The Emancipation of Fiona Apple and Me
By L.S. Mendizabal
If I could sum up college in one word, it would be “liberating.” I savored every single new sensation that came with those years, the better ones being the taste of independence from living miles away from family for the first time; the drunken abandon of sprint racing in the wee hours in the streets of Krus na Ligas after ten bottles of beer or so; the touch and tang of another person’s skin in dark, cramped boarding rooms with only an electric fan to cool our bodies down; the sun’s prickling heat on the back of my neck as I marched countless steps, always catching my breath, in between classes and protest rallies. The slow but sure loss of innocence. As in any coming-of-age story, my college years were far from perfect. I had more than my fair share of bullies (although not as bad as in elementary or high school), terror professors, embarrassment that rendered me useless for days, angst, passion, heartache and a rage against the establishment that refuses to die to this day.
You know when you listen to a song and it triggers all sorts of feelings because you’ve somehow subconsciously attached certain memories to it? Well, I have a whole soundtrack of songs in my head, each associated with a secret. If college was a playlist, personally, it mostly consisted of tracks by singer-songwriter and pianist, Fiona Apple, from her 1996 alternative pop/rock debut album to the bluesy bizarreness that was The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (she likes poems for album titles) in 2012. Apple was, to me, kind of like an imaginary friend to a five-year-old and she’d let me read her diaries through her records. I was cutting myself since 14 so naturally, knowing that Apple also suffered from sexual trauma, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety since childhood comforted me in my own private acts of self-hatred. She was indeed my “patron saint of mental illness,” as she herself would describe the image that the unforgiving male-dominated press often portrayed her to be. As my source of solace and emotional catharsis, Apple made me feel that I was not alone, that I was not as weird.
Eight years later, listening to her fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters (released on April 17) is like catching up with an old friend, leaving me in complete awe of her evolution from once being a “Sullen Girl” (“And he took my pearl / And he left an empty shell of me / And there’s too much going on / But it’s calm under the waves / In the blue of my oblivion”) to becoming this full-grown, less self-deprecating woman because she’s now more cognizant of other women’s struggles. An artist who is still very much fragile, yes, but no longer afraid of being unapologetically angry. And it’s funny how writing this has also forced me to remember the girl I cannot believe I was at one point in my life. I haven’t harmed myself for a decade now. I mean, who was she? Why did she hurt so much? I almost forgot. How odd.
Apple’s latest 13-track baby which was four years in the making and recorded exclusively in her Venice Beach home is, pure and simple, a collection of protest songs anthemic of the #MeToo era. An assembling of women—fellow used and abused women or the women we used to be—and other casualties of late capitalist patriarchy to condemn our bullies and oppressors for the damages they’ve caused us, supposedly to empower us enough to move forward, conquering the victims within. The record’s title was derived from a scene in the BBC crime drama, The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson’s character said “fetch the bolt cutters” to the police in order to release a girl who was tortured.
Remarkably, Apple and her collaborators were able to produce this furious masterpiece without falling into the trap of sounding like your typical angry girl band, not that that’s bad, of course, but it has been done, not to mention that it isn’t as revolutionary for a comeback from a 90’s icon. Fetch’s overall avant-garde sound is distinctively percussion-heavy, which is a clear departure from her earlier more piano-driven albums. Bells, drums, walls, floors, metal squares, wooden blocks, oil cans filled with dirt, barking dogs and even a box housing the bones of Apple’s dead American Pit Bull Terrier were said to be utilized without any digital filters to create the organic, chaotic yet cohesive sound peculiar to the record. A most delicious cacophony! Apple has never been one to shy away from experimenting with her music and Fetch is arguably her wildest and most unorthodox yet.
Iterative lyrics abound, almost like chants akin to that of “Tiny Hands” (“We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants”), the song she wrote for the 2017 Women’s March as commentary on the audio recording of Donald Trump bragging about “grabbing women by the pussy.” Personally, I’ve always found Apple’s songs a tad bit difficult to sing because of her expert pitch and tone manipulation, characteristic of jazz vocalists, and these tracks are no different. They compel me to first listen closely to Apple’s unending poetic wit and candor so that at the end of the day, I find myself unable to stop singing, “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” or “Shameika said I had potential” over and over again as in the songs themselves. Every line packs a punch, both in poetry and musicality, further solidifying her place amongst rare lyrical geniuses—a place she’s secured for herself since she was 17 in my humble opinion—in these times when millennials are drawn to easier hugot lines or swearing (Apple does both in Fetch, albeit artfully and intelligently). The DIY harmonies and unconventional song arrangements which lean more towards spoken word, chanting and rapping than solely crooning verses only accentuate Apple’s haunting dark vocals which can effortlessly vacillate from being soft and tender at one moment to raspy, harsh and frantic the next. Think Rachel Yamagata on crack or a more sober Yoko Ono circa Plastic Ono Band days.
The album’s title track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is largely in spoken word and seems to be Apple’s rumination on how critics have ostracized her since her speech upon accepting the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1997 in which she said that “the world is bullshit,” encouraging fans to be true to themselves and to not model their lives after what their idols considered cool and fashionable. Her equally infamous onstage meltdown due to sound and technical problems in 2000 pretty much cemented her reputation in the media as this “crazy lady” whose private life almost always took the spotlight over her art. “And you’ve got them all convinced / That you’re the means and the end / All the VIPs and PYTs and wannabes / Afraid of not being your friend… They stole my fun,” goes her Dylanesque drawl before breaking into a chorus with a meowing Cara Delevingne. It’s a pretty simple song about finding one’s bearings and breaking free from your past or other people’s misguided perceptions of you. It ends with dogs barking to a self-empowered lyric and an homage to Kate Bush (“I need to run up that hill / I will, I will, I will”), one of Apple’s biggest and most evident musical influences, I believe. Along the same narrative of being bullied and facing one’s insecurities is the preceding track, “Shameika,” which Apple says was inspired by a significant moment in middle school. She wanted to fit in with the cool girls but her OCD didn’t help and made her feel more like an outcast (“I used to march down the windy, windy sidewalks / Slapping my leg with a riding crop / Thinking it made me come off so tough / I didn’t smile, because a smile always seemed rehearsed / I wasn’t afraid of the bullies, and that just made the bullies worse”). One day, a tough, presumably black girl in school approached her and told her to stop trying to fit in because she, in fact, “had potential.” The song has a quirky, catchy rhythm that complements this anecdote from adolescence perfectly. As much as “Shameika” relates Apple’s life-long struggle with self-esteem, more importantly, it embarks on exploring inter-female relationships, which is a recurring theme in the album.
Three other songs, in particular, touch upon said relationships in varying tones of seriousness and feeling set against very different and yet interconnected contexts. “Newspaper” is the epitome of empathy between women, specifically of one towards the woman her ex is currently involved with. The lines, “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends / And it’s a shame because you and I didn’t get a witness… We were cursed the moment that he kissed us / From then on, it was his big show” hint at the man’s egoism and possible abuse of the women in such a relatable way that it inspires as well as aspires to change the tired virgin-whore dichotomy in mainstream music (Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me,” Paramour’s “Misery Business,” Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know,” to name a few), cinema, television and other cultural media. Although lighter and funnier, similar vibes run through “Ladies” (“There’s a dress in the closet / Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it / I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine / It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine”). The third track about female connections, though, is anything but light despite its childlike melody accompanied by a chorus of women singing along with Apple. Aptly titled “For Her,” she says that this was written for a woman who was raped by a big shot in the film industry. The bridge of the song in which Apple shrieks, “Good mornin’! Good mornin’ / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” is easily one of the most powerful lyrics I have ever had to privilege to come across.
Apple’s undeniable sense of humor also shines in “Rack of His” (most likely punning a woman’s rack, i.e. breasts), a track that sounds a lot like her 2005 record, Extraordinary Machine, if I may add. Here, she grumbles about men objectifying and taking advantage of women in love with them for their own gratification, about internalized misogyny when a woman feels like she needs a man’s approval and how she arrives at an epiphany by turning her scars into art (“And I’ve been used so many times / I’ve learned to use myself in kind / I try to drum, I try to write… ‘Cause I know how to spend my time”). She radiates the same energy in “Drumset,” which is essentially a song about rejection.
My personal favorites, however, are the angriest, those that flash the most defiant middle finger to the ruling class and their apologists. “Under the Table” begins with an R&B tune (“I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me”), reminiscent of Tidal’s, before Apple goes on a confrontational dialogue with somebody who stifles her from calling out another person “when they say something that starts to make her simmer.” The song manages to balance angst, contempt and sarcasm (“Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up…I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots / To help you with your climb / Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route / So they won’t hurt like mine”) that could only have been mastered by a child from Generation X. The next track, “Relay,” is inspired by the 2018 Kavanaugh hearings as well as Apple’s personal journey towards forgiveness and justice since being raped by a stranger when she was 12. She reflects on the cycle of elitist bigotry and violence (“And I see that you keep trying to bait me / And I’d love to get up in your face / But I know if I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race”) and how it should end by exposing the guilty and holding them accountable. Its martial verses, “I resent you for being raised right / I resent you for being tall / I resent you for never getting any opposition at all / I resent you for having each other / I resent you for being so sure / I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” are proof of Apple’s lyrical brilliance at its most playful and progressive.
Overall, the fiery spirit of the album is offset by Apple’s familiar emotional vulnerability in “Cosmonauts” and “Heavy Balloon.” The former weighs in on the jadedness of an idealistic long-term monogamous relationship while the latter, I feel, is what depression and anxiety would sound like if it were a song, especially around the part where Apple sings huskily, “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m busting at the seams.” It’s the kind of narrative on mental health that’s as haunting as it is comforting and empowering in its collective bid for understanding—an unspoken cry for help, if you will. What makes the record even more special is the contextual chronology that frames the tracks. It begins with “I Want You to Love Me,” whose title practically sums up its intention, seducing listeners with Apple’s recognizable fingers on the piano. “I’ve waited many years / Every print I left upon the track / Has led me here… And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want” then escalates into a frenzy with her crooning hoarsely and tediously over the piano’s tumultuous racket, conveying both ecstasy and pain as if sharing a synchronized orgasm with the instrument. The song summons a dreamy state as if running through the woods in one of David Hamilton’s photographs before it strikes you in the head with the sounds of discord and rage in the 12 songs thereafter. What a strong first track! The final one, “On I Go,” on the other hand, has been called “weak” by some critics—male ones, not surprisingly—but I don’t find it to be the case. Who says that a finale needs fireworks? Who says that songs should follow strict pop structures? The fact that Apple ends with a track in which she chuckles while messing up the lyrics, and not fixing it, reinforces the album’s message of fury and nonchalant thoughtfulness. Apple recites, “On I go, not toward or away / Up until now it was day, next day / Up until now in a rush to prove / But now I only move to move” almost like a mantra as her voice calms and disappears. She clearly does not give a fuck.
The entire discourse in Fetch makes it undeniably one of the most authentic and impactful masterpieces to ever reach a global listenership in a long time. There are a few throwback moments evocative of Apple’s past records, but Fetch possesses a sound entirely its own. It communicates raw, honest emotions that are not dressed in idealism or romance if only to please mainstream sensibilities. There’s anger, there’s madness, there’s joy even. And buried underneath is also a sense of contentment—the acceptance that the world is, indeed, pure bullshit, but that you just have to “go with yourself,” echoing the exact same piece of advice that she once gave at 17, stammering, holding an MTV Moonman trophy, her voice shaking, her eyes wider than they are now. She was right all along.
In a pandemic-afflicted world where fascism and misogyny still reign supreme, markedly so in the Philippines and other Third World countries, this record’s release was well-timed. In our isolation, without the hubbub of road traffic, the noise of noontime shows before live audiences and the commotion of everyday life in general, there is a heightening of the senses. We are forced to see what were often overlooked, to hear the sounds and voices that matter, to discern that the “normal” we were so accustomed to was everything that was wrong in the first place. Through Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple only gives us a bite of her unfiltered consciousness. As if heeding my prayers, she has blessed me with another cathartic playlist that corresponds to my current mood: this renewed restlessness, this insatiable, rebellious craving to be free. “Fetch the bolt cutters. We’ve been in here too long,” indeed. #
= = =
Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/03/23/fiona-apples-art-of-radical-sensitivity
The Story Behind Every Track on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, https://www.vulture.com/2020/04/fiona-apple-fetch-the-bolt-cutters-songs.html