Jeff Kravitz

'You Oughta Know' Is The Most Obnoxious Karaoke Song Ever -- But I Still Love It

A karaoke host reflects on her storied history with Alanis Morissette's hit.

By Cassie J. Sneider

There are few karaoke songs more overused (and abused) than Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know." If you are a woman who is breathing and has a heart, you have likely belted out the angry, possibly Dave-Coulier-inspired track in a bar surrounded by friends at someone's birthday or alone in one of those tiny private rooms, tears mingling with the salt of all those who came before.

I know this because I have heard you singing night after night after night after night. I am your karaoke host.

And let me just say it: I have had it with that song. At least until recently.

Before we get into all that, let me back up to my first encounter with "You Oughta Know.” I got a tape of Jagged Little Pill for Christmas in 1995, right in the middle of the seventh grade, which should be the worst year of anyone’s life unless you are a serial killer who had a really nice childhood.

I changed schools in junior high, so instead of making friends, I spend an inordinate amount of time coveting whatever albums were in the house. I listened to Jagged Little Pill every morning in the front seat of the bus, where the only kids who would talk to me were a pair of identical twins who both looked like Jerry Seinfeld and a girl with a cracked front tooth whose parents were nudists that celebrated the solstice. Alanis Morissette was like my imaginary friend during this time, and every morning bus ride was like hanging out with the four Alanises in the video for “Ironic,” especially the one in the front seat who tries to climb out the window.

It’s hard to talk about how music used to be without sounding like a wizened old woman with a wispy beard, but I remember how numb my elbows and knees would get from laying on the carpet to unfold the liner notes so that I could follow along with the words. I cherished this tape so much that when the case cracked, I switched it out with a Van Halen case my stepdad would never notice was gone.

I remember playing the song “Head Over Feet” for my music class on the day when you were supposed to bring in something that represented who you were musically. I had butt-length hair that people would throw gum in for no apparent reason, and I remember looking at the bored faces of my classmates as Alanis’ voice ethereally lifted from the boombox at the front of the room. Were they dead inside? Did they not feel or understand what beautiful music was?

When I became a teenager, I went down a dark rabbit hole of punk and garage music and emerged a woman with the taste of a record store guy with a salt-and-pepper goatee who loves using words like "quadrophonic." My copy of Jagged Little Pill now resides in the basement of my parent’s house, probably being crushed by an unused treadmill or crate of VHS tapes.

So, when I started hosting karaoke four years ago, I had almost entirely forgotten about Jagged Little Pill. The first reminder of it came at the live band karaoke I hosted once a week.

“I want you to know...” The woman in front of me was wasted. Her mascara was a little runny and her face puffy like she’d been crying in a bathroom until I announced her name. She was listing to one side in wedge heels that on a drunk person can easily become “tendon-snappers.” I pointed to the lyrics, trying to get her to follow along. “That I’m happy for you...” She looked into the audience where her girlfriends were taking video. A friend whistled through her teeth and yelled, “Get it, Kayla!”

I ended up singing most of the song with her, one hand following along to the lyrics sheet, the other holding the mic. It was a disaster, but like every other night, it’s my job to make people feel good about themselves and their voices. It’s hard to sing in front of strangers, and if I didn’t scream, “GIVE IT UP FOR KAYLA!” at the end, I wouldn’t be doing my job as a public servant.

There were six singles off of Jagged Little Pill, but at karaoke, you only hear one. “You Oughta Know” has taken on a life of its own in the underworld of karaoke. There are few songs that perfectly encapsulate the anger of a wronged woman from her perspective, and even fewer that are accessible to every voice. If you were alive in the mid-'90s, you already know the song. Somewhere in the attic of your brain are the lyrics, song structure, and the howling bridge.

It’s for all these reasons that “You Oughta Know” is a karaoke power anthem that refuses to die. I've seen it sung so many times that, at some point, I forgot what it originally sounded like -- you know, without the scrolling words and the off-key screaming and the tears.

Rediscovering Jagged Little Pill at karaoke felt like coming home to my apartment to find The Alanis In The Green Sweater and The Alanis With Braids sitting on my couch in the dark next to an empty bottle of red wine, asking me where I’ve been for the last 20 years. I felt guilt and shame. I abandoned my old friend, and she started hanging around with a bad crowd: people with problems. Even though it had been a huge part of my evolution as a person, I wasn’t sure if I could let this album back into my life. It had been tainted by the experience of watching sad people sing it while they are publicly having feelings.

Not all karaoke experiences with Jagged Little Pill have been THAT bad, however. Once in a blue moon, some drunk angel will appear and sing “Hand In Pocket” or “You Learn” and then vanish before I can thank them. It is during these moments that I remember briefly how much I loved that album, and how Alanis meant much more to me than the anger she felt for Uncle Joey. She taught me what irony was and wasn’t. Through Jagged Little Pill, I learned about love and what it might be like if I lived long enough to become an adult. But most importantly, she was my friend, with one hand on my shoulder while I rang the doorbell to a solstice party.

And that's why, 20 years later -- on Jagged Little Pill's anniversary -- I think I may be finally ready to let Alanis back in.

On a recent road trip, my boyfriend and I were switching off DJ responsibilities. I picked the theme of Junior High. He played Black Sheep. I played the Bloodhound Gang, and after a lengthy bout of torturing me with They Might Be Giants, Nick fell asleep in the passenger seat and I put on Jagged Little Pill. And I listened. Just listened. And I remembered every word and every break. I remembered every part where I would fast-forward to get to the next song. This album was with me all along, in my heart, even in times when there was only one set of footprints on the beach -- or one too many voice screeching along in a late-night bar.

I changed lanes and looked in the rearview mirror at Orange Sweater Alanis.

We had a lot of catching up to do.