My Fifteen Years with Fiona Apple

by: Kevin Sparrow 

It would appear that 2012 is shaping up to be a lot like 1996, at least musically speaking. New albums will be appearing over the next few months from Garbage, No Doubt and Fiona Apple–a promising return to form of the girl-power generation from the much needed perspective of older women. But while Garbage may have the more explicit track record of highlighting LGBT issues–they had a hit single with a song called “Queer,” if anyone needs convincing–Ms. Apple strikes me as the more queer voice. Throughout her career, Apple has confronted but also constantly questioned her sexuality and her role as a woman, contributing to, while critiquing, the post-modern feminism motif. Doing so alone, and thus, taking the full brunt of her criticisms, echoes the solitude many of us in the LGBTQ community confront when forming our identities. And to watch Apple perform is to see that process of identity formation ongoing.

It’s unfortunately rare that a woman with a voice is not criticized or demeaned. Apple’s speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards became infamously touted as the inane ramblings of a misguided 20-year-old by her proclamation, “This world is bullshit… You shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.” Rambling though they may have been, they were not inane or misguided. They expressed an effort to affect genuineness in others. Fiona Apple carries around a certain kind of loneliness and the backlash to this brief statement more greatly distinguished this characteristic of hers, one with which I came to identify.

At 11, I already had an ardent appetite for MTV and VH1, at the time not having to suffer through too much reality programming to get to the music videos I craved. It was here and then I was first introduced to Fiona Apple through her music video for “Criminal,” a stylistically subdued, sexualized magazine spread in video form. I was drawn to her raw power, her smoky voice, the resemblance it had to nothing else I was listening to at the time. Ace of Base, mostly. I also connected because I felt like I was seeing a version of the two things I wanted to be as a kid: older and a woman. Hearing the VMA speech a few months later was a signal that I was going to be forging a different path than other kids, and someone out there was saying it was okay to do so.

Contrasting that initial reaction to “Criminal” with my experience 15 years later seeing her perform it as the close to her March Lincoln Hall performance, it becomes clear the amazing amount of growth we’ve both experienced. There is a harder edge to her voice now, more danger that lends power to that tune, and that danger in her voice and stage presence carried through the set, and her preceding performances at South by Southwest. She seems often on the verge of breakdown, a consistent tremolo underscoring even strong soaring notes. She manages to counteract that effect and pull an even more powerful phrase from within, especially pertinent to her newer tracks “Anything We Want” and “Every Single Night” as they both contain strong staccato beats at the chorus coming off smoother phrasing in the verses. The new music that has been released so far also seems to be approaching full circle to 1990s Apple, forgoing the tendency toward optimism of Extraordinary Machine to make room for questioning and self-contradiction. I am looking forward to the release of her new album, The Idler Wheel… on June 19th, reconnecting with the revised Fiona Apple, and growing up a little bit more.

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2 responses to “My Fifteen Years with Fiona Apple

  1. Couldn’t agree more! Amazing how some artists can just effortlessly capture emotions that are so relatable across life phases and time.

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