If I was ever going to commit suicide, seventh grade would have been the time. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I was about as miserable as a well-cared-for suburban 12-year-old with no history of abuse can be. (There was also much meta-sadness stemming from knowing I had no right to be that depressed.) Not coincidentally, it was also the year I fell in love with Fiona Apple via her immensely successful first album Tidal (1996), which was released when she was just 19, which still seemed pretty old to me at the time. Her world-weary alto expressed the seemingly infinite pain I was feeling, and I would lock the door of my room and lie on the cold floor in only my underwear feeling various feelings along with her. The ones I understood (depression, loneliness, anger at the world) as well as the ones I didn’t (grown-up lust, bad boyfriends). I’m not too cool to admit that I still get a little verklempt when I hear “Never Is A Promise.”
By the late nineties it was not often that something even a little bit subversive made it into the pool of mainstream music spoon fed to suburban children by MTV, but I was thrilled not just by Fiona’s raw emotional honesty, but by her rejection of the very machine that had made her famous. Most people made fun of her infamous “this world is bullshit!” VMAs speech, but I loved it. Here was a woman who, by virtue of looks, talent, luck, or some combination thereof, had a chance to be accepted by the in crowd, but refused to promote their values. Her arguable hypocrisy aside, this made me feel better about being a social outcast. Maybe I didn’t want to be friends with those assholes, anyway. Maybe it was okay to be a weird artsy girl with opinions and emotions!
Despite being treated like an untouchable by most of my peers, I was beginning to form an independent sense of self-worth. “Go with yourself” was to me then what “born this way” is to Lady Gaga‘s little monsters now. I wrote songs and poetry, read books (including Fiona’s beloved Maya Angelou), thought thoughts. I refused to have a bat mitzvah on the grounds that I didn’t want to stand up and lie about what I believed in. (I could really use some bat mitzvah money right about now, but I stand by it.) I read a book on animal rights and went vegetarian, a move at least partly inspired by Fiona’s roundly mocked PeTA commercials. Basically, I started to become a person.
In my adolescence, I branched out into other kinds of music, but Fiona stuck around in my CD booklet, ignored but not forgotten, like an old friend you don’t see that much but with whom you can pick up right where you left off when you can make time to meet. I loved her second album with the super long name (When The Pawn…, 1999); my best friend and I would listen to it together and pore over the poetic and occasionally funny lyrics. (Fiona’s sense of humor is underrated!) We would giggle about her perfectly biting barbs aimed at various men, and wonder if men were really going to be that awful.
But by the time Extraordinary Machine came out in 2005, I was on some different shit altogether and didn’t pay it the kind of attention my younger self would have. This may have been partly due to my burgeoning identity as someone who thought she finally had a chance at being popular. Fiona’s raw (some might say “embarrassing”) sincerity was no longer in style, if it ever had been, and I was too busy listening to Pavement and trying to impress Bad College Boyfriend to cop to liking something so mainstream, girly and lame.
Why wasn’t Fiona Apple cool? There were probably a lot of reasons, but mainly, I think that like Tori Amos, she embodied the much reviled archetype of the hysterical woman. Sady Doyle has written a great essay on the subject with regard to Tori, but basically, Fiona dared to express negative emotions in a feminine way, and that made people very uncomfortable. Of course, confessional poetry always runs the risk of being clumsy and trite, but Fiona’s lyrics are almost always fresh and amazing. If you don’t believe me, check out her latest screed on mental health and insomnia (there are plenty of earlier examples, but this one’s really been stuck in my head lately):
Every single night I endure the flight
Of little wings of white flamed
Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Form the belly swelling to a blaze
That’s where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can’t get the feelings in
Every single night’s a fight with my brain
In the history of tortured artists, I don’t think anyone’s ever put it quite like that, let alone juxtaposed it with such a perfectly fluttery, vaudevillian, jazzy trill of a voice.