18. Alanis Morissette - You Oughta Know

Shakespeare's* quote about a woman scorned is often used when talking about "You Oughtta Know" by Alanis Morissette.  And while that may be true, I think the song takes it to an even harsher level.  In this case, the song's subject is about the annihilation of a woman's self-esteem that's been replaced with a vitriolic rage that she can't control (nor does she really want to).  In other words, don't fuck with Alanis Morissette.  And although she's never confirmed it (much like Carly Simon and the supposed Warren Beatty dig, "You're So Vain", it's been confirmed by Dave Coulier+ that he's the ex-boyfriend in question.

At the urging of her new producer, Glen Ballard, Alanis left her musical past# behind her and started writing songs from her life.  As they teach in Writing 101, write what you know.  And boy did she.  The song starts with her slow, but very deliberate lyric "I want you to know, that I'm happy for you" as she begins to unleash a torrent of hate in the general direction of, well, anywhere her ex-boyfriend might ever be.  And for those irony impaired, she's not really happy for him.  There's just a simple, quiet snare drum that's being played with brushes to keep the beat muted that goes well with her quiet opening lines.  As she builds melodic and lyric intensity in her vocals, the instrumentation tries to match it. 

With the help of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Dave Navarro and Flea, the musical foundation that Alanis can build her vocals on is very strong indeed.  Although I didn't know that it was these guys playing on the track until recently, I always thought the bass line was awesome.  Now I know why.  Flea brings an intense funkiness to every bass line he plays, and it really works well in this song.  The fuzziness in Dave's guitar was a sound I hadn't really heard before and it really helped bridge the gap between Alanis' dramatic vocal pauses.  If you just listen to the instrumentation, you could easily fit a fun, poppy vocal performance around it, showing the versatility of their playing.

But this is not a fun, poppy song.  You can definitely see the influence of Liz Phair's "Exile in Guyville" all over "You Oughtta Know" and the whole Jagged Little Pill album.  They're both albums by women who are through with being screwed over by men and are taking things into their own hands - and not always in a positive way.  Alanis' biting lyrics in the chorus speak volumes:

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

But that's not all.  In the next verse, she really pulls all the punches with her accusatory words.  There's nothing left to interpretation.

You seem very well, things look peaceful
I'm not quite as well, I thought you should know
Did you forget about me Mr. Duplicity
I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner
It was a slap in the face how quickly I was replaced
Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?

I asked my wife, Jennifer, (a big Alanis fan) why this song spoke to her and so many others.  "Because we've all been there," she said.  Almost every woman has been dumped by a guy who moved on to the new flavor of the month, either oblivious to or apathetic of the destruction he left in his wake.  When I told Jennifer that I thought it might be tough for Alanis to sing it now, after she's had some semblance of closure and years to put it behind her.  Jennifer told me of a quote she heard from Gwen Stefani, speaking about her hit with No Doubt, "Don't Speak."  Gwen said that even though the song wasn't an accurate portrayal of her current life, she still sang it on behalf of all the other women in the audience that were going through those things right then.  I imagine that Alanis does the same when she sings it now. 

But the ultimate question is, why is this song #18 on my list?   Simply because it spoke to me, a man, so deeply about the amount of emotional damage we men can do to the women that we claim to love that I couldn't shake it for a week after I first heard it.  And I've never even treated a woman in such a cowardly way.   It made me really feel for the women who have been.  We, as men, have an obligation to treat women with respect, even when we don't want to be in a relationship with them anymore.  When we don't, we do so at our own peril, because one of them could write a song that makes you look like a hall-of-fame asshole.  And don't we do enough other stuff to make us look bad, guys?

*The quote that I talked about at the beginning of this post is often attributed to William Shakespeare, with the dictum being, if it's old and famous, Shakespeare probably wrote it.  While that's mostly true, it's not in this case.  The quote is:  "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned.  Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."  It's from the 1697 work "The Mourning Bride" by William Congreave. 

+ Yes, that Dave Coulier.  Uncle Joey from TV's "Full House."  Which begs the question, how could a humongous dork like that possibly hurt someone that bad?  Either she had the emotional stability of the San Andreas fault or he is one closeted mean motherfucker.  When you add the fact that she was sixteen at the time and he was thirty-one!, I'd probably bet on the latter.

#Alanis Morissette had a secret from her past that she desperately wanted no one to discover.  Alanis is a talented singer/songwriter and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Alanis Morissette, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Walk Away."

In the TV comedy How I Met Your Mother, one of the characters has a secret from her past that she desperately wants to keep.  Robin Scherbatzky is a TV news anchor and is respected in her profession.  But her secret finally comes out.  Years before, she was Robin Sparkles, Canadian pop star.  But her shame is our glee, so please enjoy her music video** for "Sandcastles in the Sand."

**Alanis' video featured a pre-"Friends" Matt LeBlanc as her love interest.  Robin's video features a post-"Dawson's Creek" James VanDerBeek as her love interest, and 80's American pop icon, Tiffany, as her rival.
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