I was not a woke 12-year-old. When I wasn’t doing yard work during the summer of 1996, I watched Beavis and Butthead or Monday Night Raw. I sat around a lot with neighborhood kids listening to the Butthole Surfers. Pretty sure I owned cargo shorts and called stuff “gay.” I was your average 1990s bro, only I was a girl living in the suburbs with the fear of Jesus in me thanks to a few years of Catholic school.
It was into this world of mine that Fiona Apple fell. I couldn’t tell you the exact moment I first made contact with her debut album Tidal, though I’m guessing it was probably on 99.1 WHFS, the Baltimore/D.C. alt-rock station.
Her name started showing up that fall on my cassette mixes alongside songs like “Shadowboxer,” the first single released before the album dropped. It introduced the public to that thrusting piano and honey-dripping voice as she sang about relationship combat: “I’ve been swinging all around me ’cause I don’t know when you’re gonna make your move.” Her music sounded like temptation, lust, sex, and everything else forbidden to a moderately religious preteen. And so Fiona Apple scared the shit out of me, but not enough to scare me off.
Her music sounded like temptation, lust, sex, and everything else forbidden to a moderately religious preteen.
Apple released Tidal when she was 18, approaching 19 that September. She was nearly seven years my senior, which isn’t that much of a difference for people in their 30s but might as well be measured in dog years when comparing teenagers. Apple’s music indicated that she had seen some things, and it wasn’t until I read her Rolling Stone cover story in January 1998 that I learned about her rape when she was 12 and the depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts that followed.
She famously wrote about the assault and its aftermath on Tidal’s “Sullen Girl,” where a man takes her “pearl” and she in turn only finds peace by sinking into oblivion. When it came up during interviews around the release, “I’d be, ‘You want to ask about when I was raped?’” she said to Rolling Stone. “‘Please don’t act like I have got food in my teeth. It’s out in the open. It’s not something that I’m embarrassed about, so don’t act like it’s something that I should be embarrassed about.’ Which I think I was sensitive about, because I was embarrassed about it for a long time.”
But before the cheat code of that article or any other one I’d eventually read, I only had the music to rely on for meaning, and from that I knew that Apple had gone through something that left her agitated and exhausted. The album opens with “Sleep to Dream,” a percussive tell-off that sneered at sensitivity and positioned Apple as an immovable force that refused to go quietly.
“This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways” was like a more poetic “and I’m here to remind you of the mess you left when you went away,” and I could easily get behind both sentiments. Angry was easy. Angry was loud and public and ingrained in the persona of a suburban preteen. Sad was harder to handle.
But Apple was so good at sad. Even when she was angry, the droopy-eyed quality of her voice made everything sound depressed. “Sullen Girl” followed “Sleep to Dream,” easing the record into that languid space where Apple felt at home.
“Criminal” lightened things by comparison, but the more I listened, the more I found she spent most of the album in the dark. I found her familiarity with sadness unsettling. Anger was a public affair, but sadness was to be kept in private, confined to the pages in a journal or locked in a person’s head. Apple didn’t follow those rules of mine. Instead, she articulated her vulnerability right out in the open.
Anger was a public affair, but sadness was to be kept in private, confined to the pages in a journal.
My listening sessions were quite the opposite. I shared a room with my younger sister, so I contained my interactions with the album to my headphones. I listened to my other favorite CDs and cassettes out loud all the time, like Silverchair’s Frogstomp and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, but I wanted to keep Tidal to myself.
No one blinked at angry music, but I feared that if I got busted playing something sad, I’d either get made fun of by my siblings or neighborhood friends for being a wuss or my mom and dad would be forced to ask if I was okay, an uncomfortable question for both the kid and the parents in a family with stiff upper lips.
A real nightmare for me would have been my parents asking why I kept replaying “Never Is a Promise” and me trying to explain that the lines “You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand,” how “I don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know who I am,” made me feel a sense of desperate solidarity with this woman. I would have sounded dumb and, god forbid, emotional, so it was best to keep it all to myself.
There was also the sex stuff. My headphone sessions with Tidal had a clandestine vibe, not unlike how some people interacted with porn, because I didn’t want my mother overhearing the slinking “Slow Like Honey” and feeling compelled to have “the talk.” Besides, I had already been through a couple of rounds of sex ed, known as family life class in Catholic school.
The book that our teachers handed out contained illustrations of sex organs and an entire chapter dedicated to the perils of pre-marriage fornication and the soul-roasting that awaited those who got divorced. What was really left to learn after that?
It wasn’t that Apple sang explicitly about sex, but the way that she drew out “My feel for you, boy” on “Carrion,” stretching those vowels and taking everything as slowly as she pleased, I felt like she knew things that I never would, unless of course I got married or wanted to go to hell. And was she talking about what I thought she was talking about on “Criminal” when she said, “I need to be redeemed to the one I’ve sinned against”? Redemption and sin in the context of sex, not Jesus? Kaboom. There went my brain.
Apple wasn’t the first person to sing about sorrow or sex, but she was the first one that got to me over the airwaves. After listening to her, I backpedaled and found Tori Amos and Liz Phair and other female artists who were down to talk publicly about intimate things. I didn’t entirely abandon male-fronted rock bands in the 1990s, but I listened to them less because I didn’t find myself in the music.
I didn’t have that much in common with Apple either, but I still felt like she was a kindred spirit who gave me the space to think about things that were off limits at the time. Feeling sad? That’s OK. Curious about sex? Also fine.
Speaking in that same Rolling Stone article about the uproar her “this world is bullshit” speech caused on MTV, Apple said, “I just had something on my mind and I just said it. And that’s really the foreshadowing of my entire career and my entire life. When I have something to say, I’ll say it.”
Apple read the tea leaves correctly: She has spent the last 20 years releasing albums only when she’s ready, when she feels like there’s something worth sharing. And it all began with Tidal, a record where she had something to say that a lot of kids all over, including suburban Baltimore, needed to hear.