A few weeks back, when rumors started to swirl that the always elusive and recently silent Fiona Apple would be releasing new music in the very near future, which she hasn’t done at all since the total cluster-fuck that was 2005’s (and sorta 2003’s) Extraordinary Machine, I half-joked on Twitter that it seemed like as good a time as any for me to listen to her for the first time ever. And after Tuesday’s big-deal announcement that she’ll be playing a Pitchfork showcase at this year’s South By Southwest, well, I actually did it. And I sort of enjoyed myself! But more importantly, I got to wondering how I managed to go 16 years without hearing more than a few minutes of her biggest singles here and there, and even then only in passing.
The most obvious explanation I can offer—not that it’s even a particularly good one—is that she came around just a year or two too late for me, or possibly somewhere around six years too soon. Tidal was released in 1996, the year I went off to college and paid less attention to the real world than any other year in my life. I was so deeply infatuated with the indiest of indie rock that I honestly don’t even recall knowing she existed—not until the following year, anyway, when she pulled that awkward “this world is bullshit” thing at the VMAs, when I remember sitting drunk at a party rolling my eyes as hard as I could at the television. Exactly the right amount of time had passed post-Nirvana for me to have settled on the idea that every single thing that could ever possibly happen on that stage or on that network was 100% bullshit, no matter how hard it tried to convince me otherwise. And yes, I realize this was a sort of silly way to look at things, particularly given that just a few years earlier, I’d taken as gospel everything people like Kurt Cobain said and did. I don’t know. It was a strange time to be 15-18 years old, I guess, especially when you weren’t nearly as smart as you thought you were.
Looking back on the VMA incident now, I of course find it perfectly charming—the kind of thing someone needs to do every couple years to snap a few kids out of just blindly accepting everything that’s shoved down their throat. She didn’t do it very eloquently, and she came off sounding a little bit like an ungrateful teenager rather than some wise artist-type preaching about the questionable mechanisms of mainstream pop music. But that’s ok—it’s always that way, really, and it certainly seems to have done the trick for the large number of 20-somethings who’re so glad to have her back.
In a way, I’m not sure I even could have made sense of those early records if I had paid attention, though I’m not exactly sure that’s my fault, either. The VMA thing had earned her a set-in-stone reputation as difficult, or as something of a basket-case, and it’s clear now that this was a tag assigned to her primarily by male journalists prone to something that looks an awful lot like sexism: If Kurt Cobain had said those exact same words on the exact same stage, it would have been offered up as further proof that he was the voice of a generation, not that he was some sort of problem child needing to be put in place. It’s a pretty nebulous thing, but I feel like this probably played as substantial role as anything else in shaping my feelings toward her.
It makes you wonder, too, how differently her career would be handled if it were being launched today. And maybe you saw this coming, but I do think there are parallels to be drawn to one Ms. Lana Del Rey. They both came out of the gate making confusing statements about female sexuality: LDR so brazenly willing to surrender her entire self for the sake of True Love that you almost can’t quite figure out if she’s being serious; and Apple using the song “Criminal” to beg forgiveness for hurting a man, with language so strong you have to wonder if she’s just being coy. They’re also both pretty classically attractive and yet they work with an aesthetic sensibility that’s offbeat enough that they’re appealing, at first anyway, to a more “serious” person.
The difference, though—aside from the artlessness of LDR’s actual songs—is that Lana Del Rey came up in a post-Arcade Fire world, which is very different than Fiona Apple’s merely post-Nirvana world. When Lizzie Grant decided to become Lana Del Rey, there was a well established method already in place for presenting her to the world in a way that would suggest a certain amount of credibility. Fiona Apple had nothing like that—she was thrown head-first into that world she would later complain about, and it’s interesting to wonder how things would have turned out if she’d been able to utilize the smaller-scale but still substantial and sustainable staging area young artists have at their disposal today. It’s worth noting, of course, that we’ve now seen first-hand the potential drawbacks of abusing the “indie as marketing” thing, chief among them the likelihood that you’ll wind up with everyone whipping out magnifying glasses to find the tiniest break in the artist’s armor of authenticity. It’s hard to say who had it better, but it’s easy to see neither of them had it all that great.
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter @LMagMusic.