A Better Version of Fiona Apple

by on April 4, 2012

Posted in: Uncategorized

First came the rumors — she might be back. Then came the 22-word album title (The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do). Then came a relatively soon release date (June 19). Then Fiona Apple took Austin’s annual SXSW festival by storm.

Apple came to fame as the histrionic, anorexic, pretentious (“This world is bullshit,” began her VMA acceptance speech…) ’90s heir to the thrones of both Tori Amos and Liz Phair. She cut a curious figure in the pop landscape of the late 1990s. Onlookers found it hard to distinguish her literary language, rebellious sentiments, frankly related tales of childhood rape trauma, eating disorder, high-profile relationships, forceful vocals, moody piano style, lewd music videos, and ultimate innovative creative powers fro m one another; it all sort of became mushed up together in a complex, contradictory, and polarizing persona with no boundary between artist and art, private and public. Some called her a joke; some took her too seriously; some pretended not care. In other words, Apple was the ideal 2010s pop celebrity, stranded in the era before internet-enabled “oversharing” became the cultural M.O. and doomed to a kind of chronic inscrutability. She was initially so easy to criticize, if one were so inclined, because she had barely left her teenage years behind when her 1996 debut album, Tidal was released. Her 50-cent words and tough-love attitude seemed, to her detractors, like transparent affectations of a pretentious girl. These criticisms lost their merit somewhat as Apple put out more albums, but her lyrical fixation on toxic relationships and refusal to repeatedly don expensive lingerie as she had in her striking, vaguely pedophilic Mark Romanek video for 1996’s “Criminal” meant that she would never achieve widespread acceptance from the critics or the public. She was too young to seem authentic, and too old to seem appealing.

By all accounts, Apple is not going to let herself be seen as that person anymore. After a long hiatus since her incredible 2005 album Extraordinary Machine, Apple is back with a new album and, so concertgoers insist, a new sense of self. Blogger Matthew Perpetua called her physical appearance “genuinely intimidating,” noting that the formerly waifish singer-songwriter was now bursting with coiled muscular tension (her arctic gaze probably helps too). The shows she played at SXSW and on her subsequent comeback mini-tour have blown minds across the continent with the sheer force of emotion and the crackling energy Apple generates. Songs that, sung by a 20-year-old, seemed overly dramatic have been lent new weight by the credibility that experience affords. It turns out, as of course it had to, that Apple was never faking the emotions she shared through her music. Now, however, she’s able to sell her vitriolic put-downs (my favorite: “It won’t be long until you’ll be lying limp in your own hand,” from 1999’s “Limp”) with the veracity of someone who, at 34, really has seen a lot. She means what she sings, and it’s raised hairs on the backs of necks from L.A. to Austin to the Bowery. Apple was one of the first contemporary celebrities who was deconstructed (rather than constructed, as had been the trend previously) by the public until there seemed to be no real person left; in 2012, she’s picked up those pieces, reassembled them, and won’t let them go at any cost. “You’re imaginary,” she told a SXSW audience last month, waving her hand dismissively at the crowd. “You’re not real!” It was simultaneously the most powerful statement of selfhood and the most vicious fuck-you ever delivered by an artist notorious for both — and she didn’t even have to shred her vocal chords delivering it.

Dismissed as she has been over the course of her career, Apple has never lacked for fans. In 2004, when they learned that Sony would not be releasing Extraordinary Machine, they mobilized en masse. And in 2012, they’ve treated her shows like religious experiences, a reaction that makes sense. If Apple was derided as immature once upon a time, she can now only be hailed as one of the most mature pop stars around, and those fans who have grown up alongside her now see themselves, grown up, in her newly dynamic performances. Don’t forget what you’ve heard about Fiona Apple in the past, if you’re not already a convert to her cult, but don’t even think about dismissing her on the grounds of who she once was.

“Here it comes, a better version of me,” she sang back in 2005, and now, in response to herself, she sings “It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening now” on new song “Anything We Want.” As Pitchfork writer Lindsay Zoladz states movingly in her recent piece on Apple, those lyrics are very true: Fiona Apple is happening, NOW. “At the moment she seems… hyper-alive, working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it,” writes esteemed music critic Nitsuh Abebe, after calling her “incandescent” and before calling her the best singer currently working in popular music. So here’s to Fiona Apple, who is currently showing us all that growing up really can happen, and that it’s worth it.

This comeback has inspired a great deal of writing from pop music journalists. Below are some of the most interesting and moving pieces from the past few weeks:
“Mind is Your Might: Fiona Apple and the Politics of Oversharing,” by Lindsay Zoladz, Pitchfork
“This Mind, This Body, and This Voice,” by Matthew Perpetua, Fluxblog
“Yes, Fiona Apple’s SXSW Performances Really Have Been Mind-blowing,” by Nitsuh Abebe, Vulture

Fiona Apple, “Criminal,” Tidal (1996)

Fiona Apple, “Paper Bag,” When The Pawn… (1999)

Fiona Apple, “Anything We Want,” live at SXSW 2012