20 Jun EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE: FIONA APPLE AND FEMALE PAIN
Content warning: contains mention of sexual assault and eating disorders.
I didn’t grow up listening to Fiona Apple, but the first time I ever heard her sing, it was like I’d known her all my life.
It was like looking in a mirror.
There I was at sixteen, crushingly insecure in all the ways teenage girls can be, with this woman howling in my ears about never being so insulted in all her life. That same day, I watched Apple’s notorious speech at the 1997 VMAs, in which she declared, “This world is bullshit. 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.” That might not seem all too revolutionary nowadays, but in ‘97, it made Apple a pariah in the music industry. And for me, in 2016, it made her my hero (I was also beyond thrilled that we shared the same first name).
I’m not alone in my admiration. Despite her controversies, Apple has largely regained her status as a musical icon. Her 2012 album The Idler Wheel, as well this past April’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters, received unanimous acclaim from critics and fans alike. Kanye West once proclaimed that he wanted to be the “rap version” of her. Yet in this era of celebrity worship, she appears to reject anything that centres her over her music: she’s not on social media, and she rarely leaves her home in California. Perhaps it’s her way of mastering her own narrative, after so many years of being warped into some kind of damaged, bitchy prodigy by the media.
Though she’s a reserved figure, her music is anything but. Apple puts herself under a microscope, picking apart her trauma like it’s her job—in a way, it is. On her debut Tidal, written when she was merely seventeen, she skillfully fluctuates between misery, lust, and anger in a manner so intimate it feels invasive to listen too closely. The album is in equal parts a kiss-off and a plea for people to love her. She doesn’t know what exactly she wants, only that it’s too much. That’s where Apple’s power lies, in exposing the most painful parts of her psyche to whomever dares to listen. She excels at oversharing—presenting her mind and body and life exactly as they are, spitting ugly truths over skittering drumbeats and piano riffs. I can’t think of another musician who can cut so deep with a single couplet, like this one from Idler Wheel’s “Left Alone:” “My ills are ridiculous, my woes are granular / The ants weigh more than the elephants.” A whole history springs out of those two lines. Fiona Apple doesn’t need an entire dictionary to spin words into gold.
On the title track of 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, she sings, “I’m good at being uncomfortable, so I can’t stop changing all the time.” Her eagerness to share even the most agonizing topics is what sets her apart from her sad-girl contemporaries, who often resist true vulnerability, choosing instead to portray their sadness through an industry-approved veil. Depressing, confessional lyricism is newly typical among the likes of Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish; Apple is the blueprint. After her “world is bullshit” diatribe at the VMAs, she was dismissed as melodramatic, pretentious, bratty, a crazy bitch. While other musicians, even female ones, were lauded for telling it like it is, Apple was reviled for being too honest.
Apple writes wholly from personal experience—which is exactly why her work resonates with me. I wouldn’t say that Apple is an inherently feminine artist, or some kind of universal voice for women everywhere. But her music reflects something that I think every girl has felt at some point in her life. I felt it the day I listened to “Paper Bag” for the first time, and I still feel it today. We’re taught to believe that our bodies are commodities, our desires are trivial, our voices are shrill at best and obnoxious at worst. We don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us, so we learn to minimize our pain, but miss the sympathy when it’s gone. The wounded woman has become an archetype—Blanche DuBois, Sylvia Plath, Bertha Mason. No girl wants to be that girl: the one who hurts herself, who lets men hurt her, who turns to drugs, drinking, unhealthy mechanisms to cope with her woundedness. We’re obsessed with being as jaded, cool, and collected as possible so that we can finally be taken seriously. We develop a sarcastic numbness to trauma, both ours and other women’s, that implies an individual experience with pain but does not make us seem petty, attention-seeking, or pathetic.
Fiona Apple knows all of this. The thing is, she doesn’t care. From “Fast As You Can” (“it’s so sweet / you think you know how crazy / how crazy I am”) to “Every Single Night” (“every single night’s a fight with my brain / I just wanna feel everything”), she’s always been exceedingly frank about pain. Where others might shy away, Apple just digs deeper. Outspoken about her troubled childhood—bullying, struggling with eating disorders and mental illness, being sexually assaulted at age twelve—she acknowledges how these things continue to affect her, rather than constructing a false feel-good narrative of overcoming trauma. She refers to herself as a beast, an open wound, a mess a man doesn’t want to clean up. Nothing scares her anymore, especially not what other people think of her.
Something I’ve grown to loathe about modern-day pop culture is this emergence of “empowerment-core” feminism, which espouses #girlpower but ultimately does little to challenge patriarchy beyond etching “MALE TEARS” into pink coffee mugs. This kind of bite-sized pseudofeminism may be accessible, but it hardly acknowledges the complexities of a woman’s experience. Fiona Apple is the antithesis of that movement. Though much of her music is inundated with feminist lyrics and themes, Apple brings questions of patriarchy to the forefront in Fetch the Bolt Cutters. She ponders her complicated relationship to womanhood by shifting her oft-intrapersonal gaze to the women in her life, from elementary school bullies to the new girlfriends of ex-boyfriends. On tracks such as “Shameika,” “Ladies,” and “Newspaper,” she highlights her inextricably intertwined feelings of envy, obsession, love, and hatred for other women, concluding that she wants to amend the wrongs she’s done to them. The album is a reckoning with her internalized misogyny; a revelation, both an emotional overload and strangely healing. She still refuses to balk at trauma, but now she knows how to break the cycle of it.
On the title track of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she echoes her own musical heroine Kate Bush: “I thought that being blacklisted would be grist for the mill / Until I realized I’m still here / I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill / Shoes that were not made for running up that hill / And I need to run up that hill / I need to run up that hill / I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.” In a recent interview, Apple revealed that she improvised that mid-recording; it had to stay in the final cut, she said, because it was embarrassing.
Resources for those dealing with sexual assault / eating disorders / mental health:
Queen’s Sexual Violence Support https://www.queensu.ca/sexualviolencesupport/
Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic https://schliferclinic.com/
National Eating Disorder Information Center https://nedic.ca/contact/
EmpowerMe (password: studentcare) https://ear.powerflexweb.com/1545/login_SC.html
Good2Talk (confidential 24/7 helpline for post-secondary students) – 1-888-925-5454
Telephone Aid Line Kingston – 613-544-1771
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