Why the singer-songwriter's devil-may-care-about-your-buzz-band presence once again holds an unflinching mirror up to our current cultural moment.
By Lindsay Zoladz, April 3, 2012
"90s Singer Fiona Apple Plays a Series of Comeback Shows," announces a billboard on my Yahoo homepage. (Yes, it's still my hompeage-- when I start to get an ego about having a certain number of Twitter followers, Yahoo's persistent refusal to run headlines about Bradford Cox or Azealia Banks reminds me, comfortingly, that I am but a speck in the cultural universe.) I love this: "90s Singer Fiona Apple." In the past few years, we've been dealing with plenty of Things From the 90s in the form of an endless spate of reunion tours and commemorative anniversary reissues, not to mention all that plaid. But the shows that Apple has been playing over the past few weeks have, oddly, felt out of step with all that.
Based on reports from her performances at SXSW and in New York and Chicago, something about Apple's return has been overwhelmingly present-tense, and the language used to describe her recent shows has been nothing short of rapturous. "Fiona Apple has become the best singer in the world," Pitchfork contributor Matthew Perpetua tweeted after a Manhattan show last week. After seeing her at SXSW, Nitsuh Abebe wrote, "At the moment she seems... hyper-alive, working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it." For once, the comment sections and @ replies all hum in assent. We have been wondering what sort of miracle it would take to cure the indie world of its Retromania, to break from the nostalgic haze of the pretty-recent past and bring us back to the primacy of Right Now. But who could have predicted that the one to do this would be 90s Singer Fiona Apple?
The way people have talked about the searing physical images of Apple's recent performances suggest that she's some kind of savior from these airbrush'd, cyborg'd, sea-punk'd times.
We did not talk about Fiona Apple like this in the actual 90s, when she was riding the monstrous success of her 1996 multi-platinum debut album, Tidal, dating up-and-coming magician David Blaine (remember?!), and responding to the controversy surrounding the voyeuristic, uncomfortably sexy music video for her smash hit "Criminal". Back then, these were the words that always cropped up in articles about Fiona Apple: "angry," "crazy," "sexy," "jailbait," "waif-like," "fragile," and maybe more than anything, "nervous"-- both in that she seemed perpetually anxious and that she had a way of making the writers tasked with profiling her feel a certain jitteriness, too.
Thanks to the cries of "Girl Power!" in the air, 1997 was one of those years that certain magazines decided to dub "The Year of the Woman." That fall, Apple covered Spin's "Girl Issue" with a fuck-you smirk and blue eyes that could stare a hole through a plate of scrambled eggs. Still, it was a dubious honor: Apple took issue with the way the article portrayed her. "She takes the stage... generally acting like a sexy, temperamental teenager," goes one passage, "the kind of arty, ravished girl you knew in junior high who wrote poems in all lower-case letters." Reading negative letters referencing the article prompted Apple to write a 90-word poem that would serve as the Guinness-Record-setting title of her sophomore album, which is probably worth revisiting in full:
When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he'll win the whole thing 'fore he enters the ring
There's no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won't matter, cause you'll know that you're right
The Spin story certainly wasn't the worst thing written about her at the time; that distinction might go to a misogynistic 1997 op-ed in NY Rock, in which Apple is dismissed as "pretentious" and "an excruciatingly silly human being." Particular vitriol is reserved for her Best New Artist acceptance speech at the 1997 VMAs, which is called "one of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event (which is pretty amazing in light of the competition.)"
My experience of that speech couldn't have been more different. When it originally aired, I was 11 and up past my bedtime. Apple walked up to the podium, looking oddly radiant but decidedly unglamorous and a little shaken up, and proceeded to deliver an impromptu speech that came out of her in an anxious dribble of words. "Everybody watching this world," she gestured towards the glowing stage, "This world is bullshit. And you shouldn't model your life on what you think that we think is cool and what we're wearing and what we're saying and everything. Go with yourself." It was disarmingly earnest. The way she said those words lifted me up, shook me around, and then placed me back down again, rearranged. I didn't have the language to describe it at the time, but it was an unexpected jolt of humanness in the ever-churning, willfully plastic cultural machine. And the way that people have written and talked about the searing physical images of her recent performances-- her sinewy muscles and berserk movements and haphazardly-scrunchied hair-- suggest that she's providing that jolt once again, that she's a savior for those who need one (and, to be sure, not all of us do) from these airbrush'd, cyborg'd, sea-punk'd times. Because the wild physicality of these performances reminds us of our own muscle and bone.
Apple's devil-may-care-about-your-buzz-band presence holds a mirror up to our moment, a time when we're sharing everything about our lives and yet nothing at all.
One time in college, I was cleaning my room when I got a knock on my door. It was the RA from the floor below. "We've got a couple of complaints," he said, nervously playing with the brim of his baseball cap. "Could you all keep it down in there?" He peered in. There was no "you all." Just me, alone, blasting When the Pawn... and tunelessly bellowing along. How embarrassing.
Up until a couple of months ago, I played this anecdote close to the vest, only to be busted out in moments when I was trying to prove I was the biggest nerd in the room. I thought my Fiona fandom was deeply uncool. But, upon the announcement of her return, my Twitter and Facebook feed unexpectedly blew up with Fiona Love. Every time she so much as issued a press release (announcing, say, the 23-word title of her new album) the internet-- or my little corner of it anyway-- responded like Ed Sullivan's Beatles audience. And I joined in.
And there's something about Apple's presence as a popular figure that points out the limits of the current cultural machine, with all of its zeroes and ones. Therein lies the inherent weirdness of tweeting your Fiona Apple fandom: As ever, her devil-may-care-about-your-buzz-band presence holds a mirror up to our moment, a time when we're sharing everything about our lives and yet nothing at all.
Because while we've got no qualms with telling strangers what we ate for brunch or even showing our external wounds (I had to un-friend someone last week who posted an Instagram of her rotted-off toenail), Apple's music traverses in the realm of things that are still difficult to share. And the other artists who have explored that realm in the public eye-- especially the female artists-- have always made people uncomfortable. Legend has it that when Joni Mitchell first played some of the confessional songs that would appear on her album Blue in front of a few friends, everyone was quiet. Then Kris Kristofferson said, "Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself."
From the first listen, Tidal inundated me with the unknown; there was a grand power to it that hovered above my head.
The first time I heard Tidal, I was in a hospital. I was 11. My aunt had come to visit me and brought me a present, a Sony Discman. She also brought me a CD. "I wasn't sure what kind of music you liked," she said, "So I just followed another kid who looked about your age and bought whatever he bought." She handed me Matchbox Twenty's Yourself or Someone Like You. Later that day, I asked my dad to go to the record store and get me the new Fiona Apple record instead. I'd heard "Sleep to Dream" on the local alternative station and liked it a lot. The next day, he brought the CD.
From the first listen, Tidal inundated me with the unknown; there were so many things about it that I didn't understand. Later, I would write down some of its words and look them up in a dictionary: undulate, appease, carrion. And there was a grander power to that record that hovered above my head. I was beginning to understand that the world was bigger than my fifth grade classroom and that there were forces in my body and mind that were beyond my comprehension, like the cycles of the moon. But in the moments when Tidal's emotional thematics were lost on me, I lived in the pearly surface of the songs, the sweet-sourness of certain notes and the body-horror ferocity: "My feel for you, boy/ Is decaying right in front of me/ Like the carrion of a murdered prey."
I had been admitted to the hospital with stomach pains, but no one could figure out what was ailing me. I remember staring into my surgeon's ugly tie when he looked at my parents and said there might be something wrong with my uterus. Nobody was sure yet. They were going to run some tests and get back to us. That night I listened to Tidal in the hospital and, in the morning, I felt older. Then they told us everything was going to be fine. I had an appendicitis.
The reason why some women and queer people feel an affinity with Apple's music is because it displays the destabilizing power of presenting your mind and your body and your life as it is.
On March 28, 2012, Fiona Apple played a sold-out show at the 900-capacity synagogue on Sixth & I St. in Washington, D.C. There was also a Van Halen concert happening at the arena down the street. As I stood with the other nerds who'd lined up hours early (seated venue), a van full of men who looked like they could have been in a band opening for Van Halen rolled down the window when they were stopped at a red light.
"Who are you all lined up here to see?" they asked.
"Fiona Apple," someone hollered.
"AN AMAZING LADY ROCKER, WOOO!" screamed a white guy with dreadlocks, throwing up devil horns. We clapped at this. We were very excited.
Two thousand and twelve is a different kind of Year of the Woman. Women are the subject of endless conversations in America, but they're not the ones talking: The all-male Senate hearing on birth control and the presidential candidates' debates about reproductive issues have been giving me flashbacks of when the surgeon couldn't even look at me as he said "uterus." When women do enter into these conversations, they are often attacked (Jesus, @sandrafluke, save something for yourself). It has felt surreal. In 2011, I felt like a politically motivated woman; in 2012, my country treats me like a sullen girl.
I'm not saying that there is something universally "feminine" about Fiona Apple's music, or that her songs inherently appeal to any one group of people more than another. But I do think the reason why some women and queer people feel an affinity with her music is that it displays the destabilizing power of "oversharing," the strangely radical gesture of presenting your mind and your body and your life as it is-- which is always going to provide more of a release to the people who've been cautioned against sharing those sorts of things in the past. "The thrill of [Apple's songs]," Nitsuh Abebe wrote after an Austin show, "is just a certain frankness about reality, and the sense of an artist who can cut casually to the core of what life is like." To me, the sudden triumph of her return exists in the same cultural moment as people sharing photos of gay couples who've just been married, or female protesters (hilariously) trolling Rick Perry's Facebook wall with questions about menstruation to protest his stance on reproductive health. It's the thrill of voices dismissed as silly or excessive in the past now deriving power from the ordinary details of their everyday lives.
Maybe Apple is only now coming into her old songs, and maybe so are a lot of the people who grew up with them.
At the D.C. show, diehard Fiona fans chat in line about their favorite tracks on her iTunes exclusive album and count off the different states they've seen her in. The crowd is hushed and church-reverent when she comes out to the opening strains of "Fast as You Can", and the song feels like a séance, or maybe an exorcism. She punches the air and kicks one foot behind her, and her voice is such a presence in the room that at moments I swear I can feel it vibrating in my own throat. At one point, while the crowd is hanging on every word of "Extraordinary Machine", a girl floats up from her seat to dance and mime the words. Security guards just let her be. Even Apple has to laugh a little between lines.
The new material is great, but the most amazing part is hearing the old material reborn with new shades of feeling. "Criminal", for one, now taunts in a way that feels more Humbert Humbert than Lolita. Maybe Apple is only now coming into these songs, and maybe so are a lot of the people who grew up with them. In the room, my brain is not fixed on what I wrote about Fiona in the past or what I am going to tweet about when I get home. I am there, and she's singing a playfully smoldering new song, "Anything We Want". "It's happening/ It's happening/ It's happening now," she sings. And it was.