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The Radical Strength And Calm Rage Of Fiona Apple

Read Our Liner Notes For Our Reissue Of Tidal

On April 21, 2017

“When I’m strong like music / Slow like honey / Heavy with mood.”

For most men, hurting women isn’t a deliberate project. Often, it’s accidental, or even pure carelessness. Yet, I do not know a single woman who has not been hurt by a man. Neither do you. Insidious or thoughtless, it doesn’t really matter. There’s an ache that goes unspoken among all the women I know; the ache of the first male rejection, the initial understanding and loss of power, the wound that bleeds a lesson: The world does not consider you to be fully human. This goes double or even triple for women of color, queer women, and those coping with disabilities, other marginalized identities, and traumatic experiences. Most of us do not have words for it. Somehow, at just 17-years-old, Fiona Apple did. Her stunning debut album, Tidal diluted that ache and mixed it with moonlight, one part per thousand.

I see pain in the eyes of women I’ve never met, and feel a kinship. There is pain in Fiona’s eyes on the extreme closeup that serves as the artwork of her debut. But she looks unafraid. She looks in control. When Tidal came out, I was already well-versed in the ways men would wield their power over me with the rather epic, careless abandon that only masculinity breeds. What I wasn’t familiar with, however, was the steely, determined resolve that Fiona -- and many other women before and since -- had manufactured to process this trauma. Rage can be a weapon of defense when it is calm.

One of the most sinister forces behind this seething and majestic record was Fiona’s rape at the age of twelve by a strange man who stalked her all the way inside her New York apartment building. His act of domestic terrorism took calculation, foresight and brutality, but still, he felt empowered to feed her a script of self-blame: “Next time don't let strangers in,” an adult man told a child after he’d finished sexually assaulting her. Of course, we have no choice; the strangers are already inside, they’re the men and boys we love and trust, fathers and husbands, brothers and uncles. Many of them appear to to care about us. Until they don’t. Until they become strangers again. For every Fiona before and since -- it’s not your fault that the child is gone.

“Slow Like Honey” is the turnkey for unlocking Tidal. No, it’s not as feisty as the thrilling opener, “Sleep To Dream,” the first song she ever wrote (at 14), and the one that is full of so much swagger that the foremost rapper of our era, Kanye West, cites her as an inspiration upon his own matchless self-confidence. “Honey” is stronger, simmering quiet in the sticky-sweet of seduction. Here, Fiona confidently takes back possession of her own sexuality, even if it’s only in her dreams. She becomes the instigator and seductress, the lingering, fascinating thought, an object of desire whose subjective demands must be followed. “The First Taste” quietly, carefully echoes these appetites: “I lay in an early bed / Thinking late thoughts / Waiting for the black to replace my blue”. Desire becomes so much trickier when it has been subsumed and stolen at such a young age. Trying to construct pleasure outside the undertones of pain requires a massive amount of imagination, an act of grace or God. “Slow Like Honey” is both.

Coming just before these two, I hear “Criminal” -- the album’s crowning commercial single for a reason -- not, as often portrayed, as the confession of a bad slut, but the imagined inversion of her own trauma: What if I was the powerful one? And, what if she was? The world adored this narrative, as it will, embracing any excuse to cast a woman as the perpetrator and not the victim. Top 40 charts favor the temptress, but never “Me And A Gun.” Only one of these songs portrays the sexual violence that is actually experienced by over half of the female population; “Criminal” is a magnificent fantasy. In some ways, it is comforting to cling to this side of the story. There is strength in mythic retellings, especially for survivors.

A prevailing criticism of Tidal is that it’s “emotionally indulgent.” I disagree, but also wonder: Which emotions are the one that qualify as indulgences? Fiona’s emotions on Tidal are as tightly-coiled as cobras, they strike and retreat, they lose no ground. Even when disturbed and unhappy, Fiona treats her feelings with the utmost respect, delivering solemn disaffection and a languid self-loathing with the kind of reverence usually reserved for romance. Some of these songs were written in minutes, but none of them verge on hysteria. They are calculated summations of years spent aching.

"Rage can be a weapon of defense when it is calm."

Apple was a classically-trained pianist from the age of eight, her father and mother, though never married and separated earlier on, were both professional performers. As a teenager, she finagled a three-song demo into the hands of producer Andrew Slater, who signed her almost immediately upon hearing her voice, began to manage her, and even produced Tidal. Her songs are vampy and confessional, heavy with mood, but there is nothing adolescent about the experiences recounted. Between Slater’s shepherding, the string arrangements of Patrick Warren, multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, and drummer Matt Chamberlain, among others, Tidal pieced together teenage Fiona’s otherworldly songwriting into the sleek ten-track album that defined her.

Of course, it would also be the men who tied the tracks to an era; these songs would feel ancient if they weren’t occasionally soldered to the ‘90s. (Later on, when she was older, Fiona would mount a massive resistance to the overproduction on the early, leaked version of her 2005 album Extraordinary Machine.) Yet, a thing out of time is never as tender. In a 1996 copy of Billboard that tells the story of Apple and Slater’s meeting and teases her debut, Tori Amos appears as the top of a box office grossing list, having just sold out Madison Square Garden. This was the world that welcomed Fiona with open arms, boosted her to sell three million copies of her debut, and turned her into a star, despite whatever reticence she may have had about celebrity.

According to one strain of folklore surrounding the record, Fiona insisted that the name, Tidal, was taken in part because of its phonetic proximity to the funny emptiness of “Title.” But given the wild power of the thing that had come out her, she must have known this magnetism needed proper naming. What primeval force is more fitting than the tides to preside over such a magnificent airing out of wounds? Nothing is quite solid on Tidal anyway, and despite the ferocity, it is always a peaceful album, lapping like waves. The hypnotizing pull of these highs and lows make Tidal even easier to sink into; it is a record that swells and rages on an instinctual level. It remains one of the most important artistic distillations of female trauma because of the way she harnesses her pain, transforming it into a quiet source of power. There's little unrequited pining in Fiona’s version of the events, no matter how painful; “Shadowboxer” butterfly-floats above a stinging, out-and-out battle of wills, “Never Is A Promise” brooks no bitterness, though it’s disengagement is far from forgiving.

 “I'm very thrilled that other people can get something out of my songs. But I write them for myself." 

Actually, most of the album occurs entirely in Fiona’s head; she is caught up in oblivion but remains focused on turning her hurt into something steadying and beautiful, still concerned with possibilities and potential outcomes. This is not indulgence, but a survival mechanism. On the album’s final two tracks, “Pale September” and “Carrion,” whose respective circumstances occupy very different ends of the emotional spectrum, she again commands and imagines the power she has over her partners. Poised even while candidly discussing most invasive and intimate events, her voice grows husky with rage on “Sullen Girl,” the track that confronts her assault head-on. She gives us the story, however cloaked the details may be, she gives us the full-throated vulnerability of coping, breaking, and mourning, in the process becoming one of the most self-aware female narrators of the '90s, or hell, in the entire history of rock.

Following the release of Tidal, Apple won the coveted VMA for Best New Artist, an award she wasn’t expecting. Instead of basking, she couldn’t help but continue to disrupt, urging her fans to ignore whatever picture perfect awards show narrative they’d just seen: “Go with yourself,” she commands, bug-eyed and nervous, entirely positive we don’t need her -- or anyone else. Quietness won’t work here, so she screams into the night her infamous pronouncement -- “This world is bullsh*t!” -- pleading with us to believe her, a teenager in a fancy dress and long, loose curls, unconquered by a red carpet or some accolades. Her pain speaks a different language in public, but the grammar of empathy remains the same.

It would be a relief if women did not have to create art out of pain so often, and if the work didn’t resonate so deeply whenever we are allowed to voice it freely. On bad days, it feels like this unspoken wound occurred before birth. Carl Jung -- and perhaps even Fiona herself -- would argue that it did, archetypes seared into our mind before our DNA formed. “I’m strong like music,” Fiona sings at the end of “Slow Like Honey,” a self-fulfilling prophecy for an audience of one that ended up resonating with millions. “I'm very thrilled that other people can get something out of my songs,” she told Rolling Stone in the same ‘98 cover story during which she spoke so candidly about her rape. “But I write them for myself."

Profile Picture of Caitlin White
Caitlin White

Caitlin White is the managing editor of Uproxx Music. She lives in L.A.

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