I first heard Fiona Apple in a dressing room at the GAP.
Cutting through the blur of fuzzy ‘90s alt-rock that populated the then-cool chain’s playlists and stopping me mid-pull of some flat-front khakis, the bass drum in “Sleep to Dream” sounded a warning, alerting something deep and primal in my belly. I felt like I was in A Thief in the Night, this insane 1972 apocalyptic movie my teachers occasionally terrified us with in children’s church on Sunday morning, where everybody looks to the sky, waiting for it to rip open.
“You say love is a hell you cannot bear / And I say give me mine back and then go there for all I care,” this angel of righteous anger spat. Swaying like the Holy Ghost had descended upon me, I closed my eyes till the battle cry ended, chill bumps dotting my arms as her fury turned the song into a howling tempest — and then again when, just like that, she tamed it, banging out such blissed-out piano chords that tears wet my cheeks.
Two decades later, the opener of Fiona’s 1996 debut, Tidal (which turns 20 tomorrow), still has this effect on me — my mascara is smeared after just one listen. Part of that is because she is a generational talent, and “Sleep to Dream” is one of many remarkable songs on the album, and part of it is because I ache remembering why it affected me so much then: Her voice is husky with an emotion I had been subconsciously taught to tamp down my whole life — rage.
Growing up, the message preached was always the same: Shut up and slap on a smile. I’d always pinned this particular directive and its attendant maladies on the South. It wasn’t my mama’s fault, it was passed down and around. You got a little bit of relief in church — which is probably why, coupled with her fire-and-brimstone tone, biblical metaphors always come to mind when I talk about Fiona.
Outside the sanctuary, appearances were everything and it was a plague. Just read Tennessee Williams and try to find a belle with a shaky grasp on reality not beaming maniacally. Or play Houston-raised Scarface’s “My Block”: “Everybody business ain’t your business / What’s goin’ on in this house is stayin’ here, comprende?” If you got upset, best not to show it in public, and definitely don’t talk about it. To this day, my mother can’t say the word “anorexic” when we look at pictures of me from the two years I was (the disease itself a direct consequence of never expressing any “negative” emotion). Bury bad things and they go away.
Except they don’t. Fiona knew it, poured her every messy feeling into Tidal, and changed my life. Instead of hiding her rape and its resulting eating disorder, she wrote “Sullen Girl.” In retrospect, it was myopic of me to think only southern women were told, both directly and indirectly, to shove down their feelings and plaster on a smile. Then again, while Fiona grew up in New York, her dad was from Tennessee, the same state as me, and she’d clearly considered and, more importantly, rejected the mentality.
“It was a personal principle of mine to say something about it because it shouldn’t be like something I should have to keep secret from the world,” she said in a 1997 interview with The New York Times (unfortunate headline: “A Message Far Less Pretty Than the Face”). Whether it’s a dude passing us in the street telling us to smile or a headhunter pre-interview suggesting the same, these cues are so deeply woven into the fabric of our day-to-day lives, many of us never even see them. Fiona did and said nah. “You’ll never see the courage I know … You’ll say you understand, you’ll never understand … You don’t know who I am,” she sings in “Never Is a Promise.”
Because we have the constant companionship of the internet and because awareness of sexism is, in general, raised, things are thought to be different and better for girls in 2016 than they were in 1996. And in some ways, they are — I bet Fiona would’ve been a contributor to Rookie. Yet when it comes to men and women, the power dynamic is unchanged in ways we don’t like to admit.
Nobody’s reading The Rules anymore, but girls are still crowdsourcing their friends for help in deciphering texts and constructing the perfect reply. “Shadowboxer” is ageless musically — it’s hard to imagine its loping sadness, delicate strings, and wonky Chamberlin, all set off by Fiona’s force-of-nature voice, ever feeling dated — but a song about being at the mercy of a man in whom you’re romantically interested still resonates lyrically, too: “You made me a shadowboxer, baby / I wanna be ready for what you do / I’ve been swinging around me / ‘Cause I don’t know when you’re gonna make your move.”
And that’s why Tidal is so timeless and relatable. Her ability to lay bare her conflicting thoughts and feelings and not apologize for any of it was revolutionary to me. But it also made me feel better knowing someone as powerful as she was still fell prey to dumb boys, felt sad, didn’t like her body, wasn’t perfect. Maybe she’s even more important now that girls have to contend with a constant barrage of surgery-tweaked reality stars and Face-Tuned Instagram models and media (see recent journalism profiles and the lack of any lasting repercussions for the men who write them) that tells them their inherent worth as women is rooted in their appearance and likability so “Smile!”
Fiona wasn’t scared to be sexy, but she also was difficult and moody and furious about being used, while simultaneously being a little bit of a user herself. It still dumbfounds me that an 18-year-old girl wrote “Criminal,” a song about feeling guilty for using sex to get her way. Even more dizzying is that she takes umbrage at the suggestion of repudiating that guilt, although it would benefit her to do so. “Don’t you tell me to deny it,” she growls. As ever, her first duty is to her feelings.
These days, mine often is, too. I’d be unrecognizable to that girl in the dressing room who was about to start seesawing from starving her feelings to eating them. Since then, I’ve had to be dragged away from my own carrion and I’ve been in the ring swinging blind more than a few times. The line “Days like this I don’t know what to do with myself,” from “Sullen Girl,” has taken on a new meaning with the pressures and emotional landmines of adulthood, but I make myself name my ills out loud. A couple of times, I’ve even cried in front of other people. The funny thing is, once I let my feelings get some air, they tend to fly away instead of burrowing deeper.
A few years ago at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles, I finally caught Fiona live. She was electric, and it’s one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, but there were moments I worried that catharsis might not work that way for her. “I have to let it out,” she’d said in that ’97 interview, but maybe her feelings were so intense that the minute she freed them, others just as fervent replaced them. Watch the video of her playing “Shadowboxer” at that 2012 show and you’ll notice she grimaces into the microphone almost immediately, her face contorting. Nearly choking on the words, her voice grows hoarse as effort strains and stiffens the veins on her neck. She seems to be tormented, transported back to the thick of whatever situation caused her to write the song so many years before. The performance is brutal, awe-inspiring, heart-wrenching, but I hated the thought that she didn’t experience the release she’d given me.
But then, as the band winds down, it happens. She stares across the stage for a cue, still burning, her left hand jiggling the keys. The lights begin to undulate and shadows play on her face, and if you don’t blink, you’ll see the flicker in her eyes. And then, Fiona smiles.