such as Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato and Mrs Carter covering the track to inject a bit of ’90s angst into their own performances. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even give the entire album Jagged Little Pill a second chance. Cos really, I should be over high school by now.