She's given voice to the lonely teenager and confused college kid. Who's she speaking for now?
In September of 1996, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles reviewed a Fiona Apple show at the Fez, a now-defunct club in the Bowery. Like most other critics at the time, he found it remarkable how young Apple was: She had just released her debut album, Tidal, and celebrated her 19th birthday not long after that. Here age was evident in some ways. She wore a shirt knotted at the waist to show off her navel ring ("like song writing's answer to Liv Tyler," Pareles wrote), her lyrics were a pastiche of high-school journal entries ("You'll say don't fear your dreams / it's easier than it seems"), and she complained about being a lonely teenager.
Apple exemplified "today's young women, perhaps the first generation to begin with a sense of themselves as a force to be reckoned with," Ann Powers wrote in 1997.
But the primary reasons she was such a marvel to critics and everyone else were her songwriting chops and her throaty, gravel-edged voice. It's jarring for a waif with stringy hair and enormous blue eyes to produce something so powerful; in live settings it often looks as though her small frame might collapse under the enormity of it. With her contralto, Apple has the ability to fuse the raw heartbreak of Billie Holiday-style jazz with the edgy angst of riot grrrl. Usually, that fusion leads to catharsis—a sure way of minting ardent fans.
When Apple blitzed onstage two weeks ago at a cavernous church in Austin, Texas, nearly 16 years after the Fez show, she launched into "Fast As You Can" with ferocity, squeezing her eyes shut and doing a strange clenched-arm dance as she alternately spat and crooned out the lyrics. Midway through, she dashed to a black piano, and pounded out chords with her signature aggressiveness. It was an impressive, refreshing opener for her fans, who have grown accustomed to the unevenness of her concerts. ("No two Fiona shows are the same," her fan group, Free Fiona, recently tweeted.) That should make for an interesting collection of live performances this week, as she continues her first tour since 2007.
Apple's intensity, her instinct to publicly analyze every detail of every romantic encounter, and, by default, her own misgivings, was refreshing in the 1990s, the pre-Facebook era. She was volatile but confident. "I am making all of my mistakes in public. I'm just hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it's OK," Apple said at a Spin party in 1997, which she later left in tears. That same year, music critic Ann Powers described Apple as an embodiment of a new, confessional age: "[her] seemingly innocent audaciousness exemplifies the vitality of today's young women, perhaps the first generation to begin with a sense of themselves as a force to be reckoned with."
That's a perfect summation of how Apple's female fans—especially those between the ages of 13 and 20—saw it when Tidal came out. Prior to that there had been many empowering, impassioned female musicians, of course. Apple might never have had the guts to write a song about being raped at age 12 ("Sullen Girl") without the uncomfortably confessional riot grrrl bands as her forbears, and artists like Patti Smith who paved the way before that, and the jazz and blues singers that Apple cites as influences before that. But arguably no one had previously managed to pull off both raw emotion and mainstream success in the forms of radio and MTV stardom, millions of albums sold, and an immense, diverse fanbase. The other musicians achieving these feats at the time were either neatly packaged pop stars who lacked Apple's earnestness, or other accomplished musicians like Tori Amos, who tended to be pigeon-holed to a narrower group of fans.