fiona apple

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Fiona Apple


The Idler Wheel…

“Werewolf” is built around a solitude. Though it is, like most love songs, addressed to a specific “you,” there’s a sonic trick at the beginning of it: A click, creak, and slam that is most likely the lid of a piano, but which sounds exactly like a closing door. No matter how much the song tries to address someone else, or how many other musicians it brings in, the closed door defines it. It always sounds like a woman talking to no-one, all alone.

Not just alone, but lonely. The piano sounds dusty, tinny, more than a little worn-out; you can hear the wood rattle and rumble whenever she lands on the bass. Fiona Apple’s voice, when it comes in, creaks with resignation. And, although we know Apple can write and play riffs that are dazzling in their complexity, most of this particular song is a tired, bare four-note waltz. Not only is she talking to someone who can’t hear her any more, not only is she alone, but there’s something about the song itself that is just bled dry, depleted.

Which is to say: It’s exhausted, this song. It’s been up all night. It’s come home to an empty room. And now, when we meet it, the song is finally at the scraped-raw five-in-the-morning moment when it has to settle down and put itself to bed. Sometimes the truth comes only in that pre-dawn exhaustion; the moment where there’s no fight or filter left, and you finally come to the one conclusion you’ve been trying to avoid. Everything you thought it would kill you to believe:

I could liken you to a werewolf, the way you left me for dead,

But I admit that I provided a full moon.

When this song came out, the shock of that second line was what people responded to, wrote blog posts and FIONA GROWS UP headlines about; the fact that Fiona Apple, the world’s most intimidating and eloquent conveyor of stories about what a dick you have to be to hurt Fiona Apple’s feelings, came up with a first line about how her ex-boyfriend was a monster, and decided not to run with it. Now, it’s worn off a bit.

So it’s important to remember: It can take the hardest work of your life to get from that first line to the second one. When you’ve really lost someone – lost them in the way “Werewolf” describes, the kind of loss where it’s not just that you can’t be together, it’s that you can’t even be in the same room – everything in you argues against it. Every permanent separation is the rehearsal of a death. But losing someone, and blaming yourself, is the rehearsal of a murder. Or of being killed: Someone has looked around, at the world, and decided that it would be a better world if you weren’t in it. To imagine someone thinking that of you at all, let alone someone that you care about, hurts like nothing else. It’s annihilating, it’s humiliating, it’s a trap in which each bit of love you have for that person amplifies and becomes a new means to hate yourself. And in the moment, all you can think is: You left me for dead. You fucking monster. End of line, end of sentence, end of song. The last thing you can do, if you want to hold on to the few precious shreds of self-esteem or survival instinct you’ve got left, is admit that you might have had it coming.

The power of this song is that it spans, in about three seconds, one of the biggest emotional leaps a person can take. And then, it settles down to the infinitely more difficult business of letting go.

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Posting break

Sorry for this, but due to personal reasons Fiona Apple week is paused for the day. Apologies + thanks for understanding.

On the upside, that’ll give you a breather on a day that’s no doubt been heavy with Fiona content all over your social streams. Her fourth album The Idler Wheel… has been released today and you can still stream it in full at NPR, if you haven’t listened to it yet.

Plus, a flurry of reviews and features out today to accompany the release. In case you need some pointers, there’s Maura Johnston at the Village Voice, Jess Hopper at Spin, Ryan Dombal at Pitchfork, or Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic.

Or, of course, if you’ve had your share of Fiona for the day and are still looking to kill some time, there’s always the One Week // One Band band directory with lots of worthwhile features you might not have read yet!?

Again, apologies for the break and see you back soon.

— Hendrik

I’m not gonna do this like everybody else does it. 

I’m gonna use this opportunity the way that I wanna use it. 

Everybody that’s watching this world? This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second! — you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself. 

And it’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’ve all been very cool to me. 

Man, it’s good. Bye.

Fiona Apple - To Your Love

Here’s my question: What metric tonnage of balls do you need, to write this song’s opening lines? 

By the time this album came out, Fiona Apple was a joke. It was one of our finer moments, as a nation: Take a very young woman who’s experiencing a media blitz, note that she’s had some major traumas in her past, note that she’s not great at discerning the difference between “reporter” and “BFF,” and then just go to town on her. And, I mean, the speech. Did you hear the speech? Oh, my God, did you hear that one radio show parody of the speech, it was so funny, what a stupid fucking speech. What a stupid fucking girl, with her fucking speech. She’s so disgusting. Crazy, I heard. Well, you know. It was a crazy speech. 

And here’s Fiona Apple, sitting down, and she decides that her song’s first line is going to be, Here’s another speech. To be precise:

Another speech you wish I’d swallow

Another cue for you to fold your ears

Another train of thought too hard to follow

She starts her song by daring you not to listen. Other musicians facing PR crises or failures have done this: Kanye West, just to note the most obvious example, had “Runaway” after Taylor Swiftpocalypse. This is the same song as “Runaway,” in a lot of ways: Yes, I fucked that up, and I fucked it up because I am fucked up, and it hurts to be this fucked up, sorry. A song about your relationship with your audience, framed as a song about relationships. But where Kanye calls himself a douchebag and then commands you to celebrate him, Fiona just repeats your own words back to you, then tells you how she feels. 

On its most basic level, When The Pawn is an album about the right to define yourself.  The title is a poem she wrote after reading coverage of herself in SPIN. When the pawn hits the conflicts: It’s all right there. She’s the pawn, the kid doing wind machine dances and being fed to the wolves. We were the conflicts, the people who pushed her into position and then condemned her for where she stood. 

Half of the album is Fiona calling herself names or beating herself up: “How crazy I am,” “I know I’m a mess,” “I’m gonna fuck it up again.” And the other half of it, of course, is Fiona outright furious that you would dare to call her those same names, or hold the same low opinion of her that she apparently holds of herself: “So call me crazy,” “keep on calling me names,” “and I do know what’s good for me.” Nearly every song on the album revolves around these basic questions: What you think of her, whether you’re right, and if you’re right, what that person has to say.It means something that the last song on the record is called “I Know,” that its last words are don’t need to say it. The whole album has been relentlessly about language and perception and definition, and it ends with her giving up on words. But before we get there, for as long as it takes to play this thing through, she’s reclaiming her own subjectivity, even as she’s relentlessly excoriating the flaws and failures in her own vision. It’s a brave thing to do. And it’s especially brave to do it when you already know people are rooting for you to believe the worst of yourself, to fall apart, or to fail. 

“To Your Love” is — like “The First Taste,” sorry — not a big moment in Fiona Apple history. But it does define a tremendous amount of what this girl was going to be capable of, from then on. 

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.