Fiona Apple released her first album, Tidal, in 1997. The album stunned reviewers and regular listeners alike. While “Criminal” stormed the airwaves, back when MTV still played music videos, with its subject verbally contrite, but factually writhing with sexual restlessness, other songs captured the praise and admiration of critics. As a young woman, Apple was raped, of which “Sullen Girl” expresses:
Is that why they call me a sullen girl – sullen girl.
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.
But he washed me shore and he took my pearl –
And left an empty shell of me.
And there’s too much going on.
But its calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion.
Under the waves in the blue of my oblivion.
Personally, back in 1996-7, I thought “Never is a Promise” was the best song on the album. Apple conveys sentiments that I have heard many women, and a few men, struggle to express in words:
You’ll never see the courage I know
Its colors richness wont appear within your view
I’ll never glow – the way that you glow
Your presence dominates the judgments made on you […]
You’ll say, don’t fear your dreams, its easier than it seems
You’ll say you’d never let me fall from hopes so high
But never is a promise and you cant afford to lie […]
You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand
I’ll say I’ll never wake up knowing how or why
I don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know who I am
You’ll say I need appeasing when I start to cry
But never is a promise and Ill never need a lie
The typical 1950s responses from us guys are not going to work on Fiona Apple. Sometimes a re-assuring hug or platitudes and declarations of certainties do little more than pour gas on the consuming fire — and risks explosion. During summer school in 1998, I was listening to this song when someone ripped my headphones off to listen to it. The kid waved the headphones in the air exasperated, “Is this the turkey bitch!??!” Although this term is listed in the Urban Dictionary, my esteemed colleague referred to Apple’s exhortation to stop eating turkey and turn to vegetarianism. By this time, she had also gained notoriety for a speech at the MTV Music Awards where she declared “this world is bullshit” and told viewers to stop taking their ethical and cultural cues from, well, people like her. Now, normally, these speeches seem contrived and just a little too cute (by far). Here, however, Apple is only 20 years old, she mentioned Maya Angelou, and she’s telling people to do something that probably hurts her market more than helps. And if the story ended here, you could still accuse her of just trying to get street cred and give the case to the jury feeling all right.
But over the next few years, Apple further developed her oeuvre, without much regard for market demand or the preferences of her record label. She released When the Pawn… [the rest of the Guinness Records-length title shortened for your sanity and mine] which proved a dismal market failure, but another extreme critical success ( For diametrically opposed readerships: Entertainment Weekly and Village Voice ). The album, like her first, is solid from the first song to the last, but none of the singles or music videos caught on this time. The closest she gets to mush, which is apparently what people expect from a woman who is writing her own music, comes at the end of the album in “I Know”:
And at my own suggestion,
I will ask no questions
While I do my thing in the background
But all the time, all the time
I’ll know, I’ll know
Baby- I can’t help you out, while she’s still around
So for the time being, I’m being patient
And amidst this bitterness
If you’ll just consider this-even if it don’t make sense
All the time- give it time
And when the crowd becomes your burden
And you’ve early closed your curtains,
I will wait by the backstage door
While you try to find the lines to speak your mind
And pry it open, hoping for an encore
And if it gets too late, for me to wait
For you to find you love me, and tell me so
Don’t need to say it
If you’re saying to yourself: hey, this isn’t mush at all, you’re right. That’s as close as it gets. This album is different. She talks about different things. She talks about familiar things in different ways. Her expressions are novel, sometimes graphic, and always force me to think. I had never considered that a relationship could take the shape where the woman ( a wife? a girlfriend? a partner? ) would wait like that. Is it possible that they could still survive it? It’s an intriguing thought. I guess the aftermath is for another song. But whatever the case: it’s new.
In her third album, Extraordinary Machine, well… I could never make heads or tails of it. But the story behind it is that she recorded it with a long-time producer, thought she could do better, and re-did it with another producer after a couple dozen fans started protesting the alleged imprisonment of her first go at the album. In fact, it was Apple, not Epic, that withheld the release. And it was her fans who stimulated her to get off her a-word and finish her album.
What emerges from this story is an artist who has seemed, at least until Extraordinary Machine, absorbed by her story — inhabiting the memories, her own personality, her relationships, the dynamism of all these things. Her artistry seems to have been consuming, in a way. I think that by Extraordinary Machine, she might have branched out into other subjects, new ways of expressing these things, with trepidation and tepid results. But I’m really interested in Apple’s seeming sensitivity to the people who interact with her music. The third album came out largely because of a few dozen fans. For other artists, this might not have meant much. But for Apple, it spurred her to finish the album and release it. She has responded in letters to magazines that have published critiques of her or her work. She used to engage with her work and the consequences of it — I wonder what she will do next.