Tangy Apple: The Anti-Gaga Bad Girl Returns

Evolution of a pop star

Apple. (Courtesy Susan Goldman/AFP/Getty Images)

Fiona Apple is not a girl. Come to think of it, she never was.

In our present cultural moment—when, out of opposite corners of YouTube, the two indomitable pop breakouts of the year are a quasi-teenager (Carly Rae Jepsen) discovered by Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and a real teenager (Kitty Pryde) who raps about marrying Justin Bieber (and running over Selena, twice); when the one popularly unassailable part of Obamacare is the provision that allows keeping offspring medical dependents till age 26—that may be the most incongruous thing about her.

To be sure, the key to Fiona Apple, who plays the Governors Ball festival on Randall’s Island on June 24, will always be petulance. “This world is shit,” she told the world, after it gave her an MTV award now nearly half her lifetime ago. But, in hindsight, her petulance was—and is—closer to the operatic self-regard of, say, Anna Wintour or Bill Clinton than to the junior high narcissism, the Disney Channel insecurity, of all the Carlys and Mileys and Amys (to say nothing of the Justins) who have intervened since her brief reign on top of the charts.

She will always be the rail-thin, panty-clad 19-year-old slinking around the “Criminal” video, crooning “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” with preternatural husk. That was 1997. (Making Ms. Apple a still shockingly young 34, or closer in age to Britney Spears than to Alanis Morrisette.) But pop historians would be wise to keep her seminal come-on—or, rather, put-on—in perspective. This wasn’t a fallen girl, ruing the day she let boys and stardom and the Devil waylay her virginity, or seduce her into rehab. This wasn’t, like so much top-40 confessional then and now, a matter of cataloging the artist’s constitutional weaknesses; it was an acknowledgement of her own capacity, and taste, for malice aforethought.

Why a bad girl? Because she’d “been careless with a delicate man.” Why a sad world? Because “a girl would break a boy just because she can.” Watching HBO’s Girls—mechanically entranced, unable to evaluate the show on its merits or turn away for fear of missing the zeitgeist and dying alone—one can’t help but want to reach through the screen and knock a bit of “Criminal” free will into voice-of-her-generation Lena Dunham. (To say nothing of Lana Del Rey, today’s Fiona-aping naïf.)

Not that Fiona Apple’s ever been interested in anything so vulgar as empowerment.

Her debut Tidal (1996) was swept into the Lilith Fair wave; she played that acoustic-feminist festival (once), but wasn’t of it. We might say she failed the movement’s categorical imperative: Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, even Erykah Badu and the Indigo Girls, were each reasonably universal models for modern womynhood and post-grrrl self-actualization. But neither genius nor madness has much truck with solidarity. If any half of the population wakes up one day and starts behaving and thinking like Fiona Apple, civilization would implode by noon. By pedigree—Upper West Side, musical theater, piano lessons—she actually recalls this era’s arch-self-helpist; indeed, when recordings surfaced in 2009 of the former Stefani Germanotta’s snoozy singer-songwriter days at NYU, simpletons threw around the phrase “Fiona Apple-type ballads,” pejoratively.

But Lady Gaga’s great crime isn’t “inauthenticity,” a Lilith-style square turned electropop freak in a craven bid for popularity. (As if someone could actually be born that way). Her fatal mistake was, rather, populism: Offering her performance-art metamorphosis as an emancipatory path open to every mildly oppressed, minutely talented girl and boy in glee club, Ms. Germanotta scripted her own obsolescence. In these days of participatory fandom, when stars seem compelled to demystify themselves 140 characters at a time, who can really pull off the aloof danger, the demigod caprice, that was the true mark of David Bowies and Graces Joneses past? Having domesticated her quirks and her traumas to adolescent archetype—having insisted on being special just like us—Gaga fates herself to spending years and millions never quite recreating her early outré magic. Meanwhile, after a six-year hiatus Fiona Apple last week reappeared in a video for “Every Single Night” wearing, for a few seconds anyway, an octopus on her head. Totally inexplicable, those seconds remain as unnerving and truly weird on repeated viewings as all five minutes of “Bad Romance” seemed at first blush.

Which is to say, empowerment, like enfranchisement, presupposes a lack. Even on Tidal, which had a few tired Lady Gaga-type ballads among the gems, Fiona Apple took her own peculiar power as given. That at the time this power was manifest most obviously in sex—“I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself,” she said of the jailbait “Criminal” clip—would set in motion 15 years of misinterpretation. The error is basic. Not least among her greatest supporters, the tendency remains to read Fiona Apple precisely through the lens of a certain all-consuming psychic girlhood, what we might define as the condition (diagnosable in every age and gender) of a semiformed chrysalis desperately seeking agency. Thus, her ironic melancholy is taken for morbid sullenness; her ambivalence and intransigence, for others’ coercion; her literary intent, for literal comment.

Produced by the film scorer Jon Brion, When the Pawn … (1999) was nothing if not fully formed, a perfectly sequenced chamber-pop spectacle devoid of filler. It was also insanely funny, provided you were willing to drop the notion of Fiona Apple as sullen girl above all else. No one was, and so that album’s full title—90 words in doggerel verse—became a folly of self-seriousness to be indulged rather than the self-mocking, throwaway joke it was. Ms. Apple was still sad, mad, and deeply petulant on When the Pawn … but anyone who dismissed (or celebrated) her as a raw, stream-of-diary-entry songwriter simply wasn’t paying attention. Over Mr. Brion’s baroque instrumentation, she laid rococo lyrics dripping with whimsy: “My derring-do allows me to / dance the rigadoon around you” or “If you wanna make sense / What you looking at me for / I’m no good at math.” But in the darker recesses of the Internet, it was an out-of-context fragment ripped from the archly beautiful breakup number “Paper Bag” that became enshrined as the line of the album. By all accounts, “hunger hurts, but starving works” remains the battle-cry of whatever “pro-ana” forces are left; who would doubt Fiona Apple as the patron saint of anorexia nervosa, that hallmark of young female psychological fragility that conveniently lets everyone else moralize about young female bodies?

(These days, Ms. Apple looks even gaunter, but also age-appropriately womanly, with skyscraping cheekbones. Perhaps she always was, as she always protested, just skinny—the way various delicate men are allowed to be without attracting self-righteous comment.)

By early 2005, the world hadn’t heard from Fiona Apple in four years. That those years coincided with the Spears/Timberlake bubblegum peak merely primed us further for the inevitable interpretation. Hers couldn’t be the absence of a wizened misanthrope or obsessive perfectionist; this was a damsel under duress! So began the Extraordinary Machine affair. Ms. Apple, we learned, had re-entered the studio with Mr. Brion in 2002. The resulting follow-up was essentially complete in April 2003, but the record-label patriarchs were shelving it for lack of commercial appeal. Against Sony/Epic fans organized a “Free Fiona” campaign. Here, finally, was Fiona Apple as Rapunzel, her paucity of musical output equated with a lack of bodily autonomy. In March 2005, the entire album leaked online—incredibly polished for a bootleg, and also incredibly good, period.

It may take a congressional inquiry or at least a few Freedom of Information Act requests to get the whole story, but it now appears Fiona Apple was as much behind the delay of the third Fiona Apple album as any Sony suit. Given how magisterially brilliant the leaked record was—tracks like “Not About Love” and “Red, Red, Red” brought the orchestral drama of When the Pawn … to a new plane—this was difficult to believe at the time. Stranger still was her decision to completely re-record and re-sequence Extraordinary Machine for official release. Its new producer was Mike Elizondo, best known for work with Dr. Dre and Eminem; with some strings pulled out and electronics brought in, the result was murkier and more bass-heavy than the Brion version, but hardly radio friendly or different enough to make one forget the superior bootleg. (Mr. Brion found work in 2005 helming Late Registration, by avowed Fiona-fan Kanye West.)

Another seven years on, and Extraordinary Machine finally makes sense. Released on Tuesday by Epic (without incident), The Idler Wheel … marks out its predecessor—the one that actually made it on sale—as a classic transition album. The 23 words in its full title aside, Wheel … completes the de-Brionization of Fiona Apple. This isn’t an obviously auspicious move. After all, it was Mr. Brion’s carnivalesque maximalism that brought both the humor and the pathos of her songwriting to its mature form. But one now suspects that Ms. Apple already recognized in 2005 (or 2003) that the idiom risked being a dead end, and she risked becoming just the lead instrument on quirky soundtracks for nonexistent indie films. Indeed, if the Extraordinary Machine bootleg was a terrific Fiona Apple album, it was a career-defining Jon Brion one.

Co-produced with the percussionist Charley Drayton, The Idler Wheel … drops the strings, the horns, the pretty symphonic melodies. Recorded factory noises supplement Mr. Drayton’s array of organic beats. Ms. Apple’s keyboards remain, of course, but here you’re reminded pianos are as much percussion as anything else—hammers striking metal. Above all, it’s her voice that fills the vacated space, stretching, straining, simmering, seething. Phonology replaces phonographs. There’s always been a latent hip-hop element to Fiona Apple, and the new album finds her a lyricist as interested in the materiality of words—their physical, voice-box (or beat-box) production—as in their meaning.  

Tangy Apple: The Anti-Gaga Bad Girl Returns