You Oughta Know by Leah Baker
Awkward middle schooler that I was in the mid-90s, I thought having a boom box made me marginally cool — at least, cool enough to pass as normal around my peers — and that listening to the alternative radio station made me even cooler. In the days of The Radio, you couldn’t just pick up your phone and check which artist was playing — you had to listen for it. And if the radio DJ didn’t announce the artist, or had announced it before the whole set of songs, well, woe is you. At the time, I had a favorite song and had no idea who sang it, but I did know that its chorus contained a melody that made my soul shift forward each time it passed through my ears. It also had one bleeped f-word in it, which made the listener an instant badass.
One evening I was with my cousin, who was much cooler than me because she was older or had dark brown lipstick or hoop earrings or whatever makes someone cool, when the song came on the radio. I was itching to ask the much-cooler-cousin who the artist was, and I’m sure I tried to play my question off cooly in a mumble of something like, “Oh, this song is nice I guess. Who sings it again?” She responded nonchalantly, and in two flashes I was at Fred Meyer purchasing my first ever CD: Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill.
I couldn’t Google her at the time obvs, but according to the album insert, I knew Alanis was one edgy chick. Grungy 90s hair. Played guitar. Discordant font choices. Her aesthetic made complete sense to me in a way nothing else had; I had found my new idol. I listened through and through. I listened day and night. I memorized the lyrics faster than I had memorized the Pocahontas soundtrack in 4th grade. My father started to notice the grunge rock emerging from my boombox. A conservative military man, he felt it was his duty to protect his daughter from bad influences. “I’m going to have to give this album a listen before you can have it back,” he said one weekend and took it into his office, slipping the shiny disc into his stereo.
I paced outside the room, wondering what he was thinking. His favorite album at the time was Yanni: Live at the Acropolis (Google that one, kids), so this was certainly a genre outside his comfort zone. When my favorite song came on, You Oughta Know, I casually entered the room. I knew the f-word was coming up, and I wanted to do a subtle coverup at the right moment the verse came around. Lyrics beloved by me were floating harmlessly through the air…
Is she perverted like me?
Would she go down on you in a theater?
I tried to look mellow, relying on the song’s overall innocence until the one incriminating word approached. I sang along angelically…
And every time I scratch my nails
Down someone else’s back I hope you feel it
Well, can you feel it?
At the time, I couldn’t tell if things were going well because my father is the strong, silent type. I can’t remember if I successfully talked over the f-word because I started to be absorbed by the fact that he was more silent than usual — angry, almost. “Do you understand the things she’s saying?” He finally asked me. And shame quietly filled the room.
It’s possible that the divide that had been forming between us in the years leading up to this was cemented that day, or in the days leading up to it, or some other time I can’t pinpoint. What I do know is that our ability to relate was diminishing, and his ability to raise daughters and prepare them for the realities of the world was well-intentioned, but ultimately lacking. In these matters, he was as awkward an adult as I was a middle schooler. God forgive him; his daughter now wore a bra and bled and never did these realities come up in conversation. I wasn’t allowed to date, although I certainly did in secret eventually, and this conversation never happened, either — it was just silently enforced. My interest in matters to which he couldn’t relate was often met with silence or a simple, “I don’t understand.”
My father ended up giving me the CD back, silently and without question, but without question, disappointment and confusion lingered in him. Eventually, I learned the meanings of the not-so-secret innuendos in her songs — but this was beside the point. In the years that followed, the ferocity of Alanis’ unapologetic music was my teacher, and she my guide. The tenacity of her words helped me develop my own sense of power as I navigated breakups and the inevitability of being cheated on. I still cared about being cool, like any teen, but I learned from Alanis the sort of f-k-it-ness and confidence I needed to learn at that age.
So thanks, Alanis. For the lessons my household couldn’t teach me.
About the Author:
Leah Baker is a high school language arts teacher, acrobat, aerialist, yogi, seamstress, world traveler, and writer.