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Everyone who loves her has a story about the first time they heard Fiona Apple, which says as much about her music as it does about the kinds of people who are drawn to it: seeking meaning in every moment, slightly self-absorbed in the way all people who grapple with depression and anxiety are, a memory that’s a little too good. Most of the stories I’ve heard or read over the years are exactly what you’d expect: a private moment of rapture during a chance encounter with Apple’s music on the radio or in a store, a recommendation from a friend or a music magazine that ended with listening to Tidal over and over again in a bedroom behind a locked door. My story is a little different.
I was 13 when Tidal was released in July 1996, 10 months before a trip my eighth-grade classmates and I had planned to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. We’d raised the money, secured chaperones, made a budget for food and gas—it was a sharp stab toward adulthood, but firmly rooted in sneaky little kid triumph: we’d been able to pass off a week at the beach as educational! It was a co-ed trip, and even my surprisingly sexless middle school was starting to vibrate to a frequency set by hormones. Throw freedom and bathing suits on top of that, and looking back on this at age 34, I absolutely DO NOT understand why any adult would have agreed to be trapped in a house with us for six days.
MTV was the soundtrack to every moment we spent inside. We discovered Blur’s “Song 2.” We yelled along to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.” And we saw the music video for Apple’s “Sleep To Dream” for the first time. I’d been swooning over Tidal for months now: it didn’t sound like anything else on the radio, or anything else I’d ever heard, like someone traced a meandering line from rap’s thesaurus power-user emcees to the 1940s jazz singers my mom listened to. Apple herself was intense and thin in a way I loved and envied. She seemed like someone people paid attention to, someone girls wanted to be and guys loved. Someone who inspired those feelings because she was complicated on the surface, letting the anger and tears and sharp promises out into the world instead of burying them deep inside, as I so often did.
As I watched Apple crouch-skulk around her dark apartment, my friend Katie caught my eye. Katie is so beautiful, she was beautiful in middle school (and still is today, hi Kat!)—and her beauty paired with her simultaneously accessible and unattainable vibe meant all the boys in our school were obsessed with her.
While “Sleep To Dream” played on, I watched two of my guy friends watch Katie watch Fiona Apple, her eyes glued to the screen, singing along to every word. And I knew Katie knew it was happening and I knew it probably made her uncomfortable but she kept going anyway. It’s a moment that stuck with me because it seemed to say something about Apple and the way we relate to her music long before I had the tools, language or unspooled context of Apple’s career to articulate why.
But now I think I know.
The uncomfortable friction between the private and public that happens any time you share a part of yourself with the world. Men, ravenous for a part of your life they know they haven’t yet earned but feel entitled to anyway. Women, whose honesty gets interpreted as attention-seeking behavior rather than forthright self-expression because we watch what they do through the lens of male desire. I was watching a bunch of hormone-addled teenagers, but I was also watching a metaphor for Apple’s career.
People watching Fiona Apple; Apple watching people watch her; the ways living life and making music in the public eye muddy the message and unnerve the messenger—each has dogged Apple throughout her career, and either preempted or sidetracked any discussion about her music itself. This should come as a surprise to exactly no one—any assessment of a woman’s art usually involves passing judgment on the woman herself, too. We’re loathe to let even the most groundbreaking female artists forget that self-presentation is more important than self-articulation.
That particular problem was the shitty leitmotif linking together so much of the early writing about Apple. Some of these pieces seemed to be hastily scribbled by erections dipped in ink, like Dimitri Ehrlich’s New York Times “review,” “A Message Far Less Pretty Than The Face”:
“The pouty bee-stung lips. The taut, pierced belly exposed by a flouncy shirt. The cascading honey-brown hair. And those eyes. Is this the next waif supermodel? No. Turn up the volume on MTV loud enough to hear Fiona Apple sing. She may look like a cross between Christy Turlington and Kate Moss, but Ms. Apple, 19-year-old singer and pianist, has a voice—and a message—that make her looks irrelevant.”
Ah yes, so irrelevant that they’re the first thing he mentions about her. As the review meanders on, eventually getting around to discussing her music, the descriptions of the complexity, wisdom and insight on full display on Tidal are flat and clinical (“stark, confessional, rife with emotional torment”), lacking the pathos and energy on full display when he describes how she looks. The same laser-focus on solving the mystery of Apple The Confusing, Damaged Hottie shows up in a 1997 SPIN feature:
"She takes the stage flinging her arms, tossing her long hair, stomping her feet, and generally acting like a sexy, temperamental teenager, the kind of arty, ravished girl you knew in junior high who wrote poems in all lower-case letters. There's an element of fierce playfulness in her performance that doesn't often show up in her interviews, or her photographs—where she mostly looks unhappy. "If you want to see me cry, come to a photo shoot," she says. "They treat me like I'm a hotel room; They make a mess, and then they just leave it."
At the meet and greet, she's still in her stage clothes, which are both sexy and girlish (assuming there's a difference between sexy and girlish, which is something Apple forces you to consider): tight black stretch bell-bottoms, a black bra under a lace top, black pony boots, and a backstage pass hung from her navel ring. She's tougher looking than in her videos, where what comes across is vulnerability and an almost painful lack of guile."
To me, what has always seemed especially sad about these pieces are the desperate-sounding pleas embedded not just in this excerpt, but throughout the story, where Apple openly laments becoming a prisoner of the ways people perceive and portray her. We were so eager to create our own “difficult woman” narrative for Apple based on a handful of facts nailed together into shaky scaffolding: painfully thin, forthright and earnest, teenage rape victim, emotionally unguarded. Each of those things is true, and yet everyone’s attempt to solve for X felt incomplete and simplified.
In a 1998 Rolling Stone feature, Apple describes music as a means of exerting control: over her message, and over her life. For Apple, a brutally honest person who is also uncomfortable with attention and suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, it always seemed especially cruel that her one outlet for control—carefully editing and honing her thoughts—slips beyond her control once other people receive the message. This is, for better and worse, the nature of making and experiencing art: artists put themselves out there, and we make our thoughts and experiences part of their narratives, whether it’s literally writing ourselves into the stories, or clouding the waters with our biases. The sad fact of it is, being open about who you are is never a guarantee that people will understand you. You’re trusting them to really listen to what you’re saying—and if they’re only listening for what they want to hear, you’ve just created a bigger problem for yourself by giving them a bunch of juicy morsels of information that they can use to create a caricature of you.
And so: Rolling Stone ranks your top “crazy” moments, the New Yorker calls you an “underfed Calvin Klein model.” And whenever reporters confronted you about this issue of perception and you answer honestly, it still seems to backfire:
"I’m hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s okay.’ By the end of the night, the reporter cracked, she was ‘crumpled in a chair, tears streaming down her mascara-smeared face, an MTV Ophelia."
Apple exercised control by sharing her story—and lost control of her story because she shared it.
The ways we wrote about Apple prove we have a hard time reconciling strength and vulnerability. To do so negates the power Apple derives—and that we can all derive—from honesty, and the strength it takes to make ourselves vulnerable in front of others. Honesty is a uniquely destabilizing power. It takes thoughts and conversations to places that feel unsafe, but are a necessary means to lucidity and stability. It’s less productive (but much easier) to share ourselves in a way that creates the illusion of transparency: broadcasting the details of our lives to perpetuate an idea of us but never show the real us. We retain control of the message and remain largely understood on our own terms, but we’re not being honest.
People flock to Apple because she’s honest in a bold, messy, uncompromising way. Her voice is “extra” in both senses of the word: ancillary (few voices are more readily made fun of and easily dismissed as those of adolescent women), and way too much: too many feelings, tears, too much thinking. The latter feeds the former, and yet, if you actually listen to Apple, when her songs grapple with deeply felt pain they always do so from a place of clarity, a plan in place, the situation thought through.
Apple claimed music was her way to exercise control over her life, and it bears out. As scattered and anxious as she always appeared (or was portrayed) in interviews, even the songs she wrote at 17 were even-handed, mature, wise—and reflected the ways we move beyond tough experiences through the experience of telling others about them. Her songs feel like the first moment you’re able to think about a difficulty situation with a clear head. Her gift is the ability to write from this perspective while sacrificing none of the immediacy of the open emotional wound.
I can’t think of many other musicians who bring such fully articulated self-awareness to raw pain: the opening to “Every Single Night,” both clinical assessment and painful confession, the fair and generous way she describes failed relationships as a teen and as a thirtysomething—from “Never Is A Promise,” to “Paper Bag,” to “Parting Gift,” to “Left Alone” and “Werewolf.” Even on the songs that most prop up the “crazy arty bitch” perception of Apple, that calm self-analysis is still there. It’s a boldness that isn’t bravado, but rather owning your full self by acknowledging the ways you are difficult and regretting them while refusing to diminish yourself by apologizing yourself into oblivion. “Criminal,” “Fast As You Can,” “A Mistake”—each show her doing this, and insofar as this particular way of coping with your faults is not encouraged (especially in young women, who are constantly asked to change to please, rather than ask the world to accept them on their terms), it’s no coincidence that these songs are some of her most beloved.
Fiona Apple has a tattoo that says “Fiona Has Wings,” given context through a childhood daydream of hers: she’s walking down the aisle of the chapel at her high school and her clothes peel off, exposing wings on her back. She coolly regards everyone who teased her, laughed at her, talked shit about how weird she was—then she takes flight and flies out of the building. Before she leaves them for good, she hears them whispering in amazement, “Fiona has wings.”
Apple’s gifts are ones that inspire misunderstanding and admiration in equal measure. They are the things that held her back and set her free. They are what make her a difficult and complicated human being, and what make us feel like we need to make sense of what she’s all about, instead of accepting her on her own terms. She wanted her talents to be able to lift her above petty chatter to a place where she can just be. They had the power to do so—but never underestimate our desire to cage whatever soars above us, reaching places we cannot.
Apple never asked anyone to follow her up to the rafters, and in our attempts to do so, we’ve often complicated matters, but in the end, I think her honesty got the upper hand—and the ways we write about her and her music today reflect that. I started with a story about “Sleep To Dream,” and for symmetry, I leave you with the story of Apple’s first boyfriend’s first experience with “Sleep To Dream,” as told to Rolling Stone. He knew many of the songs on Tidal were about him and listened obsessively, trying to insert himself into her experience of the experience of being with him.
"'Sleep to Dream’ felt like that's what she was saying to me the last time I talked to her," he says. ‘And the video was set up in a way so it looks like her bedroom—a futon on the floor, a TV.’ The first time he saw that video, he was on his bed at college, lying on his back, with a girl on top of him, kissing his neck. And suddenly he saw Fiona. ‘Kneeling on the ground, looking through the TV, looking straight at me,’ he says. Saying those words. This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways/So don't forget what I told you, don't come round, I got my own hell to raise. He had to ask that girl to get off him. He couldn't carry on.”
Honesty gave her the strength to take flight. Those on the ground felt the power in her gaze.
Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.