There are some songs you can almost always count on someone singing when you gather your friends together in a sweaty private room to do karaoke — one of them is “Criminal” by Fiona Apple.
When that opening base-note beat of Apple’s mid-’90s mega-hit comes in, the floor drops out from the back of your heart. The song emerges out of a deep-down place, dragging you into its depths. It’s dread and relief at once, a reminder of how strangely relaxing it can be to accept that the worst has come to pass; at least you can stop waiting for it. And when that rock-bottom-scrape of its opening notes fills the room like heavy smoke, everyone sort of sighs together and pretends not to notice that they have all sighed at once. “Criminal” comes on and the room changes, as everyone gets what they didn’t quite know they wanted.
"I've been a bad bad girl...": The growling lyric that breaks through the ominous swing of the instrumental track is of course sexy — this is a sexy song to sing, and you can feel sexy while you sing it, standing up there haloed in the old-computer blue light of the karaoke screen, gyrating the lowest register of your voice around in a masochistic confession. But sexiness isn’t actually why people sing “Criminal” at karaoke, even when it seems like it, and it isn’t why the whole room exhales when the crawling monster downbeat of it comes on.
I have this theory that you truly grow up only when you recognize yourself as the villain in your own story. It’s devastating to realize this truth, but it’s also liberating, and that’s what everybody sighs about when “Criminal” comes on in the karaoke room, and that’s why somebody always gets up to sing it. Sitting down in the consequences of our actions is how we become kind, how we get wiser, and how we take control of our own lives.
“Criminal” came out in 1996, when every song a woman was allowed to sing on the radio was about what had been done to her, how she had been wronged. Much of Apple’s early music on her first albums was about this stuff: She had been hurt; men had done her wrong. It was, at the time, revolutionary, a kind of righteous anger, one that had been building for generations. That anger was spilling forth from a sudden abundance of female singers beating down the doors of the old boy’s music club and forcing their way into it in the late ‘90s, armed with recriminations against the same men for whom they were often asked to open, and by whom they were marketed and made famous.
I've been a bad bad girl...
But “Criminal” was something else, less obvious and more dangerous. I didn’t like it yet, when I was a kid, not even a teenager, and it was always on the radio. It was a song for grown-ups, even though Apple had written it while still a teenager herself. It turns out “Criminal” was a view into the future of Apple’s music, her work on the other side of 40. It was a preview of the music she would get to make inside of the culture that she herself would help to create, a culture born in part out of the mega-success of songs like “Criminal.”
Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her latest album, out last week, is in many ways not as heavy as that early hit. It sounds unfettered and wild; there is a sort of radical lightness to it, a whole lot of humour. Nothing here comes easily, just as is true of all of Apple’s music, and it dwells in the difficulty of sitting down with the harm one has done. But it also relishes the freedom that waits the other side of that accountability, a freedom that is in part possible because of Apple’s work, because of her early fame and long career, because of her pervasive influence down through a generation. The title track on the album refers to this very freedom: “Fetch the bolt-cutters,” sings Apple over and over, “I’ve been in here too long. Fetch the bolt-cutters, whatever happens, whatever happens,” a declaration that that freedom is worth whatever consequences it brings.
Before Fetch the Boltcutters came out, I had spent the last month listening obsessively to Waxahatchee’s luminous, aching dad rock album St. Cloud. Like Apple, Katie Crutchfield, the musician behind Waxahatchee, has written a gorgeous album about the consequences of one’s own actions. Like Apple, Crutchfield has recently gotten sober, and much of her album is about that struggle and discovery. Crutchfield is in her early thirties, just about old enough to have listened as a kid and a teenager to Apple’s music and to that of similar artists in Apple’s generation, roughly clustered around events such as the early iterations of Lilith Fair.
Waxahatchee is popular with largely the same audience who are swooning over Fetch the Bolt Cutters, which is also the same audience who adored Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, overjoyed that Del Rey’s genius was finally getting long overdue recognition. This is the same audience who have recently catapulted artists such as Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker and their supergroup Boygenius to fame; the same sad horny hot girl audience dancing in their bedrooms to the sad horny bops on King Princess’ last album. This is much of the same audience who brought crossover recognition to the Highwomen’s debut album last year, and probably the same audience with whom I stood in Central Park at the end of August last year and cried along to Mitski’s last two live shows.
These artists comprise a range of ages and a range of musical styles, but if Lilith Fair still existed it would probably be trying to book all of them. All of them in some way fall into the long lineage of the sad hot angry girl musician, and the degree to which any of them might identify with any part of that persona or choose to affect it themselves is hardly the point. These younger musicians have been influenced consciously or unconsciously by Apple, who in turn is influenced consciously or unconsciously by a previous generation including people like Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell and Patsy Cline and Yoko Ono and Janis Joplin, who in turn link to a longer generation stretching back to female blues singers and torch singers bleeding their velvety pain over a booze-marinated nightclub audience.
Their legacy is defined by how these artists are forced to reckon with boxes they are put in, in which a girl standing on-stage singing must be sad and hot and horny or angry, in which their gender always must foreground their work. If this reductive thinking is beginning to change, and if that reckoning is beginning to crack open the closed rooms of these narrow categories, it is in great part because of the work of artists like Apple.
Fetch the bolt-cutters, whatever happens, whatever happens...
I grew up listening to Fiona Apple; by the time When the Pawn… came out in 1999 I was ready to latch onto the lush and raw-hearted recriminations of it. I was young enough listening to her music that it got into my skin and my bones and my veins, at that age when we are such sponges for influence, when the happenstance of a person or an artist or an album or a song can write the map of who we will be for the rest of our lives. The frenzy around Apple’s new album has to do with its unprecedented genius, but also with the critical mass of adults who also grew up feeling this way. I was partially formed by Apple’s earlier music, and so were many of the artists my age or younger whom I now listen to with equal obsessive devotion. We are living in a lucky time of collision, a saturation of influences, the past speaking to the present so rapidly that the two meld into one layered version of time and culture.
It isn’t particularly remarkable that an older artist influences younger artists, or that those younger artists come up and get famous and beloved by the same audience as the still-living and still-popular artists who influenced them. But what was narrowly categorized as “girl music” when Tidal came out has blossomed in a generation and a half since then into something far more powerful.
The sad hot girl persona is being wrenched from the hands of people who insisted any woman making music be consigned to that category, and has become something that many different artists — not all of them necessarily girls, or hot, or sad or angry or horny — can play with, and can make a part of their work and their history. The lines that one can draw from Fiona Apple are so myriad and complex and move in so many directions — Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Perfume Genius, King Princess, Boygenius, Lana Del Rey, Amanda Shires — that this type of music can be be definitively understood — as it always should have been, way back into the generations long before Fiona Apple was born— as something bigger than simply girls onstage having feelings.
Or perhaps, and much better than that, the category “girls having feelings” has expanded beyond a thin white girl standing alone on a stage crying prettily, to become something larger and more honest, a costume that anyone can enter, an open persona, a mood. Apple’s own role in bringing music culture to this point is also part of what allowed her total artistic control and freedom with Fetch the Bolt Cutters. The album was produced and recorded from inside her own home, and she retained final say over every detail including the choice to move up the release date. Any way in which Apple interacts with the hot sad angry girl persona once forced on her is at this point an artistic choice, a piece of her own creation.
But that fact is made possible by a long legacy in which this was not the case, a legacy that includes Apple’s own early years, in which she became important to numerous kids who would grow up to be musicians today. “I’ve waited many years,” Apple sings on the opening line of the album. “Every print of the track has led me here.” Her own long journey is as much the subject of this album as anything else, pulling together a body of work that now spans more than two decades.
I've waited many years...
The music that Apple’s influence loosely unites and the category it lives within, the sad hot girl continuum, is not about gender, but about being the villain in the story. It’s about living beyond the notion of having been done wrong; it is about being more than the worst thing that has ever been done to you, and being interested in more than the ways in which you have been hurt. It is about taking one’s pain and one’s wounds as a starting point, not a destination or a thesis. It is about becoming the protagonist in the story, subject and not object. That means taking ownership of the harm we ourselves have caused, as much as reckoning with what we have suffered, and it is about understanding how often the two are inextricably linked.
“Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch,” sings Apple on “Relay,” one of the songs on this new album. This album, and this larger category, offers healing through the long, slow work of understanding the intricate processes by which we hurt and are hurt, by which we are guilty and aggrieved, criminal and victim.
The opening line of “Criminal” also serves as an easy reminder of the way in which women writing about their own culpability have been again and again shrunk down to a marketable size: Bad girls, sexy girls, being bad, doing bad naughty crimes, hot girls breaking hearts. These artists — not just those current with Apple’s first success, but those who preceded it, who were herded even more tightly into these boxes than she was — often wrote from that pose, and constructed their personas from it. They did so because it was a starting point, a place from which to launch, and because they were describing the walls of their own cage.
When somebody gets up and sings “Criminal” at karaoke, the part of us that responds is the part of all us that wants to be a bad, bad girl not because we want to be sexy but because we want the relief of owning the harm we have done, shouldering the weight of it and moving on from that ground floor into the rest of our grown-up lives.
On both the first and last track of the album, Apple repeats the phrase “in the long run.” This is an album about the long run, the prolific and heavy fact of a multi-decade career, a relationship with fame that intertwines with a very private life, the fact of living as a person while also being a cultural monolith, and trying to sort through the two, to take them apart and weave them back together.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters reckons with the self-recrimination of Apple’s early songs, and asks what comes after that, in the long run. It is about the freedom that follows accountability, the resigned, slow pace of intentional healing. Apple is working within her own influence here, and writing from the world she created for herself as well as for countless other artists. This is an album with a legacy, in all its gifts and all its consequences.