This song is an angry message from a scorned ex-girlfriend directed at her former lover. Morissette has said it is about a specific person, but that person has not contacted her, and probably doesn't know it's about him. Morissette claims she will never say who this is about, just as Carly Simon has done with "You're So Vain
The song was rumored to be about the actor Dave Coulier, whom Morissette dated for a time - Coulier says it was in 1992 when Alanis would have been 17 or 18 years old and he would have been 32 or 33 (hence the line "an older version of me"). Coulier played Joey on the TV show Full House
, and is known for his Bullwinkle impression.
In a 2008 interview with the Calgary Herald
, Coulier claimed the song is about their rocky former relationship. The actor/comedian said that he first heard the track when he was driving. "I said, 'Wow, this girl is angry.' And then I said, 'Oh man, I think it's Alanis,'" Coulier revealed. "I listened to the song over and over again, and I said, 'I think I have really hurt this person.' I tried to contact her and I finally got a hold of her. And at the same time, the press was calling and saying, 'You want to comment on this song?' I called her and I said, 'Hi. Uh, what do you want me to say?' And she said, 'You can say whatever you want.' We saw each other and hung out for an entire day. And it was beautiful. It was one of those things where it was kind of like, 'We're good.'"
Coulier later said that he only admitted to being the subject of the song to placate reporters who kept asking him about it. In 2014, he told Buzzfeed
: "The guy in that song is a real a-hole, so I don't want to be that guy."
The lyrics came from a journal entry Morissette wrote during what she describes as "a very devastated time." She told Spotify: "When I hear that song, I hear the anger as a protection around the searing vulnerability. I was mortified and devastated. It was a lot easier for me to be angry and feel the power from that anger versus the broken, horrified woman on the floor."
Morissette started out as a dance-pop singer, releasing her first album in her native Canada in 1991 when she was 16. Another album was released a year later, but then she was dropped from her label. Looking to change direction, she went to Los Angeles and met with producers, looking for someone to help fulfill her vision. She found her man in Glen Ballard, who worked for Quincy Jones' label and produced the first Wilson Phillips album.
They had an instant rapport and easy songwriting chemistry, completing one song every time they met for a session at Ballard's studio. "You Oughta Know" was written on October 6, 1994, after a three-month hiatus. By this time, Morissette was comfortable enough with Ballard to reveal her deeply personal lyric. After they worked up the track, she blasted out the vocal in one take.
In a Songfacts interview with Ballard
, he said: "The most wonderful thing for me as a writer is to hear someone's voice in the room, and she was constantly auditioning how to do it, so at the end of the night on 'You Oughta Know,' we had a track, and she just went out and sang it one time, and since I was the engineer too, I was hoping I'd got it. It's not the best recorded vocal in the world - some of it is too hot - but that's the only time she ever sang it in the studio. Even when we were getting ready to put the record out, all those vocals were the original vocals. I've never done anything that authentically live. Really, that's what it was, a live vocal, but she's so damn good that she could pull it off. There was some talk about refining things and re-doing things, but she was adamant that there was something about the moment of creation when we did it."
Radio stations played this with different degrees of editing. The offending lines are "Would she go down on you in a theater" and "Are you thinking of me when you f--k her." Some stations played a version that completely eliminated "down" and "f--k," while others left in "down" and only cut a little of "f--k."
It took a degree of courage for Alanis to sing these lines, and it was her producer Glen Ballard who offered the crucial encouragement. Said Alanis: "I thought, This is exactly how I feel, but I don't want to hurt anybody. Glen just said, You have to do this."
Morissette didn't have a record deal when she recorded this song, and had a hard time finding any takers when she shopped it along with "Hand In My Pocket" and "Perfect" as a demo for the Jagged Little Pill album. The only major label to show interest was Madonna's Maverick Records, whose 22-year-old A&R man Guy Oseary got very excited when he heard it. He signed her to Maverick in a deal that worked out rather well for the label when the album became one of the best-sellers of the '90s.
This won Grammys for Best Rock Song and Best Female Rock Vocal. Jagged Little Pill
also won for Best Rock Album and Album of the Year. Along with Bruce Springsteen and U2, Morissette became the only artist to win for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album in the same year.
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Dave Navarro (guitar) and Flea (bass) from The Red Hot Chili Peppers played on this. Flea explained to Bass Player magazine: "It was very instinctive - I showed up, rocked out, and split. When I first heard the track, it had a different bassist and guitarist on it; I listened to the bass line and thought, That's some weak s--t! It was no flash and no smash! But the vocal was strong, so I just tried to play something good."
On organ is Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, who came in for one session when Morissette and Ballard were working on the album. He played on six tracks total. His payment: dinner.
This song propelled Morissette to international stardom, but fame turned out to be a jagged little pill. When she became recognized just about everywhere she went, it ruined one of her favorite pursuits: people-watching. After about 18 months of touring an promotion, she was exhausted. She took a trip to India to get centered and released her next album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, in 1998.
In America, this song blasted over the airwaves late in the summer of 1995, creating quite a buzz for Morissette. Because of its cold vocal open, DJs had to be quick and creative when talking it up (no dead air... keep the music moving
), a problem compounded by her six syllables. Talking over the end was also verboten - the outro is also a cold vocal.
Many listeners ended up in record stores looking for the song, only to find it wasn't for sale, a common gambit in mid-'90s music marketing to increase album sales. The only way to own the song was on the Jagged Little Pill
album, which ended up selling over 16 million copies at a time when albums were going for about $15 a pop.
Keeping the single off the market made the song ineligible for the Hot 100, but in July 1995 it made #1 on the Modern Rock chart, and in September it peaked at #13 on the Airplay chart. The same tactic was employed on the next single, "Hand In My Pocket
," which in October made #1 Modern Rock and #15 Airplay. Jagged Little Pill
was selling about a million copies a month, a trend that continued throughout 1996. Morissette's Grammy performance of "You Oughta Know" happened in February that year and was used as the B-side of "Ironic
," which climbed to #4 on the Hot 100 in April. "You Learn
" was then released as a single, again with the Grammy performance of "You Oughta Know" on the flip; it went to #6 in July, finally winding down a calendar year of Alanis that was marketed with masterful precision.
Morissette performed a slow version of this at the 1996 Grammy Awards. The show was on a 7-second delay so they could bleep out the word "f--k." The uncensored version of the Grammy performance was released as the B-side of "You Learn" in 1996.
Morissette never sang a sanitized version, either in the studio or live. When she performed it on TV, producers often asked her to change the lyrics, but she never did, figuring it was better to sing her truth and have it muted than to censor herself.
This is often considered a revenge song, but Morissette says that was never the motivation. "The context is important," she told Spotify. "I didn't know that many people would be hearing the song. I didn't think the whole planet would be hearing it. I was writing it so I didn't get sick. I was writing it to get it out of my body, the same way I would speak to a therapist or my best friend. If I didn't speak about it, I would have gotten sick. It was very cathartic. I thought that writing songs with these subject matters in them would mean I wouldn't have to talk to human beings. But having sung 'You Oughta Know' countless times over the years, the relationship itself was still tinged with pain, and I quickly came to see that the process of writing these songs was very cathartic, but it wasn't healing - I still had to interact with human beings to resolve things."
This song gained a lot of exposure when Morissette performed it on the MTV Video Music Awards and on Saturday Night Live.
Recording this without a label deal gave Morissette a degree of freedom. "We were so completely untethered from the mainstream - no record company, no supervision - so we were all really just doing it to please ourselves," Glen Ballard told Songfacts. "I had no idea where or when it would come out. I knew I had a brilliant artist in the studio with me and that's all I cared about. We weren't listening to stuff to try to make it sound like what was on the radio."
It never reached Taylor Swift level, but Alanis has gotten considerable musical inspiration from past relationships, with this song being the most famous example. She became sexually active when she was 14, although being Catholic, she held off on intercourse until she was 19. Many of her physical relationships were with older men, since she felt incompatible with guys her own age. Her song "Hands Clean
" deals with one of these relationships.
An alternate version of "You Oughta Know" known as the "Jimmy The Saint Blend" is listed as the last track on the album. Following some silence, a hidden a cappella track called "Your House
" comes on, in which Morissette describes snooping around a guy's house without permission. There were rumors that "Your House" describes the events that led her to write "You Oughta Know," but that one is about a different relationship.
This song is a storyline in the 2002 "The Terrorist Attack" episode of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. On the show, Larry David tries to get Alanis to tell him who the song is about, swearing he'll keep the secret. She ends up whispering it in his ear, and it doesn't take long for Larry to pass it on.
Beyoncé covered the song during her 2009 I Am... World Tour and performed part of it at the 2010 Grammy Awards.
Speaking with Parade in a 2012 interview, Morissette said she never tires of performing this song, as "it's a great vehicle to channel through any rage or pent-up energy from that day."
In a 2015 Entertainment Weekly interview, Morissette pondered why so many men wanted to stake their claim on a tune that was far from complimentary.
"You know you don't sound like the greatest guy in the world, right?" she said. "I didn't write it to get back. Everybody called it the perfect revenge song, but that's not what it was. It's a devastated song, and in order to pull out of that despondency, being angry is lovely. I think the movement of anger can pull us out of things. Fifty-five people can take credit for that song, and I'm always curious about why they're doing it. But Dave is the most public about it."
This was used on several TV shows, including:
The Office ("A Benihana Christmas" - 2006): sung by Kevin accompanied by Darryl on the synthesizer.
30 Rock ("Episode 210" - 2008)
Degrassi: The Next Generation ("Never Ever: Part 1" - 2012)
Bob's Big Burgers ("My Big Fat Greek Bob" - 2013)
The song also features in the 1999 comedy Holy Smoke, starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, and the 2006 comedy-drama The Break-Up, starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston.
With this song, Morissette disintegrated the squeaky-clean image she cultivated in her native Canada with her first two dance-pop-oriented albums. "This record came from a place in me I had to release," she told MOJO in 1995. "A lot of the anger comes from the fact that I didn't face it, out of fear, the whole Pollyanna approach I had when I was younger. I denied myself any reveling in my darker side. But as soon as I started writing, I came to terms with it."
The singer quickly became frustrated when the provocative line "Would she go down on you in a theater" became the song's biggest talking point. "That one line being focused on so much in the media was a misrepresentation of why it was written," she told Q magazine in 1996. "It says a lot about how society may not have evolved as much as I thought, that it still sees sexual references as taboo. It was written from a desperate, dark, almost pathetically sad place within my subconscious, a conversation I was having with my own psyche - it's a line as potent as any other on the record."
For mellow coffeehouse listening, Morissette released a toned-down version on the 10th anniversary acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill
in 2005. It was sold exclusively at Starbucks for the first six months.
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In May 2018, the musical Jagged Little Pill, based on songs from the album, debuted to favorable reviews at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Written by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, the story follows the struggles of a suburban family in Connecticut. "You Oughta Know" is performed in Act II by Lauren Patten, who portrays Jo, a love interest of the family's daughter.
Some armed men threatened Alanis Morissette while she was working on Jagged Little Pill and the singer almost lost all the work she had done for the record. Speaking to Alex Jones and Gethin Jones on BBC's The One Show, she said:
"I was being held up at gunpoint and they wanted all my things and I knew that I was going to give them anything, first of all. Second of all, I had my backpack with all the Jagged Little Pill record contents in it. I gave them my wallet and my purse and they said go lie down. So I lay down with my backpack and thought they'll take that on the way out but they didn't. It was so fortuitous and I'm happy to still be here."