The lyrics are about a parent who gently, and then more forcefully, pushes his/her child to excel. Alanis was a child in show business, appearing on the Nickelodeon show You Can't Do That On Television when she was just 10 years old, so she had lot of early experience with expectations. She has explained that the song is not about her relationship with her parents, but the pressures of society, which will love you as long as you're perfect.
This was the breakthrough song on the Jagged Little Pill album, which Alanis wrote with the producer Glen Ballard. They spent a lot of time trying to make Morissette's analytical lyrics work in the context of songs, and it was in the middle of work on another song that something clicked. They abandoned that song and cranked out "Perfect" in about 20 minutes. They recorded a demo of the song that night, and it was this original demo that ended up on the album. Alanis, who is an investigative, logical type, had a hard time understanding how this song could appear so quickly. She said she was "scared," since she had no explanation for it. Once the song was completed, she and Ballard found their groove and were able to complete the album.
Morissette was just 19 when she wrote this song on May 27, 1994 with Glen Ballard. Some of the songs on the album (especially "You Oughta Know
) are very personal, but she took a different approach on "Perfect."
"Writing songs from an autobiographical place, I get bored with myself after a while," she told Spotify. "So often I would write from a different perspective, dialogically, so it would be a conversation captured in a Gestalt way, switching seats back and forth."
During her live shows, Morissette dedicated the song to "all the Catholic school girls out there," having been one herself for several years. When asked if Catholicism can ruin a girl's self esteem, Morissette told Q magazine: "It can ruin a lot of a girl. Organized religion makes not only women, but people generally feel guilty about things they're reveling in. You're supposed to make mistakes in order to figure things out. The whole concept of sin and good and heaven and hell is so strangely black and white it's hard for anyone to be human within it."
In an interview with CBC Music, Ballard recalled the recording session: "There was so much non-verbal intention in her vocal. You can hear there's the cry in the sound of her voice. What is that emotion, you know? What are the words that go with that? And somehow, she was able to do it. I mean, it was just an extraordinary thing to witness. And I was sort of hearing her do it as I'm making these tracks, and we're kicking stuff back and forth with the music, but she's just writing furiously, and then singing some, writing, singing, writing, singing, it was great. Sitting on the floor, never would sit in a chair."
He continued. "People think that she was in this heavy state of mind when making it, the opposite was true. I've never been funnier, she laughed at everything I had to say. She was just in a place of wanting fun and laughter, and she was making me laugh, so hard that I couldn't even sit up. Honestly, it was that fun."
This was the first song Morissette performed in her audition for Guy Oseary at Maverick Records, a label co-founded by Madonna in 1992. "Within, I don't know, 20 or 30 seconds into the song, I was done," Oseary recalled. "I was already blown away and never heard anything like it and wanted to sign her. That was really it, for me."
Morissette released five albums through Maverick, the last being Flavors of Entanglement in 2008.
The concepts of expectations and perfection intrigued Morissette, as they are arbitrary standards. "If we are indeed these unique snowflakes, how is it there is one snowflake by which we have to measure ourselves by?" she told Spotify. "It doesn't make sense, but we continue to do it."
"The song is the plight of the overachiever," she added. "I had straight As as a kid and was on that end of the continuum, which is equally as traumatizing as the other end. We underfunction or we overfunction depending on what we think we can to best to survive. For me that survival was about chasing perfection and it was daunting. The pervasive message is that you aren't enough and you're innately bad, and I had to comment on it. I was sobbing on the ground when I wrote it."