“Apple is famous for her erratic performances,” says a Huffington Post article about a Fiona Apple concert on Monday night. That’s a correct statement if we’re using “erratic” to mean “unpredictable” or “variable.” The 36-year-old singer’s career has produced enough news-making performances, including a few that were aborted mid-set, that it’s fair to say her shows involve a little more suspense than other artists’ do.
What earned her a write-up this time? Onstage in Los Angeles, she called film critic Rex Reed “a cunt” for having made fun of people’s appearances, including her father’s. Then she finished her set.
Fairly standard mouthing off by a rock star, right? But instead of “Fiona Apple Disses Film Critic,” the HuffPo headline reads “Fiona Apple's Graphic Tirade Raises Eyebrows.” Which, sure, is more clickable; can’t really begrudge that. But it also shows the frustrating and sad way that a lot of folks talk about Apple and figures like her: As nutcases who deserve superficial concern and dismissive taunts, rather than as smart—if unusually earnest, sensitive, or self-aware—people who have valid things to say.
As I’ve written before, the “Fiona Apple is crazy” narrative has persisted for most of her career, and that should baffle any fan of her music. Because what makes her a great songwriter is how she fuses emotion and rationality—the way she tunefully and devastatingly conveys the how’s and why’s of what’s going on inside people’s heads. Her music finds romance and tragedy in cause and effect. To cite just one example, 2012’s “Werewolf” repeatedly sees her wanting to liken an ex to a supernatural monster but instead landing on more scientific examples to illustrate their relationship: chemicals mixing, lava hitting water, sharks smelling blood. She’d like to chalk up her combustible romance to an irrational whim of an unknowable universe, but she’s too insightful for that. “I’m a sensible girl,” she sings, and it’s heartbreaking because she’s right.
It’s always tricky to try to use musicians’ lyrics to understand their personalities, but the way Apple writes songs resembles the way she has talked about her concert “outbursts.” The Rex Reed thing came a couple days after she called out a Portland audience member who had shouted, “Fiona! Get healthy! We want to see you in 10 years!” This kind of comment, too, is the kind of thing Apple has endured for her entire career, and it rightfully makes her mad. At the Portland show, she had the heckler thrown out and then spoke about the incident to Pitchfork:
I don’t even know what I’m being accused of. Do they think I’m on drugs? That I have a life-threatening illness? Do they think that I’m anorexic? At this point, emotionally, it doesn’t get easier to hear those criticisms—but it gets easier to be resolute about my reaction to it. Which is just: “Go ahead and call me ugly, call me skinny, call me crazy and speculate as much as you want, but not at a show.” I don’t think that there’s anything meltdown-y about that. I don’t have any problem getting angry at someone who insults me in the middle of a show.
[...] As a person who performs on stage, it’s good to be emotionally open. If you mess with someone when they are in that state, it’s like you’re messing with an animal when it’s eating. What do they expect me to do? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to stop in the middle of my show and have a conversation with you about what I look like? What is the next line in this conversation that you have written in your head, lady? I feel bad for calling her a bitch, and I always apologize for anything that I feel bad about, which is usually just reactionary cursing. But otherwise, I have nothing that I feel at all apologetic about from last night.
Similarly, after she chided audience members at a Tokyo fashion party, she pushed back against reporters who said she “stormed offstage” with a letter published on okayplayer.com:
if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, if you could tweet to the twits who call themselves journalists (example Chris Martins of sit-and-Spin Magazine) that I FINISHED MY SET!!! I did my job, and they should do theirs too–They all miss the fact that there is a difference between the back-of-the-room-chatter that is simply annoying,–and the operatic drunken blather, or the heckling that is really just INTERRUPTING that makes it impossible for us to do our jobs.
In each of these cases, Apple acknowledged her emotional response and unpacked the logic behind it. She may be more sensitive than a lot of artists when it comes to audience behavior, but it’s not like she’s speaking out at shows because of some deep-seated instability. (Though she’d be no less deserving of sympathy if she were.)
Apple isn’t alone. Most any artist who regularly defies shut-up-and-sing dogma risks getting labeled erratic, infantile, or sick. Sinead O’Connor offers some compassionate—if unasked for—advice for Miley Cyrus; Cyrus brings up O’Connor’s mental-health issues. Kanye West spends an hour-long interview laying out the rationale behind the behavior and music that many people say are bizarre; headlines proclaim the interview itself “bizarre.” The criticism becomes self-fulfilling: Artists ever-more-desperately try to explain themselves while observers take those explanations and put them in the mouths of children for laughs. “I’m healthy and I shouldn’t even have to say any of that,” Apple told Pitchfork. “What makes me unhealthy and puts me in danger is that kind of scrutiny itself.”
There are two other dangers of this kind of reflexive, simpleminded sniping. One is that fascinating artists feel discouraged from making more art; Apple has said she’d put out albums more often if she enjoyed the touring and publicity process more. The other is even sadder: People get discouraged from taking seriously what those fascinating artists have to say in their songs—and as a result, miss out on really great stuff.