“Criminal,” “Sleep To Dream,” “Fast As You Can”
Who Is She?
One of the most influential brooding songstresses of the ‘90s.
Fiona Maggart (a.k.a. Fiona Apple) was born into a showbiz family. Her mother was a singer, her father was an actor, her older sister is currently a cabaret singer, and her half-brother is a film/music video director. Oh, and her maternal grandmother was a dancer in the 1920s, while her maternal grandfather was a multireedist and vocalist in the big band era.
So it wasn’t really that much of a surprise when Fiona wanted to become a professional musician.
In 1994, Fiona sent a demo tape with a friend to give to music publicist Kathryn Schenker, who then passed the tape along to Sony Music executive Andy Slater. Andy was so impressed with Fiona’s contralto voice, piano skills, and lyrics that he signed her immediately.
Fiona’s debut album Tidal was released in 1996. Fueled by the monster hit “Criminal,” Tidal went on to sell 2.7 million copies in the US.
But with huge success comes great controversy. The video for “Criminal” (directed by Mark Romanek) featured a scantily-clad, barely legal Fiona Apple in a ‘70s-era tract house the morning after a pretty intense house party. Because Fiona was only 19 at the time the video was released (and let’s not forget the multitude of virtually nude shots of her), critics and audiences were quick to call exploitation.
Funny thing is that was the plan all along.
“I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself,” Fiona told Spin in 1997.
But that was just the tip of iceberg in terms of controversy. When Fiona accepted the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1997, she gave the audience an unexpected lecture that went a little something like this:
“This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying.”
The media immediately called her out about it, characterizing her speech as ungrateful and basically ridiculous. But Fiona was unapologetic. She stood her ground.
After the shenanigans surrounding Tidal and “Criminal” died down, Fiona released When the Pawn… in 1999. The full title of that album is actually a poem written by Fiona in response to a Spin article that cast her in a negative light. Here it is for your reading pleasure:
When the pawn hits the conflicts he thinks like a king
What he knows throws the blows when he goes to the fight
And he’ll win the whole thing ‘fore he enters the ring
There’s no body to batter when your mind is your might
So when you go solo, you hold your own hand
And remember that depth is the greatest of heights
And if you know where you stand, then you know where to land
And if you fall it won’t matter, ‘cause you’ll know that you’re right
When the Pawn… was more experimental than Tidal and received overwhelming positive reviews. What is didn’t receive was the same commercial success as its predecessor.
Where Is She Now?
Prepping for her long-awaited fourth studio album to drop this summer.
After When the Pawn… fell short commercially, Fiona began recording its follow-up, Extraordinary Machine, in 2002. In 2004, tracks were leaked on the Internet in MP3 format and eventually found their way to US and international radio. By 2005, the entire album went online. When it reached P2P networks, it was all over.
But fans decided to start a campaign to support the album’s official release (you don’t see that every day). They originally believed that Epic Records had rejected the final version of Extraordinary Machine, but the truth was that Fiona was unhappy with the results.
After rerecording almost the entire album (with the exception of two tracks), Extraordinary Machine was officially released in 2005.
The official album made just about every music publication’s year-end list, with the exception of Pitchfork (is that really a surprise?). Pitchfork’s reason for hating on the album? The leaked tracks were better.
After the release of a few singles (including a super fantastic video for “Not About Love” featuring Zach Galifianakis), Fiona disappeared for a while. She released a handful of charity singles, but kept promising that a new album would drop in spring 2011. Spring 2011 actually means summer 2012, in case you were wondering.
During a show with Jon Brion in November 2011, Fiona revealed that the album had been done “for a fucking year.” Earlier this year, Epic Records announced that the album would be released in 2012. Last month, Fiona revealed the full title of the album: The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. (I’m guessing this will be shortened to The Idler Wheel… by lazy publications).
But Why Fiona Apple?
Well, if you just read that last section, you’d know that she’s releasing The Idler Wheel… (yeah, I’m lazy) this year. In June, to be exact. Fiona also performed a killer set at this year’s SXSW Festival. And she performed new songs!
What Does Sam Think?
That said, I’m a little biased. Okay, extremely biased. But I’ll keep my fangirling to a minimum for this section.
Fiona represents a dying breed of female songwriters. We had this explosion of them in the ‘90s with Alanis Morissette, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, etc., then they kind of fell off the face of the earth once pop acts like Britney Spears came along. Female singer-songwriters still exist, but they’re (unfairly) overshadowed by overproduced, mediocre bullshit (sorry, did that sound bitter?).
So what makes Fiona a special snowflake? I mean, anyone can sing and play piano, right?
Fiona takes that to the next level. She’s obviously an accomplished pianist and her contralto voice is to die for, but it’s her lyrics that give her songs that extra punch. They’re deeply personal and effortlessly poetic (and this woman loves her poetry, as evidenced by her choices for album titles).
If you look at the lyrics from “Criminal” without knowing who wrote them, you’d be pretty impressed. What if I told you that song was written by a 19-year-old girl? The subject matter seems too mature for anyone under the age of 25, but Fiona makes us believe it.
On the same album (Tidal), we have an extremely personal song called “Sullen Girl,” which is about the trauma Fiona experienced after being raped at age 12. That track is so incredibly powerful, and not just because of subject matter. Fiona puts words to an experience that most victims wouldn’t be able to describe. The result is an account of a personal tragedy that moves the listener to tears.
Bottom line is that Fiona Apple is one of the most talented singer-songwriters of the ‘90s. She knows how to write simple songs with complicated subject matter and make them relatable (whether on purpose or by accident). She’s not concerned with what people think and she’s not afraid to speak her mind.
If you want a role model, girls, you’ve found one.
-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.