Remembering Lilith: Fiona Apple
by Anne Helen Petersen and Simone Eastman
SE: Anne Helen Petersen, I have one question for you. One. Question.
Have you ever felt like a CRIMINAL?
SE: I myself have never felt like a criminal in the sense in which she uses it here, or at least I hadn’t when I was 14, because it would never have occurred to me that one might break someone else just because it could be done. That’s so weirdly naive, isn’t it? I know. I know.
And actually I remember being a young teenager and feeling confused and uncomfortable when I saw this video, because I think it was my first encounter with a particular kind of sexual energy.
AHP: Short answer: yes. Long answer: it took me many years after the release of this video to figure out exactly what that meant, and how it felt to wield it.
But when the video for “Criminal,” and its attendant media shitstorm, emerged in 1996, I was mostly curious why everyone was making such a big deal about this song when, in the opinion of 16-year-old AHP, Every Other Song on Tidal was better than “Criminal.”
This should tell you something about Sad Sap Teenage Me: namely, that I didn’t know what to do with the sexual energy, as you put it, in this song and video — and knew exactly what to do with the anger of “Sleep to Dream,” the sadness of “Under the Waves,” the clever frustration of “Shadowboxer.”
SE: Oh my god I am watching the video right now and having a flashback to when I saw Kids. (You know, when I was 26.)
AHP: This video made everything else on ’90s MTV look tame. It made Madonna look tame — or, rather, it made Madonna look like she was play-acting in a music video subtitled “Madonna Acting Devious.” This was grimy and sallow and looked like an Instagram photo of a night with Cat Marnell, if you’re picking up what I’m putting down.
SE: And it also would not look out of place as a longform American Apparel ad, so I guess we’ve caught up culturally to where Fiona Apple was in ’97? Bodies and skin everywhere, and a very visceral sense of the sensual (there’s our girl rolling all over this shag carpet, pulling her clothes across her body, sinking into a bathtub between someone’s legs, smirking) and the sensual as, I don’t know, a little tawdry. The whole thing feels very cramped, very claustrophobic — and also magnetic. Hypnotic.
AHP: But I also kinda didn’t understand what the big deal was — I had to have some Entertainment Weekly article tell me that it was like child pornography. How was I supposed to know what child pornography looked like! But I think The Adults felt the same way about Apple as we feel about, say, Lana Del Ray: 1.) get that girl a sandwich and b.) where are her parents I mean seriously.
SE: This is how you know you’re An Old, when your thought is, “Fuck, child, where are your parents?”
AHP: I am An Old! Lana, stop hanging out with those biker dudes! It is inappropriate to say that your P***** tastes like Coca-Cola!
SE: I’m here with you, girl. But also, this is a version of “where are your parents???” that is so unlike the “where are your parents”-ness of my own adolescence that it seemed wholly strange and not a little scary to me. (My version: eating Cheetos and hot chocolate out of the vending machine every. single. day. for school lunch and, yes, getting mad fat, because my mom refused to pack my lunch for me after I mistakenly and overly optimistically declared one day at age 12 that I would do it myself?)
AHP: Simone, our self-proclaimed independence damned us. But I have to say that I was also really into Apple’s independence — not in the sexual way so much as the artistic, “I make up songs in time signatures that don’t exist,” sort of way. She wasn’t that much older than me/us when she got a record deal through a friend who was a babysitter for a big record exec. It was the stuff of dreams. (Also, her commentary on “Criminal”: “I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I was going to do the exploiting myself.” Very postfeminist of you, Fiona.)
SE: This parenthetical is crucial, and you aren’t the only one to point it out. She wanted to make these claims about her independence in this system very early on, despite her deep embeddedness in it. At the 1997 Video Music Awards, after pulling a win for “Sleep to Dream,” she said, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying.”
So then what happens? Janeane Garofalo, in a bit that became known as “A Reading from the Book of Apple,” mocked Fiona’s ’97 VMAs speech, saying, “ You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool…. Even though I have an eating disorder and I have somehow sold out to the patriarchy in this culture that says that lean is better. Even though I have done that, and have done a video wherein I wear underwear so that you young girls out there can covet, and feel bad about what you have and how thin you’re not.” Someone dubbed Janeane’s bit over the actual video of Fiona Apple (listen for the David Blaine reference at the end!):
But I’m not sure — is it postfeminist, or is it feminist realpolitik, especially since she was 18 at the time?
AHP: I’m pretty generous with Apple and other girls (Miley, Britney, et. al.) whose experiments with identity and personal politics play out on the national stage, and I think you could reasonably make an argument for both.
SE: Either way, that independence meant more to me when I came back to her early songs a few years later. My favorite (perhaps because the video is in the same “’90s urban flaneuse” vein as some others I have loved??) was “Never Is A Promise,” which was 100 percent a crying-in-the-dark-on-the-floor song in college.
AHP: If anyone will remember anything about these columns, it’s that both of us spent a lot of time on the floor crying to Lilith-era musicians.
SE: If the Internet had been A Thing then we would not have cried alone. Alas.
AHP: GIRL I DID PUT THESE ON THE INTERNET IN 1996! When I was living the AOL chat room high life, I was like “Dudes, let me quote you some real lyrics” and dudes were like “Wow, that’s deep.” Thus the inherent tension of my love for this album: I can’t decide if it’s just melodramatic teenager deep or actually really fucking good. (Verdict soon, like 1,000 words from now soon.)
SE: P.S., speaking of verdicts, was also really into Judge Judy autobio Don’t Pee on My Leg And Tell Me It’s Raining around the same time. This was what I quoted in chat rooms.
And but so: “Never Is A Promise” is, like a lot of the songs on the album, about love and lost love and young love and limerence. But what I identified with was this story about how we somehow manage to keep what’s most precious alive within us, no matter what happens to us: “You’ll never touch these things that I hold — the skin of my emotions lies beneath my own.” I had a lot of secrets. I understood this.
AHP: Let’s please talk about the cover to this album.
SE: IS THE ABYSS STARING BACK?
AHP: That is a selfie before selfies!
SE: If all you knew of Fiona was Tidal, the cover art kind of comes down on the melodramatic teenager side: this is a Deep Gaze, but it’s not about seeing you. It’s about being seen.
AHP: Simone, you are stealing all the best observations. All I have to add is that I cut up the liner notes and pasted them in diaries and/or sent them in actual letters to boys.
SE: Unlike your artistic uses of the liner notes of Ophelia to privately assess boys.
AHP: OH DON’T WORRY I did that too. Will, 11th grade, total Shadowboxer.
SE: BUT WHATEVER. Yes, Tidal is an album about being seen, not about a mutual gaze. But it’s also not where Our Lady stopped.
AHP: Simone really wants to talk about second-wave Fiona, but I’m resisting because no album mattered more to me and I have very specific thoughts on every song on this album. In brief:
“Sleep to Dream”: Please take note: this is the way you start an album. That rhythm section sounds like a menacing thunderstorm that’s going to destroy all you held dear. That first lyric will decimate you if the drums hadn’t already.
“Sullen Girl”: When I found out this song was about being raped, I felt so naive and sad. It’s a precious, devastating construction of a song.
“Shadowboxer”: You guys realize this is in 12/8 time signature, right? I basically kept up with piano lessons for four more years with the singular goal of playing this song, but I never could.
“Criminal”: SEE DIGRESSION ABOVE.
“Slow Like Honey”: Only became meaningful to me in college years, at which point it became an essential CD mix title — “Slow Like Honey / Heavy with Mood.”
“First Taste”: “I lie in an early bed / thinking late thoughts.”
“Never is a Promise”: Tears upon tears, all the tears, cascades of tears on my high school pillow.
“The Child is Gone”: ACK THIS SONG WAS ABOUT LOSING YOUR VIRGINITY!
“Pale September” / “Carrion”: At some point I became wholly reliant on the one-two punch of these two songs to fall asleep. Both of these songs are delicate and ignored, but hypnotic and also pretty serious, if sublimated, cues of what was to come, especially in “Carrion” — massive shifts in musical and lyrical tone, near-abjection, very little concern for potential alienation: My feel for you boy / is decaying right in front of me / like the carrion of a murdered prey
SE: Did anyone around you realize that behind the cheerleader facade was a teenage girl who really identified with the image of “the carrion of a murdered prey”? Like, did they know that a baby goth walked among them? OR, question: was everyone around you just used to tripping over roadkill and deer carcasses all day every day, so whatever, pffft, murdered prey?
AHP: I only listened to this album IN PRIVATE, obviously, and only sent the lyrics to the rival quarterback, with whom I had a torrid flirtation (stop, stop it right now) and my friends from French Camp. And I wasn’t so much into the imagery of carrion (which, btw, I totally had to look up in the dictionary gifted to me upon my induction into Honor’s Society) as that swelling liberation at the end of the song.
SE: You are perfect and beautiful. Anyway. 1999: the release of the lengthy-titled When the Pawn…, and the beginning of Fiona Apple as Public Weirdo? Hold my beer, I’m gonna go into the archives. (Oh, my God, Biore launched pore strips at Lilith Fair.)
Best sentence from a Lilith Fair concert review I have read thus far: “Apple’s tumultuous music and enter-at-your-own-risk lyrics often sound like Carole King in a really bad mood.” Which is actually an interesting comparison. Because Fiona Apple circa Tidal actually does remind me of Carole King, in this sense that she’s sort of unable to imagine herself without the framework of a relationship. (Simone Eastman: Insisting that “Where You Lead” is some fucked up anti-feminist bullshit since 1999.) But When the Pawn proves the comparison is ultimately false.
While this is also an album about failed/failing relationships, it evolves beyond adolescent profundity and borderline codependency confessions into something else — like, dare I say it, an artistic oeuvre that takes as its subject the ways in which women are consistently cast (socially, culturally) in relationships as these creatures of desperate grasping and over-identification. This album talks back to that: “Please forgive me for my distance/ The shame is manifest in my resistance/ To your love, to your love, to your love” whipsaws right into “So call me crazy/ hold me down/ Make me cry; get off now, baby-/ It won’t be long till you’ll be/ Lying limp in your own hand.”
AHP: And a DRUM SOLO! Like here was the meditative piano girl with a drum solo on the third song of her album! I can appreciate Fiona Apple for many things, but the most important is her capacity for constantly making me rethink her.
But backtrack a bit: don’t you think that the album title itself, its effusive overlong fuckyouness, was in and of itself a response to this? Rolling Stone et. al. took such cheeky interest in it, making fun of it as some sort of sophomore indulgence, and I wanted to tell them back off and actually listen to the album, which, as you say, is like a much-abraded feedback loop of all the attention she got from Tidal. Even her voice sounds coarser.
SE: Yes, AND I think she’s advancing that conversation about her complicity and her subjectivity that she started, in a crude sort of way, at the VMAs. In some sense, the blowback and the ridicule is because this girl who is supposed to only want to be the sexual object in “Criminal” will not shut up and she will give her album a goddamned 90-word title if she damn well pleases. She knows full well that she’s a product that’s being sold, and if she’s going to concede that, she is not going to let us forget that she is doing it — that we are doing it.
And then there’s also this . . . I mean, “Paper Bag.” What I want to talk about is “Paper Bag,” complete with video directed by FORMER BOYFRIEND PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON:
“Paper Bag” is just some straight up subversive genius. Was there a Fiona Apple song before this that was at all fun? This song is fun! Her songwriting is extremely wry! She thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag, which sort of seems like a rejoinder to that American Beauty monologue about the floating plastic bag as object of meditative profundity. And while it is fun and wry and has a great horn section that gestures to the Big Band era, it also probes the same themes that concern her elsewhere: longing as abnegation (“hunger hurts but starving works”), the tension between knowing how the story will turn out (“whose reality I knew was hopeless to be had”) and feeling a deep and confining compulsion to go all in until you’ve destroyed yourself (“I’ve got to fold/ ’cause these hands are too shaky to hold”).
AHP: I’m too nested within my cocoon of Fiona-loving to understand clearly: was this the moment when critics started to take her seriously? Because there’s a musical dexterity to this album, an adultness, that was absent from Tidal. And while I hate the notion that only adult things can be taken seriously, I do think that this album proved that she was more than the sum of her MTV video parts. (And the more I think about it, the more this album clearly mirrors Tidal, down to the heavy bass of the first song, the devious third song, the playful middle section, and the delicate lace of the last song. She’s building on the heartmap of the first album, adding texture and nuance, and it might not have been as sensational as Tidal, but it was arguably….better (?)).
SE: Oh, I absolutely think it’s better.
AHP: Stop with your blasphemy.
SE: Come on!
“Fast As You Can” versus “Criminal”? NO CONTEST. She’s not a sinner. She’s fucking feral. And she knows what she’s chosen: “I’ll be your pet if you just tell me it’s a gift, because I’m tired of ‘whys,’ of choking on ‘whys.’”
AHP: The mind knows what the heart will not permit!
SE: Can I get weird and Cultural Studies for a second? I just think Fiona Apple Really Gets our Shared Condition — that we are not fully the authors of our own stories, that the world is not an all-you-can-eat buffet of self-making, but that we still choose, and our choices still matter, and in them there is still some kind of freedom, however lonely. Even terrible freedom counts, sister.
AHP: Perfect segue into Extraordinary Machine, which was all about the choices that Apple made and her studio refused to endorse. Or not?
For you millenials who didn’t live this: Apple and producer Jon Brion (who would go on to co-produce Kanye’s Late Registration) worked to create Extraordinary Machine over the course of 2002–2003; Apple’s label, Epic, promised that they could do what they please — that is, until they hated the album (or at least found it unmarketable) and refused to release it. Leak upon leak followed, and by 2004, it was Fiona and Fans vs. Evil Label. Or at least that was one version of this very Fiona story.
SE: But it’s not really Fiona’s version! Jon Brion was very frank that he thought the original tracks were not ready for release and she herself has said on record that she, DISSATISFIED, had asked the label if she could re-record the album and then shelved it because they wanted “veto power” over the new, final version.
Is this where we acknowledge that you won’t allow any talk of the second version, the “official” version subsequently released by a label pretty embarrassed that they lost the chance to cash in hard? I mean, I find that aesthetic commitment very charming, but I am wondering how much it has to do with the “free Fiona” narrative.
AHP: I can’t abide your hyperlink to Fiona’s quote, which is a.) on Oprah’s website and b.) under the URL “http://www.oprah.com/spirit”
SE: What I Know For Sure, girl. What I Know For Sure.
AHP: I mean, I’ve been to grad school; I know the author (and the artist) is dead, as it were, and that all matters is how we, the reader, the audience, the listener, interacts with the text. That’s when meaning is made: when I listen to the Jon Brion version over and over again and declare it definitive.
I don’t go in for director’s cuts, I don’t track down interviews with directors. I love that David Lynch refuses to do director’s commentary on his films because he knows what he has to say about the meaning of his crazy-ass films matters for shite. Or, more precisely, that he doesn’t want to limit the meanings that others make from them.
Which is all to say that I don’t care which version is official or sanctioned, either by the studio or by Fiona: I like the way — the very moody way — that “Red, Red, Red,” JB-version, makes me feel.
SE: LET’S GO TO THE TAPE!!!
Here’s the original JB version.
And here’s the album version, produced by Mike Elizondo.
I have to say, I see what you mean, and I can’t help but think about the ways in which the internet makes the “text” even more malleable, because both of these versions are available to us. And this is the first Lilith Lady we’ve talked about whose career has this major Internet piece to it, in terms of both the circulation of the music itself and in the circulation of the stories about the music. Which is ironic because Fiona Apple also, like, disavowed the Internet? From 2006: “I didn’t even have a computer until a year ago,” she says, “and I still pretty much only use it for e-mails. I don’t honestly know about the music industry and I don’t know much about the Web, and I kind of keep it that way on purpose.”
Oh. I see. But yes. An Internet-based campaign, which involved sending foam apples to Epic headquarters. (SIDEBAR: I cannot deal with the quote-unquote social problems people find the energy for and the ones they don’t, but I guess now the “Free Fiona” guy does PR for atheists.org?)
AHP: Because that’s the way the world works. But also the only people who can afford to ignore the internet are, ironically, the very wealthy and the very poor. Which is a way of reminding me that Apple has been able to essentially drop out of society — touring when she wants, making music as she pleases. She doesn’t have to play the Yakima, Washington Lion’s Club like Dar Williams, bless her (very relatively) poor feminist acoustic heart.
SE: What’s interesting to me is that she seems to both hold herself separate from and also participate in this cultural construction of Fiona Apple As Epic Weirdo.
AHP: At this point Apple had become a figurehead for something larger than herself — which, you know, all artists do at some point — but I do think that the music was somehow lost in the unsyncopated hustle. Both versions of this album are as intricate and challenging and sonically weird as what came before, but the conversation had seemingly wholly shifted from the actual merits of the music to the oddities of her image. Or maybe that’s just how I remember it: I wanted to talk about the songs, not read another thinkpiece on what her struggle meant to the industry at large.
Like “Oh Sailor,” which is a slow lull of an indictment, or “Better Version of Me,” which is just so vigorously, relentlessly, gleefully caustic.
SE: AGREED. The title track is largely the same on both versions (though there’s a neat little vocal twist late in the album version that I think is pretty great):
“I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time”? Too good. Spritely as fuck (sorta “Paper Bag”-gy in that way) but also a lovely, complex response to this dilemma she’s faced over her career about whose side she must be on, about who must own her: “I mean to prove I mean to move in my own way/ And say I’ve been getting along/ For long before you came into the play.”
AHP: But here’s when I have to admit that Apple has become much more vivid in my memory than in my present. Even the release of her new album, with its classically Fiona unwieldy title, (which MY MOM BOUGHT, like in real CD form, because she is my Mom) didn’t grab me.
Although, “Hot Knife?” REAL TALK: this song is like a complex Calculus equation to me, because I just want to gaze at its elegance in awe.
And reuniting with Old Love P.T. Anderson for the video? She’s basically asking people like me to love her again, only Apple would never ask for anything because it’s beneath her. Also, don’t you feel like every bad A Capella group in collegiate America is trying to make an arrangement for this song and failing?
SE: The thing about the callowness of youth is that they won’t know they’ve failed.
AHP: I kinda love how Norma Desmond she’s starting to look, and I hope you realize that me and my massive Gloria Swanson love mean that in the most flattering way possible. Maybe it’s another way of saying that she looks like she’s becoming even more indelibly herself.
SE: YEP. What I love most about it is how different she looks than she did in “Criminal.” Nearly 20 years later, she looks healthy. She looks, literally, and figuratively, like someone who knows how to hold her own strength. Her body is a source of fascination here because it’s (like our bodies are, like all bodies are) an extraordinary machine, an instrument of joy and pleasure. Not because it’s a detailed record of her emotional pain and her sexuality as the blunt instrument of her own destruction.
And in a way, she’s singing the same song she’s always sung, right? “If I get a chance, I’m gonna show him that he’s never gonna need another, never need another.” But it’s also not at all the same, because she’s drawn to what feels good in this attraction. It’s longing as a source of delight, rather than a dismal and painful sentence. And this time, she herself is also enough. She’s the hot knife sometimes. She’s also the pat of butter. (Ugh, is that the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever written?) And if she doesn’t get the chance to show him, there will be grief, probably, but not forever. Things go on. Her body does. Her heart.
AHP: Simone, I feel like it is super fitting that we are essentially ending this piece with our best high school journal prose poems, because when I think of Apple today, I think of my broken and healed self, the way those ACTUAL CDs accompanied me, like literally accompanied me, through basically every major life event, and how transposing her lyrics onto my experiences soehow made my fear and desire meaningful.
So I know you’ll never read this, Fiona, since you’re 2 cool 4 the internet etc. etc. and are probably sitting alone in an all-white room just listening to vibrations of esoteric instruments or whatever, but I love you and your weird, octopus-hatted, sullen, unruly ways for life.
SE: How could you not love her for all those years of love letters she wrote to the act of becoming herself — letters that, it turns out, she wrote for us, too?