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.
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.
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Apple's earnestness didn't fade with her subsequent albums, 1999's When the Pawn (the full title is a 90-word poem Apple wrote on a bus, after a somewhat self-destructive session of reading anti-Fiona letters in Spin), and 2005's Extraordinary Machine, which came out after years of back-and-forth between Apple and her label, Epic. Both albums surpassed Tidal in terms of musical complexity, and continued down the road of raw emotions and making mistakes in public. But it was in a progressive way that allowed a certain generation of women to mature with Apple, in age and in relationship problems.
"Sullen Girl" aside, Tidal's songs center mainly on high-school-level romantic woes. When the Pawn, meanwhile, is the college album, especially "Paper Bag," a beacon of reassurance for anyone who's ever been confused about an emotionally detached semi-significant other. I remarked on this to a male friend recently, and he confessed that in college, a girlfriend once left the entire song on his answering machine. The song also soundtracked a sad montage in the latter half of Bridesmaids. "Paper Bag's" relatable beauty lies in the combination of the chorus (with lines like "I know I'm a mess he don't want to clean up"), Jon Brion's expertly produced muted horns, and verse lyrics like "He said it's all in your head, and I said 'So is everything,' but he didn't get it."
Apple played it live in Austin, where she also performed three new songs from her upcoming album (another long title, which the media has reduced to The Idler Wheel), spread out at different shows over the course of the weeklong music conference. And all three—"Every Single Night," "Valentine," and "Anything We Want"—pointed to the fact that, at age 35, Apple is still centering her soulful music on matters of the heart. The problems have just matured. "Valentine" is about supporting a loved one's ambitions. "I root for you," Apple sings, dragging out the "you," then repeating it a few times more. "Every Single Night" is about a live-in relationship that revolves around nightly arguments—but "every single fight's all right." That might be a good sign for Apple fans. As long as the fights continue, the music will too.