Growing up as a teen in a conservative household during the late 90s and early 00s, I have not yet decided the type of music that I like. Unaware of any underground rock movements and only mildly familiar with the burgeoning indie scene, the music of this period for me was represented by bubblegum pop with its boy bands and Disney princesses and the blandness that is most alternative bands. Its all very pretty and vapid and … soulless.
Discovering Fiona Apple then was like a splash of cold-water to my pimple-filled face. Like so many people born during my generation, Fiona represents a jazzy alto-based baroque alternative to the goody-goody manufactured sugar pop sensibilities of the Britneys and the Christinas and the Jessicas of the time. Here was someone who was tortured and rebellious and unstable – just like I am (or at least, I imagined myself to be). As a red-blooded, hormonally-charged, angst-ridden young adult, I devoured it all up. It became my identity.
When The Pawn…, Fiona’s sophomore album, represents her at her zenith – her most angriest and her best. Looking back at it now, it is easy to see why it’s my favorite Fiona record. It is a more progressive and upbeat upgrade from the slower, more ballad-worthy Tidal and cuts deeper lyrically and emotionally than either versions of Extraordinary Machine (even more so on the Elizondo version than the far superior Brion version).
The record came out after a MTV Music Awards speech where she declared that the “world is bullshit” and during a touring period when she freaked out and stormed off the stage during a concert in New York. If the music hadn’t hold my attention yet, these events certainly will. I’m intrigued by her and afraid for her at the same time. As a fan, I wonder if I’ll ever have the chance to ever see her live or if she’ll just up and quit music and live her life as a crazy hermit somewhere in Europe.
The music though never needed the extraneous craziness to hold my attention. The first single, Fast As You Can, zips around in octaves and moods, it feels like three diverse songs coalesced beautifully into one. It remains still as Fiona’s most successful single.
I have never heard a more vengeful song than Limp. I play it whenever I felt hurt or abused (“When I think of it, my fingers turn to fists”). It also comes with the bonus of seeing Fiona do her wonderfully manic spastic dance, as can be seen in her live performance in the SNL video below.
My favorite Fiona song and music video has always been Paper Bag. Having had problems with mild forms of anorexia and image issues (“Hunger hurts but starving works”). I related very much to its lyrics. There is something depressingly glorious about a song with the lyrics – “And I went crazy again today, lookin’ for a strand to climb. Lookin’ for a little hope”. In contrast to the darkness of the lyrics and the song, the video shows a happy Fiona, far removed from her sullen girl issues, which in turn makes me happy. In the video, Fiona is doing choreographed dances with a bunch of boys dressed in prohibition-era gangster style clothing. I loved it – the contrast, the choreography, the fact that I finally see Fiona happy.
But the most powerful moment of the record comes near the end, during Get Gone. Now, I am not a person prone to cussing, but in that exact moment when Fiona says “Fucking Go”. I thought that it was the most beautiful moment in the whole album. There is so much power and emotion in that one little phrase – it encapsulates the whole meaning of the album and captured the whole essence and persona of Fiona and why she appealed to me. This is Fiona Apple. Fucking Go.
More than a decade after When The Pawn came out, I still have not seen Fiona perform live. Since then, my musical obsessions have been opened to the world of quirky, sometimes crazy, maybe piano-playing female singer-songwriters like Regina Spektor, Joanna Newsom, St Vincent, and Feist (more on Regina and Joanna in the future), all of whose music I have grown to appreciate and love as well. However, there remains that Fiona-sized void.
After Extraordinary Machine took five years and an apple-mailing campaign to bring it to fruition, I never thought I would see the day that Fiona would put out a new record and thus the need to tour. But wonder of wonders, a new album is imminent. Why, it only took another seven years.
The most wonderful part of it all? Fiona has announced a small intimate tour to promote the release of the album with two stops at the 500-capacity Lincoln Hall in Chicago. And I miraculously got a ticket and will see her next week. (Tickets sold out within a minute of going on-sale).
I am almost afraid of going. Of seeing this weird and and wonderful crazy creature who has shaped my musical obsessions and made me love music. I’m afraid of seeing her fail and/or of seeing her quit midway through her set like she has done before (although I heard she is in a happier place now). It is a good kind of fear though. One tinged with excitement, because this fear represents why I liked Fiona after all and why When The Pawn…became one of my favorite albums of all time.
Wish me luck.