Content warning: this piece contains mentions of sexual assault and trauma.
Before there was Amy Winehouse or Lana del Rey with their confessional lyrics, we had Fiona Apple, a young bold voice from New York whose vocals could blend seamlessly with piano and then flip to a soaring soprano within a single measure. Apple’s debut album, Tidal, arrived in the summer of 1996 when she was only 18 years old. The album takes you on a wave of life’s ups and downs from the perspective of a young woman trying to grapple with it all after enduring a traumatic childhood. Through her lyrical prowess, Apple invites listeners into her world that at points feels like sacred ground to walk on.
Apple opens her freshman album with “Sleep to Dream,” a song in which her voice booms and crashes like water against rocks. She’s a powerful force to reckon with as she belts, “I tell you how I feel but you don’t care/I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare/You say love is a hell you cannot bear/And I say give me mine back and then go there for all I care.” Apple’s voice is strong and she doesn’t falter for a second on this track, expressing how she is grounded in herself and has come out on top after leaving an unhealthy relationship.
Many of the album’s tracks reflect relationships in all too familiar forms — like in “Shadowboxer” which plays off the “friends to lovers to strangers” trope that we all have either been in or will inevitably be a part of. “Once my lover, now my friend/ What a cruel thing to pretend/What a cunning way to condescend/Once my lover, and now my friend.” Playing off of this metaphor of shadowboxing in the title, Apple lyrically compares herself to a boxer preparing for a fight, anticipating her opponent’s moves. Apple makes you feel as though you’ve been placed in a dark room with your lover turned opponent, being forced to fight them blind. You know all their moves but you still remain on high alert, swinging and punching at what you’re sure will come.
Songs like these showcase what I love about Fiona Apple the most: her songwriting abilities. Apple began songwriting around the age of 8, and because of this history, behind her lyrics is a bareness that feels as if she’s peeling back a layer for you to see. The greatest example of her raw and honest songwriting on the album draws on her trauma, including her deeply personal experience of being sexually assaulted at the age of 12. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Apple explained that her song “Sullen Girl” was in part about her assault. Apple continued, explaining the role that experience played in her life and career.
“It’s funny, because I don’t think that I maybe would be here. But then again, I don’t think I would need to be here,” Apple told Rolling Stone reporters. “That’s why I’m sitting here … I think it was my desperation that drove me to have the will to do it.”
One of Apple’s biggest lyrical inspirations is Maya Angelou. She found comfort in both Anglou’s poetry and life story, relating to her as a fellow surivor of sexual assault. Apple has spoken at length about the poet’s influence on her career, going as far as telling Billboard that Angelou was her “sole influence.” Her impact can be seen in songs like “Never Is a Promise” and “The Child is Gone” which are masterclasses in lyricism, acting as discussions of Apple’s experience with trauma.
“Never Is a Promise” is a gentle yet heavy tune in which Apple’s airy soprano vocals cascade over a piano and violin accompaniment. Written just two years after her assault, the song is a testament to her pain and trauma. The song’s lyrics proclaim how difficult it is for her to trust someone and how she feels isolated with no one able to understand what she went through. She sings, “You’ll say you understand/You’ll never understand/I’ll say I’ll never wake up knowing how or why/I don’t know what to believe in/You don’t know who I am/You’ll say I need appeasing when I start to cry/But never is a is a promise and I’ll never need a lie.”
Listening to her sing, those powerful moments feel as though she’s lifting you in the air with her so you can finally see things from her point of view and hopefully understand her pain.
“The Child is Gone” is an insight into Apple’s innocent outlook on life that has now been warped. It is her sudden and growing realization that she can’t run from the reality that was thrown at her but she can learn to handle it and adapt. Her voice echoes this emotion with a sturdy alto: “Cause I suddenly feel like a different person/From the roots of my soul come a gentle coercion/And I ran my hand o’er a strange inversion/A vacancy that just did not belong/ The child is gone.” It’s an impassioned song about her loss of innocence at an early age.
Apple’s most well-known song from her discography is probably “Criminal,” the fourth track on her debut album. Apple reportedly penned this classic that would catapult her into fame in under 45 minutes.
I have a distinct memory of listening to this song during my sophomore year of high school, Apple’s voice swooning in my cheap earbuds. I was astonished to find out — as I listened to her heavy vocals — that she was only 17 when she wrote this song. The song can be seen as a daring reclamation of Apple’s sexuality. In this song, she sings that she’s been “careless with a delicate man.” This song serves as a commentary on the double standard that comes with female sexuality. The idea is that women will be viewed as “wrong” — or in this case “criminal” — for using their sexuality to get what they want. There is also this double interpretation of how her view of her sexuality has shifted after her assault, a regaining of power or balancing of the scales if you will. With that though, comes a feeling of regret as she belts, “What I need is a good defense/‘Cause I’m feelin’ like a criminal/And I need to be redeemed/To the one I’ve sinned against/Because he’s all I ever knew of love.” What hung heavy on my mind as I listened to this song was that Apple almost leaves the questioning of her redemption up to the audience. “So what would an angel say/The devil wants to know” Apple knows she’s not a particularly good person for her actions; therefore, it puts into question whether or not she’s worth forgiving.
Yet despite her incredible lyricism and evident songwriting abilities, Apple is probably better known by most for her many controversies. In 1997, she was nominated for and won a MTV Music Award for her video “Sleep to Dream.” It was in this acceptance speech that Apple stated, “This world is bulls—t and you shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.” The comments left a sour taste in people’s mouths at the time. But Apple defended her comments, saying that she said this at a time in which she felt superficial in her own skin and that the media was making her out to be something she wasn’t.
Despite the criticism she endured, Apple was a trailblazer wise beyond her years and far ahead of the time. And not only was she a pioneer for female singer-songwriters, she was also inspirational — pushing us to trust ourselves, live authentically and not believe the bulls—t.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence and would like support, you can call the RAINN hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help. This list from DePaul’s Health Promotion and Wellness is also full of counseling and health centers, hotlines, legal support and more, most available for free.
Header image by Phoebe Nerem