Music

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Fiona Apple

She is EVERYTHING.

I love Fiona Apple. It’s true. For a while a part of me thought of her as a “guilty pleasure,” which, now that I think about it, really bums me out. Why would I feel guilty about loving her? Is it because sometimes I feel like she’s singing all the things that I can’t vocalize, because I’m afraid to admit that she gets me, because that would be revealing too many feelings, which isn’t something I really like to do?

Fiona’s first record, Tidal, came out in 1996, when she was just 19. At the time the press was freaking out about her skinniness and near-nakedness in the music video for “Criminal” (nothing that would happen today, really), but I didn’t see a girl trying to be sexual or seduce the audience. Yeah, she was hiding out in a closet and undressing in the kitchen, but her attitude was so sowhatwhocares that you couldn’t help but be enthralled by it. Like, if all you saw was the sexual element, then you were missing the point.

Fiona may have been a teenager, but she wasn’t singing about hanging out at the bleachers wearing T-shirts, and one imagines that she WISHES her problems were as easy as being the girl from the wrong side of the cafeteria. But they weren’t—her songs were about complicated relationships with boys, some that she manipulated, some who messed with her. Most songs about love are either about how much you love someone or how bummed you are that they left you; Fiona’s have always mixed love, hate, and loneliness in a way that feels true to the way real relationships work—twisted and a little screwed up in the end. Does that sound kinda pessimist? Whatever, it’s the truth.

The music that accompanies all these feelings is jazzy and moody, and her piano-playing manages to convey a perfect mix of haunting and dark and soft and angry and beautiful all at once. I was 11 when this record came out, and I remember listening to it the first few times and feeling intimidated by it, like everything that was coming through the speakers was too real for me to be allowed to hear, like maybe I was intruding in her personal life. I got over it, and soon it was all I listened to, especially on rainy days (or, you know, when your life SEEMS like an eternal rainy day).

And then there’s her VOICE! It is deep and soulful and serious and 100% not cute. It is probably my favorite voice ever? I just realized this as I wrote it. Yes. Fiona Apple has my favorite voice ever. And the melody she sings at the beginning of “The First Taste” is probably one of my all-time favorite melodies. It is soft and playful and sensual and totally dreamy. And it’s not only her voice, but the way she puts words together so that they undulate, mirroring in feeling what the words are actually trying to say.

When she won “best new artist” at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, she gave the brattiest acceptance speech of all time. Watch it right now, seriously.

I remember the feeling of excitement when her name was called, falling in love with her perfect white crochet dress, getting that hot shot that runs through your body when you know something’s about to go in a way it’s not supposed to. Starting out with a Maya Angelou quote, going on to add the memorable “this world is bullshit” line, making a quick stop to slam celebrity worship, and ending in the totally DOWNER “it’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me, so thank you very much”? The speech was totally bananas, a trip through a teenage girl’s brain. She was mocked everywhere for it, of course—people are always picked on for being so bare and embarrassingly honest—but in reality it was her intensity and borderline cluelessness that made that speech a total MOMENT.

A few months later she was on the cover of Spin, aka “The Girl Issue.” Finding that on the newsstand felt like the equivalent of discovering the internet today. That picture of her will be forever burned in my memory: those big blue eyes, the faint smile, and mostly that totally secret bitchface that I suspect only other teenage girls could pick up on. Yeah, she’s on the cover and looking at you, but she’s not gonna SELL it to you, you know?

Then, in 1999, Fiona came out with a CD titled
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, cuz you’ll know that you’re right

—or When the Pawn for short—and it became clear that she was kind of the best thing ever. Her attitude was still there, but her singing and songwriting were so much more assured and smarter than before. The record is way more upbeat than Tidal; it’s about realizing you’re better than everyone else and reveling in your mistakes and in the mistakes of other people (this sounds weird, but it’s oddly positive). My favorite song on this record changes every couple of months, depending on what’s going on in my life, but the one I fell in love with first was “Get Gone.” The piano is kinda menacing, as if to say I’M SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU WHY AM I FREAKING OUT ABOUT THIS? It’s the perfect song to move on from a broken relationship and figure out that you’re awesome without him/her, especially when you are singing it at the top of your lungs and get to the part where she sings “Fuckin’ GO, ’cause I’ve done what I could for you and I do know what’s good for me,” because it’s like exactly what you’d wanna say, you know?

When I moved to New York after college I spent six months listening to this record and nothing but this record, day and night. Basically it was the STORY of my LIFE, and I wasn’t sure how I’d survive my daily routine in this new place without her voice in my ear. Was it a coincidence that this record came out when she was 22, and I was 22 when it became my oxygen? I don’t think so, and I don’t think it’s weird that I don’t think so.

Another very important thing to note about When the Pawn is that, in the video for “Fast As You Can,” Fiona puts out a match in her mouth, and to me it’s somehow become the most badass act ever captured in a music video. Something about her singing “my pretty mouth will frame the phrases that will disprove your faith in man,” and then putting out a fire with it—you know, it just MEANS everything.

Then there’s her third album, Extraordinary Machine, the record that almost didn’t come out and was saved by her fans sending a bunch of apple paraphernalia to her record label. It’s a departure from her other records in part because I think she really embraced her jazzy leanings, and the songs are really pared down and borderline theatrical. It’s almost like Fiona: The Musical!, which I mean in the best possible way. It took me a really long time to get into, mostly because I was too busy obsessing over When the Pawn, but really because I sort of didn’t get it. Then late last year, in the midst of massive life changes, the record just…clicked. The title track, “Extraordinary Machine,” became something like the national anthem in the country of my person. “Be kind to me or treat me mean—I’ll make the most of it; I’m an extraordinary machine,” she sings with a deliciously deranged happiness, and it echoed in my brain 24/7. “I’m an extraordinary machine” is also a good daily affirmation, if you’re into that sort of thing. Then there’s “Not About Love,” in which she assures us that “she is not in love” in the same way you tell your friends that you’re not really into so-and-so anymore when inside you still die every time their name is mentioned. It is a temper tantrum in song form, and the way she bangs on the piano just makes you wanna kick stuff around your room while you sing along to it. Basically, there isn’t an emotion that she is incapable of capturing.

Fiona’s energy is intense and amazing and oh-so-REAL.* It’s an essential part of life. My friend and I used to drive around and sing along to her songs at the top of our lungs, and it was a total bonding experience. We were sharing with each other and feeling less alone in the world, but also, singing out loud is the #1 reason to have a car, really. I’ve still never seen her live, but I know that that will change, and that when I am face to face with her, I will probably break down and cry. Out of happiness, but also some sadness (because some feelings will be too much). In the end it will be a magical time. Fiona Apple is magic. ♦

* Speaking of “oh-so-REAL,” there are three of her songs that I never listen to because they break me down: “Sullen Girl,” “Love Ridden,” and “I Know.” Listen at your own risk.

54 Comments

  • Tyknos93 March 14th, 2012 3:11 PM

    I was all “Oh Fiona Apple is ridiculously overrated”, until someone suggested I hear Sullen Girl. There was not a dry eye in the house. I love her.

  • mayaautumn March 14th, 2012 3:27 PM

    Her voice his beautiful, and she is<3

    http://cottonmixblog.blogspot.com

  • Jamia March 14th, 2012 3:32 PM

    I LOVE Fiona.
    My high school days were filled with her sullen snarky solace. I cheered on her #realtalk at the MTV awards.
    YES YES YES Fiona.
    I love her song Sleep To Dream and I love Bettye Lavette’s cover of it–that song has pulled me through some rough days, months, years–and it helps me “float like a butterfly–sting like a bee” like ALI when dealing with haters. Fiona Forever.

  • Juniper March 14th, 2012 3:40 PM

    Wow! I liked her speech!

  • lunademargarita March 14th, 2012 3:43 PM

    I believe this is pretty much the closest that anyone has come up to what I think about Fiona Apple. I would never think of her as a “guilty pleasure” because her emotions spill all over her records and it’s just like she would just tell you she’s been hurt and she’s singing about it because she needs to let it out and move on in some way.
    I don’t know, I just really consider her one of the best songwriters of all time, and that’s just an understatement.

  • Susann March 14th, 2012 4:10 PM

    Wow, I loved her speech! So courageous!

    http://fashioninpepperland.blogspot.com

  • Naomi March 14th, 2012 4:25 PM

    one summer i listened to criminal NON STOP and i am still no where near bored of that song. i love her. you’re so right laia, she’s a girl who is not afraid to have FEELINGS.
    I LOVE HER.

  • Alexis March 14th, 2012 4:50 PM

    Gosh I really need to download her other albums. She’s just the epitome of cool. I totally have a crush on her. :D

  • KinuKinu March 14th, 2012 4:53 PM

    That speech…. Whoa.SHE IS AWESOME :)

  • chelsear March 14th, 2012 5:19 PM

    I am so in love with Fiona Apple! I think she is literally the coolest person ever, like the type of person I secretly wish I was. Great article!

    xo
    http://couturecultureblog.blogspot.com

  • Miss Erin March 14th, 2012 6:19 PM

    The first Fiona song I heard was “Paper Bag” and it described things in me I hadn’t even known needed describing. It was perfect and I listened to it/sang it in my bedroom constantly.

    • Katherine May 29th, 2012 11:37 PM

      I love Paper Bag! It’s currently my favorite song. She looks like my former English teacher in the music video. :)

  • Lurkingshadows March 14th, 2012 6:25 PM

    Ahhh Sullen Girl is my favorite! I was at work one time and Criminal came on. Me and coworkers swept and danced like crazy. It was amazing.

  • jooleeanne March 14th, 2012 6:47 PM

    SO much love for her. O’ Sailor was like my childhood.

  • LermWorm March 14th, 2012 7:18 PM

    OMG OMG OMG

    i am in love with her.

  • ladyface March 14th, 2012 7:20 PM

    I agree with every word! She is totally my guilty pleasure, even when I was a tween (which wasn’t a word yet) sheepishly walking into Newbury Comics to buy Tidal. I still belt every word to every one of her songs in my car, especially on those days when I’m just like FEELING things, you know? It makes me feel like an angsty teen again.

    Also this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH2AFoQJrQQ&feature=related

  • MissKnowItAll March 14th, 2012 7:40 PM

    Fiona Apple tells it like it is. She doesn’t try to sugar coat it because she knows that life is cruel pain. In short, I love her.

  • kendallkh March 14th, 2012 7:45 PM

    Even though I hear about Fiona Apple all over the place, I’ve never really listened to her before or actually known anything about her, so thank you for writing this article and finally exposing me to her awesomeness! I am about to buy ALL the Fiona Apple.

  • starsinyourheart March 14th, 2012 7:46 PM

    Fiona and Jewel are staple albums for all sensitive teenage girls. <3 her.

  • Kristen March 14th, 2012 9:07 PM

    She is beyond cool and amazing in Criminal. Is it weird that I made a mental note to try and find shimmery blue socks like that?

  • eeEmilyee March 14th, 2012 11:00 PM

    I wish I could scream at you (out of happiness-a happy scream). I love Fiona Apple more than I love my cat (that’s almost true).
    Thank you so much for including Fiona Apple in this awesome online magazine.

  • abillionjennifers March 14th, 2012 11:06 PM

    Fiona Has Wings!!!

  • Flossie March 15th, 2012 1:44 AM

    The video clip for “Criminal” is probably one of the best of all time. It’s sexy and moody and atmospheric and sleazy and raw and edgy.It kind of gives the impression that something wrong and nasty but a little bit pleasurable has just taken place and Fiona is complicit in the mayhem. I remember seeing it when I was a teenager and feeling like it was something I wasn’t meant to see. The song made me uncomfortable and excited at once but I couldn’t explain why.

    You wrote this so perfectly, Laia. x

  • LemurLee March 15th, 2012 2:23 AM

    First of all, thank you so much for writing this. I was very young when I discovered the wonderful musician that is Fiona Apple. I saw her performing on MuchMusic (Canada’s only music channel prior to getting a horrible sad version of MTV). It was just before Tidal was released. It was the first music that I discovered and enjoyed for and by myself – without a friend or relative recommending it or telling me that I should like it. I was about 11 (also – YAY).
    Ever since, I have loved, treasured, and shared her music. She is so talented and deserves so much praise. I honestly cannot say enough about how great her albums are (int their entirety). Her rich velvety voice is inherently calming, yet somehow so real that it hurts your heart. It is hard not to sing along as loudly and passionately as is physically possible when I hear her music (even in public).
    I am so happy when I find fellow Fiona fans to share in the visceral and magical experience that is her music.
    I really cannot thank you enough for writing such a great piece on one of my heroes.

  • Narnie March 15th, 2012 3:46 AM

    OMG I have to comment before I even read it because Fiona Apple ahhhh she is amazing. Changed my life a little bit…

  • diny March 15th, 2012 4:19 AM

    i think the third video is kind of letter to everyone through generations.

  • mirabella March 15th, 2012 8:13 AM

    I used to love her music when I was a teen. I still listen to some of her songs (When the Pawn was my favorite album) when I’m feeling nostalgic. Why doesn’t she sing anymore???

    • Anaheed March 15th, 2012 9:34 AM

      She has a new album coming out in June!

  • sttefaaa March 15th, 2012 8:58 AM

    Whoah, I`ve never heard of her! Man, I`ve missed a lot! I loved that speech so much :D

    http://stefanystrange.blogspot.com/

  • macipisi123 March 15th, 2012 10:39 AM

    “Let’s pretend we’re 8 years old playing hooky.
    I’ll draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie”

    from a song she premiered last night :3

  • isabellehungryghost March 15th, 2012 11:21 AM

    i loove fiona apple!

  • abillionjennifers March 15th, 2012 12:39 PM

    Ok, she performed 2 new songs at sxsw and you can find them on youtube……Every Single Night and Anything We Want.

    AMAZING.

  • Lascelles March 15th, 2012 3:00 PM

    Fiona’s rendition of Across the Universe and Frosty the Snowman are worth mentioning.

    • Lascelles March 15th, 2012 3:18 PM

      Oh and Sally’s Song :D

  • Nic March 15th, 2012 3:50 PM

    I love Fiona! So much so, that when my first car had only an AM radio, I would sing the entirety of Tidal to myself driving to and from college classes. Trust me, I’ve perfected every note from every song and can sing it on cue (I am so tempted to record a video of myself trilling the beginning of The First Taste and dedicating it to Laia). I could probably do the same with When the Pawn.

    I can’t wait for her next album!

  • neenah March 15th, 2012 5:04 PM

    I agree! I was lucky enough to see Fiona Apple in concert when she was on tour for When the Pawn. She sang every song from that album AND every song from Tidal. It was an amazing experience!

  • unefillecommetoi March 15th, 2012 5:54 PM

    i love her too! not about love is one of my favorite songs… ever. and the video is great too! with zach galifanakis “singing”

  • starcollector March 15th, 2012 10:33 PM

    SHE IS EVERYTHING GOOD ABOUT THE WORLD.

    Seriously.

    http://china-lily.blogspot.com/

  • Kaleidoscopeeyes March 16th, 2012 11:25 PM

    You posted this on my birthday. Fiona Apple is my favorite singer. That same day she preformed for the first time in quite some time. Maybe I’m connecting dots where I shouldn’t, but……

  • nutellacube March 17th, 2012 7:06 AM

    this has led to me go on a fiona apple binge. thank you!!

  • Joyce March 18th, 2012 11:18 PM

    I lover her! Criminal is awesome. I used to listen to her A LOT, together with Natalie Imbruglia and Dido and Alanis Morissette…*sigh*

  • teatimeonthehighwire March 27th, 2012 9:52 AM

    Thank you for this article! I adore Fiona Apple, she’s a hidden gem. I don’t know many people who listen or acknowledge her music. She’s the same age as me, and I remember being blown away when Criminal first came out. I admired her sassy rebellious attitude. It was still the 90′s! Time to tell it like it is-and to hell what anyone else thinks. I feel that as her music went through changes, so did I, and I connected with her music as it grew.

  • teatimeonthehighwire March 27th, 2012 9:54 AM

    P.S And yes, the only good thing about a car, is the ability to be immersed in music and blare out the lyrics with no inhibitions. :)

  • donutsundae March 27th, 2012 3:44 PM

    AAAAAAAHHHH The Girl Issue! I know exactly what you mean about that issue — Finding that on the newsstand felt like the equivalent of discovering the internet today — because I so completely remember that feeling. It was the same for me. I don’t know if I ever realized how completely formative that particular issue of SPIN was for me until this moment. Holy crap. That “essential books” photo became my Christmas list that year.

    Thank you for the sheer brilliance and generosity of linking to an archive of that issue. What a time machine!

  • SFclaire April 8th, 2012 10:14 PM

    Fiona Apple is one of my female heroes that I look up to. I absolutely adore her music, and as an aspiring indie singer-songwriter, I really look up to her. Fiona is the bomb.

  • Tbecks April 12th, 2012 11:59 PM

    Fiona is my heroine (as in female hero, i don’t want to inject her and listen to jazz).

    Everyone should go look up her singing Elvis Costello’s I Want You. It’s like he wrote it for her to sing.

  • voyage May 29th, 2012 2:32 PM

    “well you ain’t fiona apple, and if you ain’t fiona apple i don’t give a rat’s ass.”

  • katiebell929929 June 8th, 2012 3:47 PM

    My mom was always a huge fan of Fiona apple, but I never really knew who she was. When I was going through my parent’s old Cd collection, I listened to it. The first song I fell in love with was Get Gone too! (My current favorite is paper bag though) The only other albums I like just as much as these is Coldplay’s X&Y and Two door cinema club’s tourist history. I freakin love how badass she is. I’ve always kinda been obsessed with the 90′s and this kinda fueled it even more. Thank you for the amazing article.
    http://www.fallingintofashion.wordpress.com

  • Tinkerbeba June 27th, 2012 7:50 AM

    First I want to say, this was written the day before my birthday… which is awesome, because Fiona is my favorite. And by favorite I would like to specify that I mean favorite singer, musician, and poet. I mean out of nowhere I found myself constantly replaying all her albums and realizing that Tori Amos lay on my shelf, untouched and dusty. I mean don’t get me wrong Tori is still another favorite, but she’s more like no.2 favorite. So, thanks for this article… I’ll accept it as a belated early birthday present.

  • rljd July 10th, 2012 2:35 AM

    Fiona’s been a hero to me since Tidal came out… I think she’s like a year older than I am? I read in Rolling Stone that she was into the same music I was (early 90s hardcore NY hip-hop) and you can hear that influence in Matt Chamberlain’s drumming… but that’s not what makes it one of the most enduring records I ever heard.

    Her lyrics are the best lyrics. Her voice is the best voice. Her piano is on some whole other ish.

    I was really disappointed by the Elizondo remix of Extraordinary – it came right on the heels of him producing Rilo Kiley’s worst album, and I blame him for everything, ha. (Don’t let some friend of Dr Dre’s come mess things up – they hate women in that camp!!) The Jon Brion mixes that were leaked online though are amazing, I hope everyone who likes those songs gets to hear them in their full glory.

    I’m so grateful she has a new record out. Hell yeah.

  • The_Idler_Wheel May 3rd, 2013 11:19 PM

    Fiona is everything I have ever wanted in a musician and role model. Also, I think she may be God.