An older poet I was hanging out with asked me who influences my poetry the most. Without a shadow of doubt, I responded “Fiona Apple”. He winced slightly. “Hmm, that’s a bit intense, isn’t it?” he smirked in response.
As I came to learn, this was a typical cishet male rebuke to any Fiona Apple-related discourse. The Lilith Fair wave of (predominantly white) female singer-songwriters, from whence Apple emerged and made a name for herself in the mid-1990s, was met with glee and euphoria from one side (mostly women and queer people) and hostility and derision from another (mostly white and/or male rock critics), inciting insults ranging from ‘a silly girl thing’ to ‘a total crock of shit’ and most (in)famously, ‘Lesbopalooza’. Its many headliners and performers (which at one point included Indonesia’s very own Anggun) were lazily lumped into one big group of instrument-wielding, man-hating nymphs.
‘A silly girl thing’ is probably what the general masses have in mind when the name ‘Fiona Apple’ is mentioned, thanks especially to her MTV Video Music Awards speech in 1997. Although her “this world is bullshit!” proclamation is now considered prescient and iconic, it did not sit well with the masses back in the 1997, who preferred their popstars to bow down and be gracious for whatever ounce of success and recognition being thrown their way. It was regrettably lambasted by other women too, most notably comedian Janeane Garofalo, who mocked not only Apple’s speech but also her voyeuristic “Criminal” video, and, head-scratchingly enough, her openness about having an eating disorder.
Apple’s eating disorder stemmed from having been raped at age 12, which in turn inspired “Sullen Girl” – possibly the most definitive descriptor for Apple’s public image to this day – a cut from 1996’s Tidal. Fast forward 24 years later, Apple no longer hides behind metaphors like “He took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me” to describe this harrowing ordeal. On her newly released album Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Apple refuses to hold back and confronts past demons in their very eye. “I resent you for presenting your life like a [expletive] propaganda brochure,” she seethes through gritted teeth on the hymnal and percussive “Relay”, a clear address at her rapist.
“Evil is a relay sport / When the one who's burned / Turns to pass the torch” goes the track’s hook, which she repeats over and over again, turning it into a defiant mantra. “I was not angry at that man for years. Last year is the first time I felt anger towards that guy,” revealed Apple recently, adding that she used to pray for him instead. “I think women do that a lot. We’re very understanding, women. We want to take care of people. We want to protect people. But, please, not at the expense of ourselves anymore,” she added.
A few tracks later, Apple presses on even further. “I don’t believe it / I don't believe your reasoning / Now I understand / You’re a human / And you got to lie / You’re a man / And you got to get what you want,” she yelps on penultimate track “Drumset”. Cutters (its title derived from a line uttered by Gillian Anderson’s character in the British series The Fall after finding a locked door to a room where a girl has been tortured) is indeed a feminist record and interestingly also less solipsistic compared to Apple’s previous releases, instead finding its auteur in a wittier, jauntier, and, yes, wiser place.
No-good, wayward men are less of Apple’s concern over the course of Cutters; if anything, the album primarily deals with Apple’s relationships with other women in all their nuances and complexities. From an ode to a school peer who told Apple she “had potential” (“Shameika”), an incisive clapback at “all the VIPs and PYTs and wannabes” (the title track), past and future exes of an ex (the funny and tender “Ladies”) to a fellow ex of an abusive, manipulative ex (“Newspaper”, in which Apple ponders, “I wonder what lies he's telling you about me / To make sure that we'll never be friends?”).
These are astonishingly fresh and intriguing perspectives that are simply not explored often enough in popular music. Then again, Apple’s penwomanship has been unparalleled from the get-go, having openly stated that lyrics typically come first in her songwriting process and she would later compose music around her words.
That Cutters is her first album in eight years, second to be self-produced and only her fifth in a decades-long career speaks volumes to Apple’s fierce protectiveness over not only her personal life, but also her creative life.
“I won’t write a song unless it serves me in some way, unless I feel I have to write the song to make myself feel better,” Apple once claimed. “If you’re not overflowing with something, there’s nothing to give.”
This resonates with me on a personal level. As a writer, there’s this absurd, albeit mostly unimplied, expectation heaped upon our ilk to produce a work at breakneck speed, to constantly woo our audience with our talent and ability and make them beg for more. Seeing Fiona Apple increasingly grow into a recluse (her output quota is now one album per decade – look out for Cutters’ follow-up sometime in the 2030s) brought me to the realization that there’s no need to say something when there’s nothing to say anyway. You can simply live your life as you see fit, tend to your creative garden, watch it grow with the passing of time and reap its fruits in due harvest season.
And it’s only befitting that a new Fiona Apple record is out at a time when most of the world is made to stay at home. Cutters is by no means an easy listen and can even be classified as an acquired taste, but delve into its universe (which is Fiona’s Venice Beach home, really) and there are plenty of sonic and lyrical rewards to reap and take pleasure in. If anything, this can’t be a more timely moment for Cutters to be in our midst as it forces us to really have a listen, which would have been a more difficult undertaking in a quote-unquote normal time. Apple is most probably glad she doesn’t have to make appearances or tour for the album in the time being too.
In an oral recounting of the Lilith Fair, Nelly Furtado called the all-women festival “one of the first safe spaces in the history of the entertainment industry.” Inevitably, this means that I find similar solace in the words and sounds of virtually all of the artists that took part in the event. Fiona Apple has continued to do so for over two decades and counting, soundtracking many an angst-ridden adolescent night crying my heart out to “Never Is A Promise” and “Sleep To Dream”, feeling all the dejection in the world to the likes of “I Know” and “Oh Well” and when she casually mutters “I’ve been here too long” in the title track, it’s telling that ‘here’ is less about the physical space and more about the mental space. The barking and meowing of her dogs and cats on the song’s outro drives this point further home: there’s still a lot of joy and wonder in the world despite its persistent bullshitness.
“She’s someone who really trusts the unknown, trusting the river. [...] She’s the queen of it,” praised Davíd Garza, one of Apple’s chief collaborators on Cutters. On she goes with herself. May we all follow her lead.