Why Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” Is a Feminist Anthem
Fiona Apple wrote the biggest hit of her career in 45 minutes.
In 1996, Apple was 18 years old and finishing up her debut album, Tidal. Much of it was written by the time she was 16 — songs filled with the sort of lyrical and musical depth typical of artists who’ve lived hard and have many years of professional songwriting behind them. Apple offered an irresistible combination to the pop music industry, including a deep alto voice and jazz-with-a-rock-edge style of songwriting.
While she was polishing off the final lineup of songs for that first album in the recording studio, Apple’s label, Sony Music, asked for a “more obvious” first single. So she sat down at the piano, pounded out some C-minor chords in what we can imagine was a defiant, I’ll-show-them-a-goddamned-obvious-single huff and began:
“I’ve been a bad, bad girl…”
“Criminal” is the most successful single of Apple’s career. It spent 20 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, propelled sales of Tidal to more than 3 million copies, and got her music noticed by the kinds of people who give out Grammy and MTV awards. She won one of each for the song alone.
“Criminal” showcased her brooding, brilliant style. It had a killer hook. It placed Apple in a sweet spot among the Lilith Fair-ready artists of the time, somewhere between Tracy Chapman and Alanis Morissette. It made her a star, possibly a bigger star than she was ready to be.
In the two years following Tidal’s initial release in July 1996, Apple went from being an unknown child of divorce to posing for the cover of Rolling Stone and performing on Saturday Night Live. She was a survivor of rape (who said she was sometimes so afraid of men that she refused to sit down next to them) suddenly thrust into the spotlight and subjected to carnivorous media scrutiny. She was a girl becoming a woman, finding her voice, and forming an opinion about it all at the same time.
Apple has described “Criminal” as a song about using her sexuality to get what she wants — sex, power, attention. Her lyrics imply that these actions are involuntary, but regrettable. She’s telling herself, either with conviction or as a warning (we can’t be sure): You don’t need sexual game play. You have talent. You’re smarter than that. But she’s also feeling guilty for giving into what she knows she doesn’t need to do. Many among us can relate.
Apple has said that she writes her songs for herself; they are merely extensions of her journal set to music. And when a female pop star rejects the use of her sexuality as the primary bartering chip for stardom — a temptation plenty of women on the verge of fame have a hard time passing up — it’s a powerful statement against the status quo.
Alas, the video for “Criminal” seemed to tell another story altogether: A gaunt-looking Apple slinks around in various stages of undress: naked in the bathtub; furiously disrobing in the kitchen; lounging underneath, on top of, and in between semi-naked, listless men. Watching it, you’d be forgiven for feeling the urge to cry, “Hypocrite!”
What is she here if not a sexual nymph embodying the very thin/glam/false image she purports to reject? In interviews following the video’s release, Apple admitted to feeling uncomfortable about it, but not because of the perceived lascivious imagery. The sexual deviance on display accurately captured the guilt she felt for using sex to get her way; but it was also a source of pleasure for her.
It was her body image that gave her pause.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in January 1998, Apple admitted that she had developed an eating disorder following her rape at age 12. “It wasn’t about getting thin, it was about getting rid of the bait that was attached to my body,” she said.
Getting naked in a strange, 1970s-style basement filled with languid, overnight male guests looked, to a lot of people, like she was just another girl allowing herself to be manipulated by the machine. The media pounced, reacting with what we’d now call skinny-shaming and slut-shaming. The New York Times dubbed her “a Lolita-ish suburban party girl.” Referring back to the video in 2005, the New Yorker said she looked like an “underfed Calvin Klein model.”
The importance placed on how she looked in that video haunted Apple throughout her career. She reflected on the “Criminal” video in Interview magazine in 1997:
“I’ve gone through stages where I hate my body so much that if I pass a mirror that’s the end of my day,” she said. “So it was a personal mission to do that video. To convince myself, you’ve got something else going on here.”
Apple was trying to say that perfect isn’t the only way to be beautiful, even in a music video which, on its surface, looked to be saying the exact opposite. She wanted to convey a message of body positivity and she wanted girls to see that message. It’s what she meant when she took the stage at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards to accept her Best New Artist statue and told everyone watching: “This world is bullshit.”
Not a lot of people got it. She was labeled a bratty, ungrateful weirdo.
Every young artist is tested, and the female ones are tested even more brutally. Apple knew that if she chose to remain in the music business, she’d be in for a long tenure under the microscope. And she knew she’d evolve, prove her critics wrong — or maybe prove them right sometimes — but it didn’t matter either way. Her music. Her message. Her rules.
The fact that Apple releases albums whenever she wants further proves that she’s the one in control. Her second studio album came three years after Tidal, the third six years later, and her fourth and most recent another seven years after that. She even titles them with long-winded verses that don’t fit neatly into headlines.
“Criminal” gave us all the reasons in the world to misunderstand Apple. Her lyrics imply that she’s begging for help to even understand herself.
“Heaven help me for the way I am/ Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done…”
But perhaps, instead, it’s a declaration of self-assuredness; another pep talk to be who she is — the good, the bad, the sullen, the happy, the outspoken, the shy — and to be perfectly happy with whatever may come of living life with such authenticity.
“I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand/ But I keep livin’ this day like the next will never come…”
There was a much more subtle (and overlooked) line in that infamous VMA speech that sums up Apple’s music and her message: “Go with yourself.” It’s the feminist anthem perhaps she never even realized she wrote for herself — and for the rest of us.
Originally published at www.refinery29.com on July 9, 2015.