Yet another woman to whom she won’t get through: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I went into Fiona Apple’s first in 8 years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, expecting to like it because everyone around me expects me to like it — not me specifically, but me demographically, as a millennial woman who identifies with feminism. I did like it — it’s a funny, warmhearted album with a number of super-catchy songs. My favourites were “Shameika”, “Cosmonauts”, “Relay”, and “For Her”. But I didn’t find it particularly memorable or revolutionary beyond that. 

The day it premiered, Pitchfork rushed out a perfect 10 rating for it with a review that failed to convince why it deserved a perfect 10 (although Pitchfork isn’t an arbiter of good taste either); it made me guess that they were always going to award the album a perfect 10 anyway, no matter what it sounded like, simply because of Apple’s cultural cache in building up the canon of “sad girl” music and because of the surrounding climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp. 

I don’t know much about Apple beyond being aware of her iconic status among women the world over. I’ve tried to get into her in the past, but never embraced her totally beyond a few very well-written songs. Listening to FTBC the day it came out, I think the fact that I will never be a fan of Fiona Apple finally crystallised and I’ve accepted that it’s ok.

The album has some catchy percussions and vocals from Apple, but some unremarkable work with average lyrics as well. The Pitchfork review praised its lyricism, highlighting in particular the line, “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay”, a line which they believed “[offered] a critique of our hyper-socially-mediated world so savage it practically demands a standing ovation”. A reach if there ever was one; others have dissed artificial self-presentation in punchier ways. For disses that give you a genuinely soaring feeling inside, just turn to rap/trap music. Off the top of my head, I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “all these little bitches, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges… Fucking ridiculous!” on “So Appalled”, off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which Pitchfork had also rated a perfect 10. It’s not exactly of the same tenor as Apple’s line, but a greater diss if we’re comparing them purely on the basis of being disses. It’s possible that my ear is not trained enough to be properly discerning with music, but it’s jarring contradictions such as these between the hype and what I’m actually hearing that make me suspect that the hype around Apple’s new album is more “obligatory” than genuine. 

The insurmountable barrier of Fiona Apple for me is the same thing that a lot of people love her for, which is her stringent identification as Woman. From what I’ve observed growing up on the Western-centric side of the Internet, the “sad girl” canon seems to identify womanhood, especially heterosexual womanhood, as a kind of eternal burden. The “sad girl” theme tends to be characterised by assumed universally-shared experiences of gender-based neurosis / “craziness” / wretchedness born out of guilt and self-doubt born out of patriarchal condescension and institutional oppression; and also by conflicting relationships to men and pain, to beauty and appearances, and towards other women. The “sad” part of the “sad girl” theme often involves some degree of masochism, unclear fault lines, and inexplicable self-destructive and self-harming behaviour, especially when it comes to men and sex. 

In an interview with New York Magazine, Apple talks about various details from her personal life which informed the production and writing behind FTBC. She brings up her experiences of sexual assault, experiences during her schooling years of popular girls who never accepted her within their cliques, experiences of being both cheated on and knowingly being the mistress of married men. The power of these experiences at times coalesce into warm and touching songs, like “Shameika”, and knock you over with the full force of their rawness as on “For Her” (not about Apple’s sexual assault). Other times, their specificity jars because we’re being presented not just with someone’s art for our aesthetic judgement, but also with their personal experiences and decisions. On “Ladies”, she writes about not being able to surmount a male-imposed divide between her and another woman (her lover’s wife? Her lover’s other lover? Her ex’s new lover?). The conclusion drawn here is that heterosexuality is a helluva drug that makes women hallucinate each other as the enemy while hallucinating that the man between them is worth fighting over; but an affair often takes two to tango — the man is cruel for cheating, but getting into a relationship knowing that their actions could lead to someone else being hurt is a cruelty too. This isn’t a judgement, just a statement. 

As someone who incurably operates within the textual tradition, I analyse a lot of music just based on their lyrical content. So I can’t help but wonder if Fiona Apple’s songs could have more impact if she just dispensed with these feminism-lite topics and lines that easily endear her to a general audience. In songs like “Under the Table”, “Newspaper”, and “Ladies”, there’s something about the lyrics that feel unpolished and overly obvious while striving to be poetic — sort of like slam poetry open mic nights, where performer-poets try to straddle the fine line between straightforward, rhythmic performance and the poeticism that would elevate it beyond mere “dramatic talking”. It’s difficult to achieve and cringe to listen to when it fails. Certain lines in FTBC feel laboured in the same way, like the hiking boot lines in “Under the Table” or the “fucking propaganda brochure” one. 

The most momentous song off the album is undeniably “For Her”, with superior lyrics-writing and a snarling rage in the second half that rips through the fluttery, a cappella singsong-ing of the first half. The other songs, despite their energetic percussions and vocals, would like to be as raging as this one is — and indeed there is a lot of growling and howling on this album — but their lyrical content is not consequential enough for them to hold up. These growls, snarls, howls, and sighs, once expressions of explosive female anger, don’t have the same bite as they used to. 

I respect the “sad girl” locus of identification for women; I’ve been through it myself. Exploring this mode of woman-centric thought enhanced my capacity for empathy and taught me to identify suffering within cruelty. However, I no longer identify with this, perhaps because the thing I could never whole-heartedly identify with is being A Woman or any other arbitrary social identity. Some have used womanhood as the basis to form solidarity and aid networks, which is admirable, but the notion of womanhood was something I ended up withdrawing from instead. I only want to be a “woman” in the strict demographical or statistical sense and no other…

In the past, I’ve mostly only written about music that I really love and seldom about music that I think is just alright, but I wanted to tackle Fiona Apple’s music because I think the hype surrounding her latest release is symptomatic of a dying liberal culture. (Note here that I specify the hype surrounding the album and not the album itself; the degree to which Apple is able to “read the current mood” and “pander” to it is not something I care enough about to consider either.) This dying culture is one wherein the political content of music gets confused with artistic quality, wherein certain figures elevated to “iconic” status by their past accomplishments are able to generate clout for their new work purely on the basis of nostalgia, wherein the sheer act of a woman singing about her experiences — regardless of what those experiences were, or how well she articulates them — inherently deserves praise. The phenomenon of categorisable, identity-based art obfuscates critical discussions about the quality of the work. In the past few days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joy Division and The Beatles, and as fucking corny as it is to say this, I wonder why the music of decades ago still manages to sound startlingly new and original even now, when here I am in the 21st-century being told that Fiona Apple’s new album is revolutionary when it reminds me so much of Regina Spektor’s music from years ago… Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a perfectly fine album but not a perfect 10 by a long shot.