Friday, August 8, 2008


A couple of months ago I had what I immediately termed a "middle-of-the-night Fiona Apple freakout." I'm not sure why I started thinking about her. A friend of mine had mentioned seeing her at a party. He wanted to hit on her, but I guess she was there with her boyfriend.

Anyway, it was around two in the morning. I had brought my laptop into my bedroom, something I generally try to avoid doing, and found myself rereading Chris Heath's hilariously overwritten 1998 Rolling Stone cover story on Apple, "The Caged Bird Sings."

Here's a choice quote:
But in the busy, greedy, impatient '90s, we become whatever may be written about us in one or two perky paragraphs, and hers might lead one to believe that Fiona Apple is either a precocious, calculating prodigy or an unbalanced, ungrateful freak. That is the great sucker punch of modern celebrity: It draws in the Fiona Apples of this world with that most wonderful of all promises -- to be understood -- and yet humans are still to invent a quicker, more-efficient method of being misunderstood by the greatest possible number of people than Becoming Famous in America. Fiona Apple has been discovering this for herself.

I first saw Fiona Apple on Saturday Night Live in late 1996. I used to glean a lot of important pop culture information from SNL; it was where I learned about another band I loved in middle school, Veruca Salt, and trying to follow the political jokes taught me as much about current affairs as, well, A Current Affair. Apple performed the song "Shadowboxer". I liked it so much that I asked for her album Tidal for my twelfth birthday a few days later.

In my memory that album will always be inextricably linked with a happy winter spent playing Mario 64, the only game I owned and part of my other birthday present, a Nintendo 64. For whatever reason the image of Mario diving into the aquatic worlds is especially linked to the opening song "Sleep to Dream." I listened to the album all the time, and I loved Fiona's controversial video, "Criminal."

It looks outdated now. Mark Romanek's slick surfaces and surveillance-camera feel are so common they're basically passe, and we're all familiar with Fiona's sad-hungry stare, the way her eyes sometimes turn red in the glare. But the whole thing transfixed me when I was twelve, even though I had to admit my mom had a point when she snorted derisively at the shot of Fiona squirting that, uh, dish soap out of the bottle at 4:03. Also, heroin chic (and maybe kiddie porn chic) aside, the video was and is sexy.

In 1996, the controversy over the video baffled me. Even though she was writhing on some faceless dude's knee, I reasoned, Fiona seemed to be in control of the situation; it's her song, after all, and the camera's on her. And while I don't really agree with my past reasoning now, I'm glad that I read the video that way. It didn't make me want to look tiny and sad in a closet. It was just a glimpse of a world that I could someday hope to enter and manipulate.

During my middle-of-the-night Fiona Apple freakout I relearned a few facts about her that I missed as a sixth grader. Most importantly, I discovered that Apple dated David Blaine. For a long time.

...And in fact, according to the RS article, Blaine and Apple have matching tattoos that say "kin." And! According to this David Blaine messageboard, Blaine is the faceless man Apple oozes all over in "Criminal," which successfully oblitherates any lingering feelings about the video being sexy I still harbored. Of course, the Heath article also mentions that Apple had been up all night "drinking Surfers on Acid (some malignant combination of Malibu, Jaegermeister and pineapple juice) with Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson," so maybe there was already trouble in paradise in 1998.

I didn't think a lot about it at the time, but I was pretty lucky with the women who were famous when I was what they now call a "tween:" Madonna, Alanis Morrisette, Apple, even the Spice Girls were all better than the cocktail of titilation and stupidity now on offer to young girls. I went to Lilith Fair and saw Jewel and Sarah McLachlan.There were about eighteen months in the late nineties when the whole "women in rock" package got accidentally recycled into a celebration of real voices, and I was lucky to be twelve and thirteen years old.