The Fiona Apple guide on how to be a better girl
Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
What came first, Rob Gordon asks in High Fidelity, the music or the misery? In some cases, untangling the threads of personal history and tracing the origin of undeterred allegiance to a band or an artist only lead back to that last or latest heartbreak. There are singer-songwriters such as the Queen of the perfect cat eye, chart-topping, record-smashing Adele, whose vocal powers can literally inspire listeners to pick up the phone and try to reconnect with an old ex-flame.
Adele is not only successful due to her undeniable talent and down-to-earth persona, but due to the fact that her songs are considered universal truths of love, heartache, and relationships. Although Adele doesn’t always write her own music, it’s personal to a certain degree. An Adele song is much less a raw, unfiltered confessional than it is a third-person story, polished into sweeping ballads, reflections in place of in-the-moment war cries. But for me, I’ve always been drawn to extremes, to the odd and unusual, the depths of darkness absent from the purity of light.
It’s no surprise that when a schoolboy broke my heart, I reached for Fiona Apple. Her debut album, Tidal, was released in July of 1996. At the time, Apple was eighteen-years-old; truthfully, due to my age (I was eight when Tidal hit record store shelves), I didn’t fully appreciate Apple until I grew out of my teenybopper phase and started abandoning bubblegum pop and prepackaged boy bands, no longer enchanted by their tactics of sexless seduction.
There was a strange, self-directed cruelty forming at the back of my throat, and I was leaving behind the charm of adolescence for an identity silently succumbing to the battle axe of undiagnosed depression and anxiety. I was cutting my teeth on rebellion specific to suburban girls with too much energy and curiosity for the confines of conformity, like a pack of witches who only take flight after sunset.
I drank my first beer before I turned sixteen; I was going into online chat rooms and other corners of early, dial-up Internet. My friends and I acted as though it were a digital session of elaborate dress-up. We took fake names and fake personas and always lied about our age. I no longer needed posters of boy band idols on my bedroom walls, so I ripped down everything and put the accompanying memorabilia in the back of my closet. And through it all, it was Fiona Apple who taught me that it was ok to not be ok.
In high school, I was hopelessly in lust with this boy in my English class. One of my friends said he looked just like the Brooklyn-born rapper Fabolous, and although I could see the resemblance, I thought my crush was much more attractive. I liked him so much that I didn’t care if he had a girlfriend and I was relegated, to put it bluntly, as the side chick. In class, he would flirt with me, often interjecting compliments with “negging,” which basically is a term used by predatory pick-up artists who think that insulting or harassing a woman will get her all hot and bothered. He knew that I was a writer. He said that he was a writer, too and he was sure that his writing was vastly superior to my own. We both knew that he would never leave his unsuspecting girlfriend. Why would he, when he could possess two girls at the same time?
I craved music that wasn’t afraid to be ugly. This was how I came to adopt Fiona Apple as my North Star. A friend, who was going through her own boy problems, kept Fiona Apple in constant rotation. Drawn to the music like a siren song, I thought that the lyrics described the true meaning of being in love with someone.
To love someone, to even like someone, was reckless. It was like being tied to a wheel and watching as a man hurled knives at your body, praying his aim wouldn’t slip. It was not the middle school dreams of chaste courtship found in the discographies of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys. I kept Apple’s second studio album, When the Pawn, close to my heart, sang tracks like “Love Ridden” and “Paper Bag” in my room, enclosed by lavender walls with the door closed. Her ability to transmute pain into art, indescribable emotions into smart, poetic healing elixirs, arguing that the release of agony can be a more pleasurable experience than forgetting, or even unattached, baggage-free ecstasy itself.
In white towns where young Black girls are culturally, socially, and physically isolated, the strain of racism that they battle is often dressed up in the curiosity of the educated liberal, stalwart follower of the Colorblind Movement. These Children of the Colorblind Phenomenon probably don’t have the guts to call you the N-word to your face, though as I know too-well from first hand experience, some will use this weaponized word without hesitation, as though the word were a label for an inferior classification of animals.
Young Black girls trapped in these lands of idleness and white meritocracy are easy targets. Young Black girls, especially Black girls who do not fit the mold conjured by the imagination of whiteness, Black Girls who like hip-hop but sought salvation in rock or punk, Black girls who stay up reading late into the night as though the words on the page will evaporate before the sun rises, Black girls who are thus made to apologize for embracing an identity divorced from some black manual of authenticity written up by white supremacy. When you are a Black girl and perceived as an exotic yet alien object, and are an unabashed Fiona Apple fan on top of that, you are seen as someone disrupting the comfort of familiarity.
My passion for literature and the craft of writing naturally sparked a startling recognition of self in Apple’s work. She could be anything her lyrics called for her to be: A weeping Ophelia, Scorned Woman, Jilted Mistress, Chemically-Unbalanced Creative, a Romantic who was young, dumbed down by her mercurial moods, and in love. I saw in her a hurt, a hunger, that, while not a perfect mirror of mine, was real and fierce and unapologetically present. Her complexity and refusal to be a submissive woman, whether that be in life or in her music career, gave me something to hold onto as I grew and changed.
Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine, was released in October in 2005. I was a junior in high school and I needed to fly, to get out of my dead-end hometown and out into the real world, or at least a part of the world where I wasn’t not constantly reminded of my race by the words white people purposefully chose to leave out. My high school crush, the one who looked like Fabolous, was going off to college in another state. He’d finally dumped his first girlfriend, only to move on with someone else; someone, obviously, who wasn’t me. I was too tired of his mind games to care at that point.
Extraordinary Machine is different from When the Pawn, as the former seems less aggressive, less snapping jaws and clenched fists, and more razored grief, tinges of heavy melancholy surrounding regret, steely sarcasm with a raised eyebrow, the mourning of relationships or partnerships or genuine connections that were sabotaged and ruined by repair.
Yet amidst the turmoil, there’s a silver lining. The last track, “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” is unexpectedly hopeful. Apple advises, “If you don’t have a date / Celebrate / Go out and sit on the lawn / And do nothing.” Simple instructions for seemingly effortless activities; yet for someone who can’t control a racing mind or the incessant wheel of self-loathing thoughts, for a person who’s already “other”-ized constantly, to celebrate one’s aloneness presents a challenge as strenuous as climbing Mt. Everest. For Apple, of all people, to advocate for stillness and security seemed strange, but I listened still.
During the tour for Extraordinary Machine, one of my friends scored tickets. Actually, I’d been picked as a last minute substitution; our mutual friend couldn’t go for some reason or another, so he asked if I wanted to go in her place. Our seats at the Mohegan Sun Arena weren’t particularly close to the stage, but they weren’t in the nosebleed section. The arena wasn’t sold out, but it was still pretty full.
The night was unforgettable: Apple pounded on the piano, hair smacking her body and her face like whipping cords, singing as though she were fatally wounded. She missed intro beats to songs, and pauses stretched into awkward lapses. It was obvious that something was wrong, that she was forcing herself to play through some hurt she hadn’t begun to process. But that voice — that voice that had comforted me and protected me, that voice that sometimes made me cry — it was as piercing as the recorded version.
“Do you think she’s going through a breakdown or something? Maybe she just got dumped,” my friend speculated.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Probably.”
I watched her play on and felt both guilty and immensely grateful that one of my favorite musicians had decided to continue with the show, that she was allowing herself to be achingly vulnerable. In that moment, though, I was healed from alienation. I lost myself to the performance, half-therapy session, half-martyrdom, and didn’t feel so alone, or as though I were crawling out of my skin, neuroses on autopilot. I was at home in the nuances of identity, mine of many kinds, without guilt.