Fiona Apple - The First Taste

Let’s start with something that you might not want to hear: This is a really goofy song. And Fiona v. 1.0 was a very uncomfortable, sometimes goofy proposition. 

I hate saying it. It’s definitely not the nicest thing to say. This woman is one of my favorite songwriters, maybe one of my favorite writers. But to talk about the process of how Fiona Apple became the particular musician she is, the particular writer she is, maybe even the particular person she is — though none of us know that, really — you have to talk about the fact that her first album is not representative. She once referred to it as a demo tape that got released. And it’s true; on “Tidal,” there are two great songs (“Sleep to Dream” and “Criminal”), two to four very good ones (“Sullen Girl,” “Carrion,” maybe “Never Is a Promise,” mayyyyyybe “Shadowboxer”), and then, there’s the rest of “Tidal.” And there is the weird, uncomfortable, crappy public image that was used to market “Tidal.” Which she’s been pushing back against for the vast majority of her career. 

So I could open with the “Criminal” video. We could talk about its knowingly exploitative porn aesthetics; we could talk about incoherent texts; we could talk about how Fiona’s come-hither looks are interpolated with looks of raw misery and shame and weird dissociative stares, how presenting your music video’s teenaged star as (a) a hot-tub loving, teen-sex-party having seductress and (b) a skinny, pigtailed little girl locked in a closet by a faceless man does weird and scary things with the notion of the gaze, or adolescence, or young women’s sexuality. Or we could just talk about the part where Fiona is hypnotized by floating dishwasher liquid, because I still don’t know what that’s about.

But the “Criminal” video is huge, and nothing I could say to you about it would be new. It’s been covered, and re-covered, in nearly everything written about Fiona Apple. And it is a great song, one of her greatest. Meanwhile, in a less iconic part of the ‘90s: This video, which was never played in the U.S., is what would have happened if the “Criminal” video had gotten it wrong. Where that video exploited the basic ambivalence at the core of Fiona’s public image — she’s a pop starlet and a Teenz Bop Tori Amos, she’s shy and an exhibitionist, she’s too young for us to look at and she’s someone we’re being asked to look at, she’s a sexualized victim and a sex object — and made that problem creepy and interesting, “The First Taste” just sort of enacts the problem. It shows you all the ways the Fiona Apple project could have failed. 

Because here’s what it is: Fiona, in front of the cheesiest Casio drum machine beat in the world, begging you, the listener, to punch her V-Card. For five minutes. The lyrics are so, so silly. (“Oh your love give me a heart contusion.”) The music is so, so silly. (Try to listen to it without doing some highly sarcastic version of the Elaine Dance. You can’t. I’ve played it at parties. Can’t be done.) She has just never written another song this bad. And that’s before we get to the video, which (again) is “Criminal” if “Criminal” were bad. All about the teens, and their sexy parties, and how when Fiona goes to the sexy teen party, she is the sexiest teen of all. But cheesy, and ‘90s-glossy, and just, you know…

Look. I like the girl, okay? But, a few notes:  

  • Hey, the clear glitter eyeshadow. Do you remember when we were all supposed to do the clear glitter eyeshadow? This video does! 
  • When Fiona’s feeling sexy, she likes to lie on her bedroom floor caressing herself and fantasize about dancing in front of a wind machine. 
  • Now Fiona will visit the party from “Clueless” where Tai gets hit in the head by a shoe. Duck, Tai!
  • I keep watching this video to see who (other than Fiona) gets the most action, in the epic smooch-off that concludes the sequence. I think it’s a tie between Green Mesh Hat Guy, Incredibly Pale Girl, and Orange Turtleneck Guy. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that Green Mesh Hat Guy is very charismatic and handsome and gets close-ups, so I notice him? Orange Turtleneck Guy is less obvious. He is just quietly in every scene, kissing everybody. 
  • You cannot masturbate through your Contempo Casuals maxi-dress, Fiona. Or, I don’t know. Maybe you can. The camera is giving me some ambiguous messaging on that front. 
  • Same-gender smooching! Interracial smooching! I, too, dream of a world where people of all races and sexualities will be able to smooch freely in front of a wind machine for the purposes of promoting a song by Fiona Apple. And oh, hey! That is the world I live in! Truly, a new day has dawned for us all. 

There’s a reason I’m giving you this. In a few months, the world is going to figure out exactly what “being a bad, bad girl” can entail. Something not cute, not sexy, not anything but fed-up and raw. The girl who commands the gaze is going to start telling that gaze what she thinks of it, and of her place in it. And I want you to see, for one second, what she was supposed to be. Before she breaks through it, and becomes Fiona Apple, for real.