Me and My Mother, Fiona Apple and Kanye West
by Meridith Carroll on May 10, 2015
Posted in: Hip Hop, Music, Pop, Rock
Growing up, I was embarrassed to share the things I liked with my mom. She was always asking to look at my half-finished paintings or to read the little scraps of essays that I wrote for class. Every time I would protest. I’d blush and get flustered, grabbing pages from her hand, snapping the sketchbook shut, and begging her to stop. I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want her to see these things, just that I really didn’t want her to. Perhaps it was because I grew up an only child and saw privacy as my birthright. Maybe, as a girl who always aimed to please and rarely faltered in my goal, I was scared to show my mother something that was messy, personal or flawed.
I spent high school playing open mics and recording songs by the dim desk lamp in the corner of my room and I never once let her hear me. By the time I found music fanaticism, I was always sure to clamp my headphones tight over my ears, avoiding any discussion about the sounds spilling out of them. For years, my mother yelled my name from all areas of the house, over and over, and I rarely heard her. “MERIDITH. MERIDITH! MERIDITH? HELLOOOO!” became my second name. Music afforded me my own world and I let it separate me from my family. They’d sit in the living room playing music on the speakers, and I’d be upstairs in my room, lying on the floor with my headphones buzzing.
I have a little nuclear family: me, my mother, my stepfather, two very blonde siblings and our chubby cat Leo. Our Victorian house sits in a suburban neighborhood right by my old high school. I am very lucky– I loved growing up in Vermont and I have a very stable home. The older I get, the better my circumstances, the more I cling to my family and my home. But once upon a time things were very different and there was a 20-year-old mother and a baby born two months early, barely breathing in the thin Colorado air.
Once there was a father, but I don’t remember it at all.
Once upon another time, my mother drove us from Georgia brick, sun, and peaches to New Hampshire granite and tall trees. Away from allergies and towards a new life. I remember her waking up at 5am, applying brown lipstick, nude heels, and suits. My mother working full time, driving me around to school, art classes, daycare, and friends’ houses, as I ran around in a leopard print coat and glitter jellies, blind to the way that my family, my mother, was different. The way that she had to work Very Hard to make me feel that my life was normal. And she succeeded. I did not notice.
I remember Christmases full of shiny wrapped presents and recitations of my favorite Dr. Suess books and drawing together in chalk on the driveway and my mother kneeling by my bed, rubbing my back as I clutched a handful of her hair in my hand, scrunching it around in my fingers: the most comforting thing in the world. I remember my mother and me. And we were close. Close in age and facial features, often being mistaken for sisters. Close in voice, always confusing people on the phone. Close in interest, digging at flowers on the side of our house, eating pasta from the Italian grocer down the block, painting our toenails red. As I grew older, we only grew closer, watching the same tv shows, cracking the same dry jokes, telling stories in the same animated, exaggerated way. In my memory, we are a unit traveling across countries and states, creating a shared narrative. Maybe you’ve seen Gilmore Girls. Maybe, in my dreamy memory haze, it feels like that.
When I was in middle school, I found a plastic bin of her old CDs under the stairs and each one was a marvel. Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Jewel—I squirreled them away into my bedroom and listened to them in awe. This is what my mother listened to? These angry, bold women yelping about their womanhood? I remember my mother’s terror when she found me, 11 years old, listening to Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughtta Know” on my stereo. She told me I was too young to listen to the song—but she didn’t take the CD away. So I didn’t stop listening; I just started wearing headphones. As a teen, I turned to the internet and boys that I had crushes on to tell me what music was good and cool. I reveled in being a fringe listener, eschewing the radio for mixtapes and songs nobody had heard of. I didn’t want music from my mother.
But she still supported and enabled my habit. As the world was turning digital and my stepdad couldn’t comprehend why I wouldn’t just buy my music on itunes—I had an iPod after all!—my mother took me to the store and let me buy the plastic jewel cases, unfold the artwork, and tape it to my walls. She stuffed my stocking with CD after CD that I’d asked for, a list complied by pouring over zillions of music blogs and liner notes to find all of the music I’d missed growing up.
There was one outlier. When I turned sixteen, my mother got me a copy of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine and I treasured it more than the countless CDs she’d bought to satiate my fiendish desire to both listen to music and to hold the musical object in my hand. This wasn’t just a CD that I’d asked for and she’d found. It was a shared object. Fiona was an artist that my mother liked when she was young—she was 24 when Tidal was released—and I wanted to be a part of this club: my mother, the siren and me. I didn’t have to share anything with my mother and she could understand where I was coming from—that there was something in Fiona’s music that spoke to me. This was our little overlap in my musical education. We never talked about the album.
Extraordinary Machine was released in 2005, the same year that Kanye West released Late Registration. Kanye cited Apple as an inspiration, attributing his choice to work with producer Jon Brion to his work on her albums. In 2007, I made my first cell phone ringtone “O’Sailor” and I shocked all of my friends by saying that 1. I liked Kanye West’s music and 2. I liked his egotistical persona even more. In 2011, I was a senior in high school and beyond enamored with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and, that same year, I became completely and utterly confused when my mother started quoting Kanye West.
I don’t know when my mother started listening to his music, just that she did. I imagine it ran concurrently to her taking up running, a hobby that prompted her to make countless “pump up” playlists. At first, I thought it was a joke. She’d send me texts with lyrics from popular Kanye songs and I assumed it was an attempt to prove that she could keep up with popular culture. She began sending me articles about Kanye and asking if I’d read certain interviews with him. Kanye West was the only musical artist we ever talked about in any sort of depth. But I still thought this was performative or my mother’s attempt to show that she knew what I was interested in.
Once, I was home over break, and I walked into the kitchen to talk to my mom.
“Mom. Mom? MOM?”
She didn’t respond. Then, she looked up and saw me, pulling out a small pair of earbuds, and Kanye West came flooding out.
“Sorry I couldn’t hear you—I had my headphones in. I was listening to Kanye.”
And thus the tables turned. Now I was the one calling and my mother was the one sunk into her own musical world. Now I was the one looking at my mother as the one with an interest that I knew nothing about—at least, not as it related to her. I didn’t know her listening habits, her favorite lyrics, or anything. They say part of growing up is seeing your parents as people, not just parents. I think I grew up when I saw my mother as a Kanye West fan, not just an ironic listener. Not just a mother.
Something about that glimpse into my mother as something more than a mom made me feel comforted. I’d already begun piecing together how my childhood hadn’t been the storybook it’d felt like; that there were many troubles and that my mother often took the brunt of them on my behalf. Female pain can get swept under the rug. Channeled into repeated listens of the same Fiona Apple song. She wasn’t just the supermom packing perfect lunches and attending school performances. She was, she is, a Kanye West fan. A Fiona Apple fan. She is a woman who likes the same things as me. And I want to share these things with her. If she can understand Fiona and Kanye, these artists that understand me (or so it feels) she can understand me: personal, messy, and flawed.
For me, Fiona Apple is one of the loudest voices that resonates about what it is like to be a woman and Kanye West is the loudest voice speaking about being a confident creator. I think about what these artists represent: artistic innovation, integrity, rebellion, success, confidence and fear. I think about my mother and what she preaches. I think about what my mother has lived. The lists feel the same.
One of my favorite article headlines of all time comes from the Atlantic: “Fiona Apple Is Not Insane (and Neither Is Kanye West)” Here they are: these artists who won’t shut up. Kanye West is a rapper—why doesn’t he stick to rapping? Fiona Apple is too angry and too sad. Why can’t she stop crying?
Well, I talk a lot too and I don’t even have the platform of celebrity to support my aggressive opinions and my habit of vocalizing them. When these people make art we want to listen, but they open their mouths in public and they are dismissed as crazy. People don’t want to give them agency to define themselves. But they keep talking anyway, both in their music and in public. So how are we to feel? The loud people who don’t even have the credentials to back up our opinions?
My mother can be a loud woman. She speaks freely about her fierce devotion to her family and I’ve seen her tear down walls to get what she wants for me and my siblings. She looks us square in the face and tells us that we shouldn’t let anyone stop us from…anything, really. As long as we aren’t hurting others. As long as we respect. She says that I’m lucky that she grew up in the 80s because she knows when you need to suit up with shoulder pads and be a boss and a bitch.
I can be a loud woman too. I tell personal stories to anyone and everyone, and I worry that this drives people away. That I am made undesirable by my big opinions. That I should stop narrativizing my experience. Here I am on mother’s day, telling a story of myself. Why can’t she shut up? Here I am getting sentimental. Why can’t she stop crying?
Hey Mama/ I wanna scream so loud for you / cause I’m so proud of you
My mother listens to all of my stories, ideas, panic spirals, feminist rants, sarcastic quips and defenses and she has never told me to shut up, only to speak louder to get what I want and need in this world. And that’s one of the best gifts of all. But sometimes I need to remember to listen. I can’t be the only one who shouts. Sometimes my stories don’t need to be heard—sometimes I need to be telling better stories. Sometimes my mother shouldn’t listen to me. I can be redundant. But her listening has taught me a lesson.
About 500 times a year, I think about how I want to one day be able to make something as special as the song “Hey Mama” for my mom. I want her to know that I’ve been listening. That I’ve seen what she’s done for me. When I think about the things I hide from my mother—the music, the drawings, the poems—I wonder if this is because I worry that they won’t make her proud. That they are self-indulgent and crass. Really, I’d love to throw myself in the backseat so I can let my mom know how proud I am of her. Just as she gave me that Fiona Apple CD , I give her this song to stand in to say what I can’t. Now we share Kanye West, the paragon of self-indulgence and crass, and we can celebrate it. We can celebrate the opinions we share and the things we like and we can scream and we can listen.
I’m finna talk about my mama if y’all don’t mind