Remembering the Mainstream’s Feminist Moment With Fiona Apple
Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple performs in Atlantic City, NJ, March 2012. Photo: Bill McCay/WireImage

Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.

Not to be obnoxiously Carrie Bradshaw about it, but after Fiona Apple’s recent show at the Bowery Ballroom I got to thinking about feminism. My mom went to Wellesley in the ’60s and my dad is a liberal philosophy professor and yet as a kid I always considered “feminism” a dirty word. It seemed like if I were a feminist I couldn’t be anything else. And what did I need activism for anyway, right? I played on a co-ed soccer team. Over the years, I’ve sometimes wished I’d been more prepared for the fact that there’s something different about being a girl, but I also realize I was warned by Courtney, Liz, Alanis, PJ and Fiona.

“Grown up and composed as we may be, the carnal insecurity, fear and defiance Apple tapped into when she first sang ‘I’ve been a bad bad girl … I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins’ is as deeply felt as it was in the ’90s.”

For a brief period that now seems remarkably progressive (considering women who use birth control are today considered sluts) slightly unhinged, opinionated, aggressive and highly sexual women were not just tolerated, but considered cool. I suspect it began in part with ’80s hardcore and indie rock, a realm in which liberal politics blended with the dirty sexiness of rock and roll in a way that made rock smarter and smartness cooler. That led to Riot Grrrl and that led to Grunge and before you knew it, ’90s mainstream music culture boasted an array of outspoken female rock stars who ran the gamut from enraged and vaguely hippie (Morissette) to lewd and patrician (Phair) to quirky (Björk) to bawdy (I first learned that oral sex wasn’t just for boys from a Rolling Stone interview with Garbage’s Shirley Manson). Kathleen Hannah famously gave Kurt Cobain the title “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a drunken night in Olympia spent vandalizing a right-wing clinic masquerading as a teen pregnancy center. Can you imagine the coolest rock star in the world, circa 2012, as someone an old friend would describe as “an angry young feminist”? I don’t know what happened — that’s a question for the dissertation. What I do know is that of those women who rose to power in the ’90s, there is only one that still mystifies and enthralls: Fiona Apple, who has been on a mini yes-I’m-still-alive tour in advance of the June release of her new album. It’s always been hard to define Fiona Apple. One minute (infamous VMA speech circa 1997) she comes off like a eating disordered self-loathing waif antihero for the cutters of the world and another (defiant shelving of her last album Extraordinary Machine until Epic agreed to release it on her terms) she seems like a steely rebel willing to stand up to the man. It’s that mercurial quality — the fact that after fifteen years and three excruciatingly confessional records we still don’t really know who this woman is — that partially explains why her return has caused such a stir.

“Extra tickets?! Extra tickets?!” the chorus of low-volume cries emanating from the line of desperate people outside the Bowery was an aggressive whimper. It’s been seven year since Extraordinary Machine (2005) and subsequent tour and her fans need their fix. Inside, the downstairs bar was packed with an unusual number of cool-looking women. Not rock girls, per se — less kohl eyeliner and carefully ripped fishnets and more Alexander Wang blazers and Rag & Bone booties. These women and the men who love them — upstanding but cool in crisp spring flannels and APC jeans — packed themselves tightly into the small venue and stared at the votive-lit stage, complete with a giant piano covered in a velvetly cloth. As soon as Apple took the stage dressed like an impassioned ballet instructor, hair pulled carelessly back in a scrunchie (long live the ’90s!) and a purple wrap skirt knotted around a black tank, her frame as alarmingly whittled down as ever, the women in the room rose to meet her. Grown up and composed as we may be, the carnal insecurity, fear and defiance Apple tapped into when she first sang “I’ve been a bad bad girl … I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins” is as deeply felt as it was in the ’90s, only now we’re extra starved for someone to admit it. “I was staring at the sky just looking for a star,” the audience intuitively murmured, as the opening trip hop-y percussive thwak of “Paper Bag” began. And then, shouting, eyes tightly closed, the infamous chorus that still feels dangerous and true: “Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, it kills/ ‘Cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up/ Hunger hurts but starving works when it costs too much to love.” In 1997, during the photo shoot for Apple’s first Spin cover she was caught mumbling, “There’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women” in a kind of trance in between “seducing” the camera as requested. So long as she’s still here, still alarming, there is.

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