Marking the end of 2016, Fiona Apple performed an impassioned version of her Anti-Trump Christmas parody “Trump’s Nuts Roast on an Open Fire”, at a benefit concert for North Dakotas Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose attempts received much publicity for trying to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. At the end of her song, in empathic fashion she screamed, “Donald Trump, fuck you!”
Being provocative is only one of Fiona Apple’s many moods. She is also sometimes described as mournful and sultry. Enigmatic comes to mind too. But one of the more unkind descriptions of her is as an unhinged melancholy songstress.
I can see why someone might easily think that, she isn’t backwards in coming forward. You see this is her greatest strength as a songwriter and social commentator. If she has something on her mind, she says it. Almost twenty years ago she used her MTV platform where she accepted an award for Best New Artist to call the rock world “bullshit” and today she is still ruffling feathers.
Our next great generation, the Millenials, can be excused for not having a clue who is Fiona Apple. Whether the rest of us still care or believe that she is relevant is a question that interests me. Of course, I am definitely interested in anything she still has to say, despite the views of some of her harshest critics that she is nothing but a self absorbed drama queen. It is true that she is almost as well known for her emotional problems as she is for her musical talent. It’s hard not to think about that because her music is littered with references to feelings of heartache, sadness, despair and betrayal. Occasionally it makes for hard listening especially Sullen Girl(from her album Tidal), which is about her devastating experience of being raped at the age of 12, in the hallway of her apartment building after walking home from school.
Her musical output has been relatively rare over the last twenty years since she first exploded onto the music scene, and this is in a way a reflection of her emotional state. In short, she spent many years in between albums fighting her own inner demons and studio heads. She has released albums in 1996, 1999, 2005 and it took seven years for her fourth album The Idler Wheel (2012) to be released. In connection with her last album, the hyper critical Apple didn’t want her work to be made a mess of amid corporate dishevelment. As a fan of Apple, I have come to realise that it is worthwhile to be patient and ride out the highs and lows with her.
By the way, it’s probably important to mention that her music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. To best describe it, Jazz pop or Art pop come to mind. The majority of her music is also piano driven in attitude and executed in her famous subdue (contralto) vocals.
Among Apple’s many highlights, her songs Sleep To Dream and Shadowboxer from her album Tidal (1996) caught my ear early before Criminal controversially made her a huge star and not necessarily for the right reasons. (Critics slammed her video for not promoting a healthy body image for young women. She appears exposed as a rail-thin temptress.) I am also quite fond of her Beatles version of Across The Universe, which appeared on the film soundtrack for Pleasantville (1998). The music video is actually quite cool too. For someone with such a sullen pout it is amazing to see her smile so often throughout the video.
Her 1999 album When the Pawn Meets the King… (The entire title is in fact a 90 word poem) contains many wonderful songs (too) that are reflective of her previous work Tidal. Outstanding are Limp, Paper Bag and Fast As You Can. The latter is so catchy and upbeat, led by a Jazz Pop rhythm that you almost forget that the song is about unstable relationships.
One of the criticisms my friends have about Apple’s music is the heavy reliance or feature of her piano work. But this is what makes her special. Take for example Parting Gift from Extraordinary Machine (2005), it is simply beautiful, just Apple and her piano. It is a devastatingly wonderful for a bitter break up song!
The mere fact that she is back more recently with The Idler Wheel… (2012) makes the songs on her fourth album even more bitter sweet to listen to. It is stark in contrast to her previous releases but that is ok. I just love Every Single Night her first single in years, in which she seems to howl, growl and cry, all at the same time!
As haunting and moody as she can be, it is ultimately the lyrics of all her albums, complimented by her jazz infused sounds, that makes her truly one of the most empowered female artists of her generation. Alongside Alanis Morrisette and P J Harvey, she is a genius!
Photo credit: The image of Fiona Apple performing at Terminal 5, in New York City, 2012, is photographed by flickr user rufus and is used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. I am not the uploder of You Tube clips embedded here.