When I was first introduced to Fiona Apple, I wasn’t old enough to know about most of the world’s evils. I did know my mother worked two jobs and was never home. I knew I had crushes on boys who insisted on sharing their snacks with girls. I knew the monsters I feared weren’t just confined to my closet or the space underneath my bed, but were flesh-and-blood realities I could run into on the playground. I was 7 years old, and as Apple took the stage at the 1997 MTV Awards, I realized she knew far more than I did.
In an angelic white dress, her brunette hair tumbling down, Apple accepted the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist with a scorned, anguished look. She started her speech: “See, Maya Angelou said that we, as human beings, at our best can only create opportunities. And I'm gonna use this opportunity the way that I want to use it.” She stared out at the MTV audience. As she began to apologize for not thanking the people “she should be” thanking, it was obvious this speech was quickly turning into something outside the norm. I watched the TV with astonishment. She continued: “So, what I want to say is — um, everybody out there that's watching, 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.” She repeated the statement that stuck in my ribs right above my heart and never left: “Go with yourself.”
I wasn’t intellectually sophisticated enough to understand what she was implying — that celebrity culture shouldn’t be revered because it is just another industry hungry for profit. I did, however, understand that something rebellious, something transgressive, was happening.
When I rediscovered Fiona Apple in my teenage years, at the time I needed her most, I started to realize that moments like this — where Apple revealed a piece of herself to the world — would be few and far between.
At 15, I had no idea that I wouldn’t hear new Fiona Apple music again until I was legal drinking age. She was a hermit — someone with enough privilege to afford sustaining a lifestyle based off of the success of limited tours and recordings. She didn’t leave her home, because she didn’t have to. Most famous artists have this privilege, but they’re propelled to work constantly, to make even more money, to make sure the world is still paying attention. Apple just wants to be left alone. She makes a project, tours and promotes for a year, and leaves the spotlight, averaging more than six years between albums.
Other artists I love, like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, hardly ever feel gone for a year, let alone six years. For most superstars, in between projects, there are videos, commercials, perfumes, paparazzi photographs, memorabilia, magazine covers, stadium tours, and perhaps a movie role thrown in for good measure. When Fiona Apple leaves, she is gone.
This makes her the antithesis of the typical 21st-century musical artist. Apple produces work not to remind the public that she exists, but to document her growth and life experiences through her art. She does not desire to be the spokeswoman for products to profit and expand her brand. And perhaps the most radical thing about her: She does not care if she is forgotten. In the age of the internet, this is a fear many of us share, but especially our musical artists. We tweet every half hour so nobody forgets that our opinions matter. We Instagram our faces and meals so people don’t forget that we’re alive, smiling and seemingly living well. Pop and rock’s biggest icons drop albums every year and half and continually produce other work so we do not forget that they are here, feeling and thinking and creating. But between albums, Fiona Apple virtually disappears.
For her fans, a hint of new material from Apple is like a drop of blood to a shark. But her reclusiveness has courted a fandom that is, for the most part, respectful and appreciative of the space she demands for herself. Her fans support her willingness to create, rather than demanding her to produce. Since female artists in particular are expected to expose themselves emotionally and physically for public consumption, Apple’s refusal to do so makes her all the more compelling to her fans, and all the more vilified by those who would rather she play by the rules.
"Be kind to me or treat me mean, I’ll make the most of it / I’m an extraordinary machine." I discovered Fiona Apple’s third studio album, Extraordinary Machine, during the most awkward years of my life.
While most of my peers were concerned with homecoming and car permits, at 15, I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety. I thought about dying obsessively, which made me depressed and scared.
I had just come into my queerness and was experiencing heartbreak at every turn. I was heartbroken because I had to realize I would never be normal. I was heartbroken because time and time again, my boyhood crushes were more interested in humiliating and assaulting me in hallways for my queerness than reciprocating my affections.
Then, eight years after watching her on the MTV Awards, I found Fiona Apple again. A ’90s darling whose breakthrough came on the heels of heroin chic and the revival of the angry woman in popular music, Apple’s music marries the styles of Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac, and Billie Holiday but adds an angst all her own. She is able to capture personal emotional events and transform them into striking visual scenes that are as cinematic as they are poetic. Love songs like “Hot Knife” are as stirring as breakup songs like “Regret.” She is a devastating artist who plays with emotional voyeurism. You listen and feel like you are watching someone do something terribly private, intimately dangerous.
I quickly became obsessed. Her angst was too hot for even my teenage fury to even compete with, and somehow that cooled me down. Despite the tortured teenage blues I was going through, I had not known the sadness Apple expressed in “Sullen Girl,” or the despair in “I Know,” or the disappointment in “Paper Bag,” and this comforted me.
When I got on the school bus every morning I’d eagerly get a window seat, plug my ears with my headphones, and allow Fiona Apple’s music to transport me. As a teenager, your world can feel like the whole wide world, and you can feel alone in your sadness, but with every tune Apple whispered to me, “It can get worse. Be grateful.” I had found my tortured queen.
The media reaction to Apple’s MTV Video Awards Speech at the time was overwhelmingly negative. "She's a pretentious and, on occasion, excruciatingly silly human being," lambasted a piece in NY Rock Magazine. Her acceptance speech – currently known in media circles as the "go with yourself" sermon – has got to go down as one of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event (which is pretty amazing in light of the competition). In a 2010 story for MTV, her speech was said to have been “met with a mixture of vague enthusiasm and confusion.”
The backlash forever informed how Apple would interact with the public. She does little press when promoting an album and none when she is not. When she does interact with the public on those rare occasions, she is especially vulnerable. In 2012 she wrote a handwritten letter, released through her Facebook page, about her dying dog, Janet, and how she was canceling her South American tour dates in order to be with Janet for her last days. Apple began the letter by referring to her fans as “a few thousand friends I have not met yet.” She wrote, “I have a dog, Janet, and she's been ill for about 2 years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly. She's almost 14 years old now. I got her when she was 4 months old. I was 21 then — an adult, officially — and she was my kid.” Apple’s note was an honest meditation on loss and death.
On the brink of my 27th birthday and the sixth consecutive year without a new Fiona Apple project, I now realize the gift the reclusive artist offers. The late Maya Angelou, who Apple quoted in her VMA speech, also once wrote, “Solitude can be a must-be-desired condition. In silence, we listen to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.” If modern mainstream media prefers to produce manufactured products and theme parks, artists like Joni Mitchell, Lauryn Hill, Tracy Chapman, Erykah Badu, and Fiona Apple are interested in growing gardens — even if those gardens need more tending to, and take longer to harvest. The silence between projects, like the art itself, is a gift to the listener because it invites us to sit with ourselves. Apple’s music begs you to be alone with it, grow with it, and examine it. In a world so full of distractions, artists like Apple are quiet revolutions. ●