What was the first album by a woman you remember feeling was forbidden?
Mine was Jagged Little Pill. It came out the summer before my fifth grade year. By the time I got to school, the album was in the room of every older sister. Little sisters talked about it at school. They’d mostly listened to it while sitting outside their big sister’s closed bedroom doors.
Morissette was a little muffled but they heard enough to know her words demanded whispers. There were songs about sex, sure. But people sang about sex a lot. No one was really shocked by that. It was instead that this album by this woman was so angry. She was singing about sex, while angry. And their sisters were singing along, loudly,
I want you to know, that I am 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/ 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.
I’d sorted through the lyrics of You Oughta Know sitting with friends during recess before I’d ever really heard the song. The girls with older sisters brought memorized lines of the album from home. We smuggled them into our conversations between recaps of Boy Meets World and worries about report cards.
“So ummm what do you think it means to go down in a theater?”
I had one friend with a much older sister, so old she even drank wine coolers on the weekend. This friend told us her sister told her that going down meant “a blow job”. I nodded sagely, well, of course. But now I had a new question, What was a blow job?
I finally heard the song in a friend’s bedroom. He lived across the street from me. Our families have always been close. A year older than me, with slightly less sheltering parents, he always had CDs I’d heard of but never heard. When I saw Jagged Little Pill on his dresser, I casually suggested we turn it on while we played Duck Hunt.
The harmonica and then her voice,
Do I stress you out?
Morissette’s voice lilted in and out and curved around cords and ended in a light growl. She didn’t sound angry. But she didn’t sound peaceful. And for this girl who believed women were made to bring peace, that felt radical. I turned the stereo up.
Duck Hunt wasn’t working. My friend pulled the game cartridge out of the Nintendo to blow into it. We were all certain this did something. It still didn’t work. He tried again. He was still puffing into the cartridge when You Oughta Know came on.
I knew most of the words at that point, but her voice made them different. She was angry. Why was she so angry? I was only ten but I’d already learned some lessons from church and from the world. Women were supposed to be virginal, if not virgins. Forgiving, if not forgiven. Always owing, but never owed. Chaste, but never chastising. Morissette ground out growls about broken promises and what she deserved. I recoiled.
I didn’t really understand the lyrics. For years after that afternoon, I puzzled over her scratching down someone else’s back. I knew the mechanics of reproductive sex, but could not understand what that line had to do with when a man and woman really love each other... I pictured her nails sinking into the scratches. How did you carve into someone deep enough for someone else to feel it?
It all felt violent and violating.
There was no way for me to understand, on my own, that the song was about violence and violation. But it was the emotional violence inflicted on her by a man who’d used her. Listening, perched on my friend’s bed, I just thought she was a woman who made the wrong promises. I wasn’t intrigued anymore, I was unsettled. What right did this sowing woman have to be so angry in her reaping?
When Duck Hunt flashed back onto the screen, I turned the music down,
“That was super good but I want to be able to hear the game.”
Which, if you remember what Duck Hunt sounded like, is a fairly unbelievable statement. My dear friend had the graciousness to accept it. We sat next to each together on the floor. He let me go first. I pointed the orange gun at the screen and pulled the trigger.
I avoided angry women for years.
Alanis Morissette seemed like a weary, worldly, transgressive woman to me because I was a kid. Really, Alanis Morissette was only 21 when Jagged Little Pill won Album of the Year. At the time, she was the youngest artist to ever win the award. She was only a couple years out of high school when she wrote it. There were so few years between us, between her lyrical anger and my need to turn it down.
I didn’t listen to the album again until I’d left high school myself. I was still paralyzed by the ideal of peaceful womanhood. But I would sometimes let my hands move to the places where it’d left me with open sores. I didn’t understand yet that the pathogenic bacteria feeding off the toxic fumes of the early aughts had settled into some of those wounds. I had no way to discern that sometimes sores burn because of necrotizing soft tissue infections. I could not have stomached knowing I’d spend my late twenties and early thirties cutting away dead muscle, tissue and skin to keep my beating heart.
I started college in the fall of 2003. After decorating my dorm room with strung lights and pink pillows, I went to a used CD shop and bought my own copy of Jagged Little Pill. I listened to it in the dorm when my roommate was gone. What felt transgressive and repulsive to me at ten years old was transgressive and revelatory at eighteen years old. Alanis sang frankly about having sex but this wasn’t an album about a woman having sex. She was angry in some songs but it wasn’t an album about an angry woman. It was an album about a woman having emotions. And making a record of those emotions. No one's ever liked when women put their spit and tears on the record.
In 1995, Alanis and the big sisters listening to her had plenty to be feel angry over. In 2003, Alanis’s anger had been gracious enough to wait for me. I began to be ready for it. I wasn’t home, but I was still a big sister behind a closed door. Alanis, and every other emotional woman I listened to after her, taught me how to growl. They taught me how to listen. Learning how to listen helped me hear anger from all women, not just white women with recording contracts.
I’ve wondered for a few weeks if Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour was the first album by a woman my oldest daughter thought might be off-limits. No one's going down on anyone in dark theaters in the album. But it's similar to Jagged Little Pill in that it's a lilting, grinding record of emotion, sung without apology.
My kids love Rodrigo because of her role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. (A name as long as their devotion to the show is deep.) I could see on the Spotify I share with my daughter that she’d listened to the album. But she hadn’t mentioned it to me. Not mentioning things in this house is rare and so usually respected. Kids deserve to have interior worlds and little if not unseen, then unacknowledged, transgressions that create boundaries between them and their parents.
But I didn’t want her to feel like Rodrigo’s album was transgressive. I wanted her to know that teen girls, and every emotion they feel, are welcome to make noise in this home. Because in six months, she’s going to be a teenager herself. And gosh dammit, I want her to know I want every sound she’s going to make as she moves through the years that left me silent.
We sit on the back porch in the mornings. I drank my coffee. She ate the breakfast she’d made herself, a pile of pastrami on a Hawaiian roll. I listened to her talk and when there was a lull, I asked,
“Hey, have you heard Sour yet?”
Sometimes you can see your kids attempting calculations in their heads. Assigning values to things they’ve done, seen or heard. Then they line it all up and try to figure out if it’s an formula that equals your acceptance or disapproval. I let her line up the big kid themes and words in the album while I took another sip of coffee. I don’t know if she thought it all added up alright, or if she figured I could just check the recently played list on spotify. Either way, she shrugged her shoulders,
“Uh, yeah. It’s okay.”
“Okay? I thought it was pretty kick ass.”
“Oh! Me too!”
I don’t have one oldest daughter. I have three daughters. Big sisters and little sisters. They are 12, 9 and 3. I don’t want any of them to think the complex lyricism of American girlhood has to be muffled by closed doors. So I turned Sour on while I made breakfast this morning, with the volume way up. My nine year old gasped at the first fuck,
I waved my spatula wildly,
"You listened to Hamilton for a year straight. If you can hear men say fuck while rapping about the founding, you can certainly hear a girl say it about her emotions which are a kind of founding too."
And then I teared up, which embarrassed them a little. But made them laugh too. We replayed the song and sang along.
All I did was try my best / This the kind of thanks I get? / Unrelentlessly upset (ah, ah, ah) / They say these are the golden years / But I wish I could disappear / Ego crush is so severe / God, it's brutal out here (Yeah!)
We’ll listen to women sing crunching, cranking, climbing emotion together in the kitchen as they grow up. But we’re belting “it’s brutal out here” together because I want them to have the space to hear it when they are alone. Even moms who’ve perfect their snarl can’t teach their daughters how to growl. They need other grinding voices.
Maybe I'm too emotional / But your apathy's like a wound in salt / Maybe I'm too emotional / Or maybe you never cared at all / Maybe I'm too emotional / Your apathy is like a wound in salt / Maybe I'm too emotional / Or maybe you never cared at all
Sometimes my oldest listens to music behind her closed door. Mostly, she borrows my iPhone and goes on long walks. Headphones in and the volume turned way up. I can check her volume levels on the phone after she gets home. It's always loud enough to create a room of her own. I want to walk with her, but know I can’t. Not really.
Teen girlhood is just such a fucking glorious, exhilarating, lonely time.
Godspeed, my good girls.
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