Fiona Apple's landmark sophomore album, When the Pawn... turns 20 this weekend. To celebrate, we're running this essay, which looks back at the album.
It’s February 1998, and Fiona Apple is sitting on her tour bus, a copy of SPIN in hand, eyes wet. Just a few months earlier, the magazine plastered her pouty face on the cover of their “Girl Issue.” The inside spread had Apple curling up on a couch and covering herself with cushions as if she were trying to disappear into the piece of furniture altogether, her attempt at escaping from the now-shunned, once-celebrated photographer Terry Richardson. When it came to the cover story, another man was behind the lens. Writer John Weir painted her as a self-indulgent teenager who traded in her misery for a “dollop of fame.”
The misogynistic cover story painted Apple as a dramatic, self-possessed girl, trying to get attention, but her debut album, Tidal, released two years prior in 1996, bore a different story… if you were willing to listen. It was steeped in the pain of childhood trauma, which Apple harvested for strength. She reclaimed the piece of herself that was stolen by her rapist and exposed the inner depths of her soul with complicated piano melodies and an unfaltering voice. Tidal had her speaking her mind when she was once silenced. She was unabashed, yet confused, circling together all the chaotic emotions of a 19-year-old and spinning them into something deeply poetic.
Crying on the bus, Apple read SPIN’s letters to the editor in response to the story. She read as her life experiences and subsequent art were pummeled in a humiliating public shaming. “Being a victim of rape is a trauma I would not wish on my worst enemy, but Fiona Apple’s over-the-top melodrama and self-absorption make it difficult to feel any sort of sympathy for her” one reader wrote. “I am so tired of drama queens parading their woes under the public spotlight, as if victimhood was a trendy fashion statement. Fiona is an embarrassment to other survivors of sexual abuse.” Another letter suggested she end her life, quoting Fiona’s prediction of her own death and adding, “Promises, promises.”
That’s when Apple picked up a pen and wrote the title of her next album.
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, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right
The 90-word pump-up poem, which was later scrawled over the cover of her sophomore LP, had her soaring like an eagle“You’ll know that you’re right,” she wrote as an affirmation to herself. One can imagine Apple snarling that last bit of the poem into an audience of squirming, foolish critics. In a way, that’s exactly what Apple did on When the Pawn.
Released in 1999, When the Pawn allowed Apple a reflective retelling of things she didn’t quite control during her first album cycle — like her now-infamous debut in the “Criminal” video, where she unwillingly writhed in her undies at the director’s request, or the backlash when people misunderstood her “This world is bullshit” speech at the 1997 VMAs. In that speech, she preached, “Go with yourself,” but it wasn’t the idea that viewers should be themselves that was monumental. It was that Apple had the gall to denounce the world of consumerism and celebrity idolization during the very program in which those things culminated. From that moment on, Apple was seen as a little unhinged. The words “This world is bullshit,” although hideously true, were the rain on the metaphorical parade. When the Pawn reclaimed her narrative.
“I suppose there’s a part of me right now that kind of wants to go out and do it again just to erase everything that happened before,” she said in a 1999 promo interview for the album.
While Tidal introduced us to Apple, the awkward and sullen girl, When the Pawn had her shooting back with a fiery vengeance. Overtop the lush orchestrations of producer Jon Brion, Apple sings with a gnarly gruffness. She begins most songs with a deceptive sweetness, building to an angsty climax, wielding her voice as a weapon against ex-boyfriends and bullies. At the album’s angriest, she sings directly to people like Richardson or Weir or all the people who chastised her sexuality but demanded to be seduced by her. “So call me ‘crazy’ / Hold me down / Make me cry / Get off now, baby,” she growled.“It won’t be long till you'll be lying limp in your own hands.” She reversed the critics’ shameful gaze, trading their insecurities for her resilience.
Rolling Stone’s review of When the Pawn claimed that most music lovers “were rooting for her to crash and burn with a humiliating second-album spaz-out.” But Apple was aware that people thought she was nuts, seemingly referencing her VMA incident on “To Your Love.” “Here’s another speech you wish I’d swallow,” Fiona busts forth on When the Pawn’s second track, which thunders open with pounding timpani and unrelenting piano. “Another cue for you to fold your ears / Another train of thought too hard to follow / Chuggin' along to a song that belongs to the shifting of gears.”
She also references the double standard backlash to the “Criminal” video. While the Mark Romanek-directed clip had her “looking like an underfed Calvin Klein model,” The New Yorker wrote, it also won a VMA (the song itself earned the Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance). But when Apple expressed her disgust with the video, people only saw her as an ungrateful hypocrite. It was clear that they wanted her to be sexy, but not too sexy. On “Limp,” she sums up that entire paradox in one line: “You fondle my trigger then you blame my gun.”
Apple’s lyrics on When the Pawn are unapologetically directed at all her subjects as she took her own VMA advice and went with herself. “Fucking go,” she roars on “Get Gone.” “‘Cause I’ve done what I could for you / And I do know what’s good for me.” She spits out that last line, channeling the kind of anger that swells up from your stomach and dyes your face red.
Of course, she didn’t have it all figured out in the When the Pawn era. Yes, Apple totes her confidence all over the album, but there are still moments where love gets the best of her. However, those moments always sprinkled in empowerment. “Am I your gal? Or should I get out of town?” she asks on “To Your Love.” In the final track, we find Apple pocketing her pain once again. “I Know” has her wise to her partner’s sins, but instead of leaving, she offers herself as a vessel to hold his secrets. As he unburdens himself with the weight of his wrongdoings, she grows heavier. But “I Know” puts Apple in a more powerful, omniscient state. Even if he’s defied her loyalty, her promise to stay has him feeling guiltier than ever. Once again, although she may not know it at the moment, she’s in control. Like the album title, says, “When the pawn hits the conflicts, [s]he thinks like a king…”
Funnily enough, Rolling Stone didn’t get the point of 90-world album title. They thought it was weird for the sake of being weird. Rob Sheffield wrote, “Read it out loud and realize that it doesn't make a damn bit of sense no matter how you slice it.” If only they knew.
Behind the poem written on the cover of her second album, there’s a photo of Apple beaming a joyous smile, basked in red light. Unlike the blurry, cool-toned portrait on Tidal, When the Pawn’s photo is sharply in focus. It’s warm. Despite growing up with the judgemental media watching, she beams. She smiles because she’s in charge, even if she lets other people think they are. It’s almost as if she’s laughing at an inside joke with herself, leaving those tour bus tears behind and chuckling at others’ feeble attempts to make themselves feel better while tearing her down.