Men Explain Fiona Apple To Me
All while she does her thing in the background
"There's no hope for women, there's no hope for women, there's no hope for women..." These were the words 20-year-old Fiona Apple was reported to have intoned while on a break from being photographed for the November 1997 cover of SPIN magazine's The Girl Issue.
The photographer was the not-yet-infamous Terry Richardson; he said things to Apple, like, "Give me sexy, seduce me." Did she give him what he wanted? It's hard to know; it maybe doesn't matter. But here's what he took: Apple looks straight into the camera, her limpid blue eyes are challenging; her stained lips are the color of raspberries (it was 1997, so, probably, this was thanks to Benefit's Benetint), and they offer a smile that looks more like a sneer; her eyebrows are unplucked and her jaw thrusts forward slightly, and her right shoulder is hiked up just enough to make it clear that she's in a defensive position; like she knows she's under attack.
To be a girl growing up in the late-'90s was to be told that you were witnessing the dawning of a new era in music, one dominated by women. To be a girl growing up in the late-'90s was to be told this by men. It was men, mainly—all but entirely—who wrote the stories of these women; it was men who decided to change women's primary narrative in music from one in which women were condemned for being both the figurative and literal harbingers of male destruction (see: Yoko Ono and Courtney Love), to one in which women were celebrated, it felt like, precisely so that men could retain relevance by maintaining control of these women's narrative; women were celebrated so that they could be dissembled, put in their separate compartments—explained. And the woman who—more than anyone else—these men most liked to explain was Fiona Apple.
It's easy to see why. It's easy to see why now, but it was easy to see why then, too. Fiona Apple released her debut album, Tidal, when she was 18; most of the songs were written when she was still 17. The songs are about love and lust and innocence and loss, and they are beautiful and sticky, like an open wound; and if you listened to them when you were also an open wound, if you pressed yourself up against that music with no scars protecting you, those songs stuck close, until they were a part of you, like a second skin, something to shelter in. Apple's voice was low and cool and stronger than seemed possible, sometimes; it vaulted up in a way that felt unattainably lofty, like the ceiling of a centuries-old cathedral; while her words spoke of sin, her voice provided sanctuary.
These were the things you knew if you were a woman, or still a girl, and listened to Fiona Apple. These were the things you felt. These were not, though, the things that were talked about by men explaining Fiona Apple.
Tidal sold almost three million copies; its runaway single was "Criminal," whose video benefitted from being aired during MTV's last gasp at relevance. It went viral before that term meant anything, and its blatantly seductive imagery of a hyper-attenuated Apple lolling around a rec-room with an anonymous group of men and women guaranteed that it would be a focal point for the kind of critics who love to apply the name "Lolita" to any young woman whose sexuality threatens them. More than that, though, employing the Lolita trope (a very different thing than understanding what Lolita is actually about) is an easy way of dismissing a woman; calling her out for being not just childish, but a child. Because to be a Lolita is to be a schoolgirl, a cipher, an object whose value is in its pliancy; and when a Lolita becomes inconvenient, well, then the narrative arc of a Lolita is clear: She dies.
Apple, of course, didn't die. She did what Lolita didn't get the chance to do: She grew up. But Apple also endured the drawn knives of an infinite army of men—and women—who wanted her to stay in what they assumed was her place—that shag-carpeted basement in the "Criminal" video. These critics were the type who were happy enough to obsess over "Criminal," but then also to condemn it for being exploitative, for being obvious, for being bullshit. But when, after winning the Best New Artist award at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards, Apple herself called out the world she was a part of as being "bullshit," she was attacked for being pretentious, for being ungrateful, for being insufferable, for being a brat. It is wrong to compare Apple to Lolita, but still, the insults leveled at Apple for her honesty about celebrity culture sound like those that would have been thrown at Dolores Haze if she'd complained about being kidnapped and raped: How insufferable could one girl be? Didn't she know how lucky she was to get to travel around the country?
It was with this lingering specter of Apple as a pretentious provocateur still wafting around the media that Apple released, at the tail end of 1999, her new album, When the Pawn... Before any of its music was even heard, Apple's sophomore effort was derided for being intentionally, well, provocative and pretentious because of its title, a 90-word poem, which reads 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 Cuz You'll Know That You're Right
Apple wrote the album title following her dismay at the response to the SPIN profile; it was a mantra of sorts, a reminder that, moving forward, she would be the one who told her stories; they would be messy and complex, but they would be honest, and they would be her own. It was also a challenge: a pointed reminder that any music critic who'd rather focus on an album's title than on the songs within it isn't much interested in the music part at all—just the criticism.
It would have made a certain kind of sense if the songs on When the Pawn... were less revealing than those that had been on Tidal. But whereas Apple's debut album delved into intensely personal territory, it was done largely through metaphor; she universalized the specific. But on When the Pawn..., Apple went into detail, deploying her lyrics to offer a candid portrait of her life, offering up the minutiae that rattles around within all our heads, allowing it to come together to make the bigger picture of our thoughts and feelings, of ourselves. It is on this album that she let loose with one of her most quoted lyrics: "He said, 'It's all in your head'/ I said, 'So's everything.'/ But he didn't get it." She made clear that she knew what people thought of her, what men thought of her—that she was emotional, she was unstable, she was crazy, she was unhinged—but what she wanted us to know was that she was just being honest; unhinged doesn't have to mean broken, it can also mean open.
There's no bigger threat to some men than a woman who doesn't care about their perceptions of her, a woman who is free. This is true in life, and it is true in music; it is true for Apple. And after Apple rewrote her narrative, shaking off the mantle of sad-girl-singer-songwriter, who stayed behind the piano, she added her husky voice to the chorus of melancholic women who'd come before her, and embraced a sound that included a broader array of influences, relying heavily on percussion, referencing jazz, bringing in big band sounds. She did this all in service to the creation of a sound that was inimitably her own, displaying an interiority that was at once fragile and steadfast; precarious, but strong.
Apple carried this sound into her next album, Extraordinary Machine, but more than just the sound, she brought along a distinct refusal to play her industry's games. The album was notoriously finished in 2003, with Apple's When the Pawn... producer Jon Brian working on it, and then shelved. Apple re-recorded almost every song on the album, and it was finally released in 2005, after her fans had flooded Sony, the parent company of her label, Epic Records, with demands to Free Fiona and let her put out music the way she wanted to.
Extraordinary Machine was greeted with reviews that generally praised Apple's new music—once they got around to actually talking about the music. They almost all started off though by talking about Apple the person, or rather persona, one that music critics themselves had constructed. And so, if you were looking to read about this new album, here's what you'd have to wade through first: annoyance that "bad, bad girl" Apple, who'd seemed on the verge of "going to go the full Sinéad," was back after seeming to be "out of our hair forever" (Andrew Beaujon, SPIN); derision at Apple's "seeming insistence on courting drama" that, apparently, "has always had a way of overshadowing her music" (Josh Modell, A.V. Club); and the depiction of a grown woman as being "still sultry and sullen, obsessing in detail over why her romances went wrong and teetering between regret and revenge" (Jon Pareles, New York Times).
It was further evidence of the ways in which men are uncomfortable with allowing a woman to evolve, or using a woman's trauma—or perceived trauma—as a metonym for her whole being. This is an approach that was deployed against Apple; reducing her to the sum of a music video she made when she was 20, an awards show speech given when she was 21, and the stage banter she offered up while performing. Apple is not the only woman who's endured this kind of sexist critique-couched-as-concern; performers from Britney Spears to Lauryn Hill have also found themselves the object of opprobrium because they departed from the narrative already set forth for them. As Apple knew, the only way to get out of some random critic's margins (including those who accuse her of "fingering her thesaurus" when she writes her lyrics, because they can't imagine a woman wouldn't share their own paucity of language), is to continue to write her story, even if she had to take it off the page.
It's now been seven years since Apple last released an album: 2012's The Idler Wheel... (full title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do). The lengthy title was a callback to 1999's When the Pawn..., and it felt like a deliberate taunt to every man who'd mocked the name of that album, a reassertion of Apple's artistic identity as being for herself, not for anyone else. The music feels taunting too in its spareness, a reminder that Apple can do more with a set of drums and her voice than most artists could do with a full orchestra. The single "Hot Knife," on which Apple duets with her sister, Maude Maggart, should, I've found, be listened to over and over, until it becomes another heartbeat.
But it's the album's leading track, "Every Single Night," that feels the most like a rebuke to any pre-established critical narrative for Apple; it's on this elegant, resonant song that Apple confronts the things about her that scare men—her hunger, her drive, her restlessness. She is not easy; even when she "tries to be still now," she "just wants to feel everything."
The Idler Wheel... is such a perfect distillation of Apple's artistry that it felt immune to male critique, protected from any desire to deploy the typically used weapons against Apple. The album felt like a generous creative act, a gift, and a reminder of the ways that art breaks all of us—including its makers—all so we can rebuild, adding our new connections to our future selves.
"I will give you everything I can possibly give you," Apple said to the audience at her March 2012 show at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg. It was my second time seeing her in concert, my second time seeing her give everything she could possibly give. And watching her on-stage, bringing out a cardboard cutout of her dog, Janet; starting "Extraordinary Machine" over again because she was in the wrong key; finishing the night with a full-voiced rendition of Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," leading me to cry-laugh at the "this world is bullshit" of it all, was a reminder of what it is to watch someone who has this much to give. It overwhelms, it disorients, it changes everything. It rewrites the rules. No wonder it makes men so uncomfortable. No wonder I heard a guy say to the woman he was with, "She's really looking her age now." The woman shushed him.
The first time I saw Fiona Apple in concert was when I was six years old; it was in our school's gym, a piano had been rolled out onto the stage for the recital. I was sitting in the front row, with my parents on one side and my piano teacher on the other. I'd played "Heigh-ho" from Snow White, and was pleased with myself that I'd made only one mistake. Then Fiona came out. She was older than me, but I knew her. My older cousin was best friends with Fiona's older sister. It was announced that Fiona would perform and sing a song she had written herself. I think she was 10. I don't remember the words, I don't remember the tune. I remember that I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard. I remember I heard the man behind me whisper to someone—his son? his wife?—"She's a little off-key." I remember I hated him.
There are signs, now, that Apple is about to release a new album. She's released two small video clips of her working on some as-yet-to-be-named project; one shows Apple and her dog, and she talks about recording some vocals; the other shows Apple, on the floor, experimenting with some "sloppy" percussion. Earlier this year, Apple recorded one of her songs, "I Know," with King Princess; only it was Apple's whose voice was in the background.
It's hard to say when Apple's newest work will arrive, but it is possible to be glad that it will come out at a time when it's become more accepted to drown out the voices of men who seek to explain a woman's work, who seek to explain women, and instead listen to the words of the woman herself, and also to those of other women around her who have no interest in "explaining" Apple, but rather want to use her work to understand themselves, in all their chaotic, riotous glory.
And, about that SPIN shoot, from more than 20 years ago: Apple was asked about it recently, about whether or not she still thought there was no hope for women. She responded energetically to the question, saying: "That's not true anymore... We're gonna be fine. We're gonna be fucking fine. There's always hope for women. We are hope. We are the hope in the world."