Like her breakout hit "You Oughta Know
," this song finds Alanis Morissette lashing out at a former love. She has never said who either song is about, but has confirmed that she had specific guys in mind.
"Hands Clean" implies a relationship with an older man who was a kind of mentor to her ("You're a kind of my protégé and one day you'll say you learned all you know from me"). This is a pretty wide field, since Morissette had many physical relationships with older men when she was a teenager. A lot of this had to do with circumstance, since she started writing songs and recording when she was just 10 years old. She was 16 when her first album, Alanis
, was released in her native Canada, and during this time she was constantly surrounded by older men who worked with her and guided her career.
Alanis found herself attracted to many of these men, who she found more intellectually stimulating than her younger peers. Relationships developed thanks to a combination of nebulous boundaries and a maturity that belied her age. "I always felt like I was much older than I was chronologically, so it was a quandary for me, because I needed to date older men," she told the journalist Gavin Martin in 2004. Asked how she felt about these guys, Alanis replied: "I feel sadness, empathy. I think, 'Wow, what were you doing dating a 17 year old?' I get it too. When I think back to who I was as a 17 year old, I completely understand why they would have been drawn to me."