Fiona Apple & the Sexist Critics in the 90s

The year is 1996. Fiona Apple is 18-years-old on the verge of being a household name. Working her babysitting connections, she managed to get her three track demo into the hands of famed publicist, Kathryn Schenker. As they say, the rest is history.

Apple’s first performance in Paris drew an audience of 800. Her next performances were Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show.

Her image was synonymous with teen angst and the overwhelming feelings that come with teenage girlhood. However, the 90s were unkind to Apple. She was brutally honest and vulnerable, which left her open to criticism. Harsh words came fast and hard.

Famously introverted, Fiona Apple is back in the public eye with the release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters. So, with critics running as fast as they can to praise the now 42-year-old, I began to wonder how they treated the once teenager. What I found that at almost every turn was that the music industry and culture did Apple dirty in the 90s.

Fiona Apple: The deconstruction of a young girl

Down the rabbithole I went. I read every article in the New York Times that mentioned Apple in the ’90s. I stumbled through beautiful profiles by Rolling Stone, and damaging ones by SPIN.

At every turn, critics picked apart her looks and casted doubt on her talent. Worst of all, they exploited her trauma. Dripping with misogyny, critics and culture couldn’t reconcile how a young woman could be attractive and also talented.Music critic Dimitri Ehrlich wrote in a lede that hyperfocused on her body and appearance:

The pouty beestung lips. The taut, pierced belly exposed by a flouncy shirt. The cascading honey-brown hair. And those eyes. Is this the next waif supermodel?

Dimitri Ehrlich, “A Message Far Less Pretty Than the Face”

It should come as no surprise,then, when Apple famously proclaimed, “This world is bullshit,” in her ’97 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech. “You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything,” she continued, “Go with yourself. Go with yourself.”

It’s somewhat unfair to hold the ’90s to today’s standards. However, we can’t ignore history. It’s clear that people were intimidated and confused by Apple. Anne Powers wrote, “As inspiring as it was to see a precocious teen-age girl becoming sure of herself, the spectacle could not fully sustain itself as art,” she continued, “By making her private journey public, Ms. Apple embodies our confessional age; now it’s up to her to take the next step in realizing her considerable potential.”

They didn’t see what was coming, which was an explosion of emotions as art. Art that would resonate with millions of people for its honesty and rawness.

Critics used her vulnerability to simultaneously exploit and promote her. In the infamous SPIN article that hurt Fiona Apple so much that she named her album When the Pawn . . . in response to it, John Weir wrote:

Her apparent vulnerability makes some enlightened sorts nervous. In addition to the real advances female performers are continuing to make in the music business, there remains the possibility that it would be easy to exploit the hell out of a girl and still claim that it’s all about her power.

John Weir, “Girl Trouble”

But, by the late 90s, Apple, slightly older and seemingly wiser, realized the nature of the exploitation she was experiencing. Sharing in a 1999 article with the Washington Post:

“. . . I’d be at a photo shoot for nine hours, where the hairdresser, the makeup person and the photographer could all work on their portfolios. I got tired of hearing ‘Okay, put one hand in your mouth and one hand in your pants! . . . But you can’t ever say no the first time around. . . . So I never said no and I ended up never looking like myself. If you are a new artist, you are fair game for everybody and you’re not going to gain any power until the second time around. I can now look back on it and learn from the experience . . .”

Fiona Apple in the Washington Post

What can we take away from the treatment of Fiona Apple

So, are things better now for women in music? It depends on who you ask. Many chart topping female artists appear to be in control of their image. Critics often get shut down when there’s an overt focus on an artist’s sexuality and appearance. Also, the advent of social media has meant that many artists are in control of more aspects of their public image. That being said, it’s foolish to think that every female artist has control over her image.

But one thing that is quite different because of Apple is the acceptance of feeling and emotions as art. In the ’90s, there seemed to be a resistance to Apple’s emotional vulnerability as art. What Apple showed was that there was room for feelings, raw and unpolished. And that those feelings were worth hearing and that others might also relate, no matter what their age.

Apple kicked down the door for women in music to be unapologetically themselves, whether it was sweet and quiet or loud and abrasive. She showed that there wasn’t one type of woman.

Fiona Apple proved that you didn’t have to be a poster girl for anything other than your own truth. And the rest of the world is just bullshit.

Articles for further reading

Pareles, J. (1996 September 21) Songs From the Roots Of a 19-Year-Old Soul New York Times
Ehrlich, D. (1997 January 5) A Message Far Less Pretty Than the Face New York Times
Hoban, P. (1997 October 19) The Night; Crying Is Best Done In Public New York Times
Powers, A. (1997 October 27 )Trying Something New, Something Mellow New York Times
Weir, J. (1997 November) Girl Trouble SPIN
Health, C. (1998 January 22) Fiona: The Caged Bird Sings Rolling Stone
Pareles, J. (1999 November 7) Angst, Bravado and a 90-Word Title New York Times
Harrington, R. (1999 November 28) Fiona Apple: The Time is Right Washington Post

Image credits

Image 1 (From left to right): A Polaroid picture taken by Fiona Apple’s mom on the day she signed a contract with Sony, Tim Mosenfelder, SPIN

Image 2: SPIN

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