by CAMILLA PEFFER
A common theme weaves itself through the vocabulary of music critics who try to describe singer and songwriter Fiona Apple. In over two decades of interviews, reviews, and cultural analysis, these assailants have come up with new and alienating ways to insinuate Apple’s “outsiderness” almost every year. They don’t quite rear their head, but they do poke accusatory fingers. WANTED: Fiona Apple, for brazen weirdness, obnoxious nonchalance and a penchant for creating Guinness-record album titles.
She stares out from the cover of a 1997 edition of SPIN – the ‘GIRL’ issue – with her preternaturally green eyes and bee-stung smirk giving her an ‘otherly’ quality. “SHE’S BEEN A BAD, BAD GIRL”, the headline reads. It’s a reference to the lyrics of perhaps one of her most famous hits, “Criminal”. The feature is something of a Trojan horse for the artist. Within the covers of the magazine – and mirrored throughout many other media relics, she’s lauded as a reincarnated Nina Simone with a “smoldering and melancholy” set of pipes (NY Rock, 1997) that belie her years (she was 19 when released her debut album, Tidal.) At the same time, she’s been prescribed a certain sort of entertainment personality, normally reserved for certain types of performers: "angry," "crazy," "sexy," "jailbait," "waif-like," "fragile," and always, always "nervous.”
The SPIN Magazine feature precedes her infamous “This world is bullshit” speech delivered at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. I was 9 at the time, so it’s highly doubtful this bastion of teenage culture would have made an appearance on my family’s television screen. Thanks to the internet, I’ve had the delight of watching this earnest speech, even decades later. A light shone on the cracking façade of pop music that night, originating from none other than the ‘90s most difficult female pop star. Yet, it would be inaccurate and presumptuous to give Apple another unqualified identity, because it wasn’t that Apple was happy to play an obliging lighthouse for an ocean of plastic vessels. Her VMA speech was more of an albatross around her neck: a blessing for any artist, but a curse for someone who was so loathe to be a part of the music industry’s extraordinarily calculated machinations.
It’s a trajectory to fame that’s closely mirrored by her contemporaries, but one in particular. At 21, Sky Ferreira is at an age where media commentary (and perhaps more pertinently in 2014, Tumblr), is at its sharpest. Not sharp in a way that insinuates lucidity or astuteness, but rather a violent pointiness that likes to jab at young, female recording artists. Particularly, those cast as the antidote to our Top 40 head boppers. Sky Ferreira, let it be known, is “more than the hipster she might appear,” GQ will have you know. Allegedly, she is a seductive lemon sucker with a career almost certainly aided by her childhood friend Michael Jackson. Like Apple, she is pop music’s oddball du jour, and she’s only just getting warmed up. Like Apple, Ferreira is walking a tumultuous path right into the mouth of the wolf.
Examining Apple and Ferreira’s careers, it’s hard to see where their paths diverged. Both were underage when they began, cast as young prodigies, then stoned in the town square for their alleged naïveté and precocious posterior. Fiona Apple MacAfee Maggot began her career in 1994, when Sony Music producer Andy Slater was introduced to her affecting alto by his babysitter. She was 19 when her debut album Tidal hit triple platinum, and 20 when she won “Best New Artist” at the MTV Video Music Awards. She seemed largely unaffected by this accolade, opting to call the rock industry “bullshit” rather than thanking her producers, mother, Jesus, and fans. Perhaps it’s because the praise came at a time when that very same media were tut-tutting over the Mark Romanek-directed video for “Criminal”. There she is, our rock-and-roll Ophelia, disrobing in the kitchen. There she is again, staring out from the screen all bug-eyed and boney, hugging her knees against her chest wearing nothing but a lace camisole, knee high purple socks and a matching brassier and panty set.
The video caused uproar for its vague pornographic nature, which seems entirely PG 13 – modest even – in a time when pop starlets are straddling large phalluses on stage, or delivering mock fellatio to giant baseball hands. And just like these eyebrow-raising performers, Apple’s response was delivered through a veil of feminist sexual empowerment: she wasn’t going to let those fuckers disempower her, so she did it herself. This emission, along with her VMA battle cry, went on to reverberate in waves of echoes. If you listen closely, you’ll hear Apple’s voice whispering like a rebellious specter every time a performance artist gets back- slapped for pearl-clutching behavior.
Ferreira, who is currently supporting Miley Cyrus on tour, is similarly both indie pop’s darling patron saint (her primary collaborator is Ariel Rechtshaid, after all), and this decade’s next Joan of Arc. There are those who ardently support her burgeoning career, and those who openly want her to fail. Understanding her isn’t easy for those who don’t like change. In terms of a musical metamorphosis, Ferreira’s whole schtick has undergone the same transformation that has landed her contemporaries in hot water or on the cover of tabloids. At 15, Ferreira used MySpace’s to network with music producers and to get her material out into the world and into the eardrums of those who would go on shape her early career. Cast as a golden-voiced Lolita, she recorded almost 500 songs working with same producers who made Adele and TLC household names.
Listening to Ferreira’s earlier material is revealing of the commercial music industry’s agenda: it tells the story of an artist who’s essentially been made to wear too many hats. Ferreira, as a product, entered the pop music incubator at age 15. Over the course of 6 years, her record label couldn’t decide if she were more pink or more blue, the next PJ Harvey or the next Lady Gaga.
“I signed a million-dollar record deal,” she told Vulture late last year “and never saw any money. It all got spent on planes and writing. I’d have to leave school and go on a twelve-hour flight to Europe and do press, then fly back the same day. They worked me to death, but when I wanted to input anything, it was like, ‘You’re a child, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
It sometimes took Apple up to seven years to release an album she felt comfortable with the world hearing and content with for being the next installment in her soul-baring oeuvre. Although she’s been around for close to two decades, Apple has released just four albums. It’s not entirely that the artist partakes in musical sabbaticals, although she does speak frankly about her life’s course: “I don’t think that I’ve ever had much career ambition,” she told V Magazine in 2010. “I just want to be happy with my life. I just want be proud of the way that I live my life, and I don’t want to make myself sick, you know?”
The release of her third album, Extraordinary Machine, has a trajectory that’s mirrored in the story of Ferreira’s own discography. Caught in a battle with her label, Epic Records, Apple’s Extraordinary Machine was the screaming baby the fans wanted to save. (And they did, at least in part. Some earlier versions of the album leaked online.) It’s a convoluted story, much like the tale behind the release of Ferreira’s debut, Night Time, My Time, involving meddling producers, and a tireless perfectionism for releasing the best album they possibly could. As a result of this lack of clarity between artist and producers, and a commitment to artistic integrity, both Extraordinary Machine and Night Time, My Time remained stuck in the cogs of the commercial music industry.
Now that Ferreira has had her chrysalis moment, she’s been placed “squarely at the centre of contemporary female pop” by the New York Times, received a stellar 8.1 stars for Night Time, My Time on Pitchfork, and has music journalists performing their precarious thesaurus dip. In trying to reach for an apt description, her sound is uniformly dubbed as unpolished as Courtney Love’s wailing crescendos, and as bold as the best of 80s Madonna. It’s a sound that’s starkly different to Apple’s pulsing piano chords and jazzy vocals. But Night Time, My Time is a coping album, much like Tidal and When the Pawn were. They’re hyper self-aware, featuring bold, lyrical honesty that chronicles experiences with sexual abuse, boys, and the media. In turning autobiographical experiences into creative license, a debut album allowed both to emerge from their figurative ashes. But as with any claims of authenticity, there is always a level of media scrutiny that punctuates the careers of anyone who claims integrity. The media seems proud of both and Ferreira and Apple for bucking their mainstream shackles, but it’s the vague illicitness of their personal lives that punctuates many a profile on them.
Late last year, Ferreira’s mug shot made headlines for alleged heroin possession (Apple received similar treatment for an arrest over marijuana.) And Ferreira’s album cover? “They were trying to say I was getting raped by the camera,” she told the UK Telegraph about her shower-scene portrait, “but it was all my decision.” Like Apple, Ferreira is quick to make sure we understand that she is in control now. She may be naked and dripping wet for the world to see, but it’s vulnerability over which she has taken literal and figurative agency. “I feel like I have to shout to get my point across,” she says, “because people don’t listen to me.” Amongst her contemporary’s album cover art, Night Time, My Time is entirely on the nose.
With the parables of her successors to guide her (after all, she has openly praised Apple’s 1997 MTV speech), Ferreira is in a unique position to learn from their pasts. Winning the accolades of an industry that tried so hard to suppress her is akin to shooting her very own albatross. It’s a blessing and the ideal pay-off for fruitless years spent in front of a microphone. But if, as Apple has declared, “this world is bullshit,” where can authenticity exist? If she listens to the phantoms of sullen girls since past, perhaps Ferreira will be wise enough to go away and let her current successes marinade.
"Never Is A Promise" - Fiona Apple (mp3)
"Carrion" - Fiona Apple (mp3)