You fondle my trigger then you blame my gun
It is difficult to discuss Fiona’s craft without also discussing the unrelenting interest in her trauma, her mental illness, her relationship to men. Our assiduous fascination with her circumstances eclipses interest in her poetry itself. In Emily Nussbaum’s exceptional New Yorker profile of Apple, she expresses frustration at being designated “the patron saint of mental illness, instead of as someone who creates things.”
Sylvia Plath is a useful analogy here, because, as scholar, Jacquelin Rose, who wrote the 1991 The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, puts it: “no writer has suffered as much as Plath from the biographical imperative.” Both women—intelligent, white, born into relative means—fit the archetype of a wounded girl that continues to captivate us. Rose laments how many biographers read the poem line, “The black telephone’s off at the root” from “Daddy” as an allusion to Plath’s tearing out the phone after receiving a call from Hughes’ lover. These interpreters do Plath “a disservice, jam her wires. They deny the transformative potential of her art,” writes Rose. Beyond the facile understanding of these lines as an indictment of a cheating husband lies Plath’s stickier inquiry into parenthood and language. This obsession with biography takes, in Rose’s words, “the politics out of the poem—what is the legacy for an American girl after the Second World War of a German-speaking father?”
Out of an ostensibly feminist desire to relitigate Plath’s marginalized life, we simplify the words that her such an astounding figure: for the mere condition of being a woman did not make her a transgressive artist, but rather, her words did. “At worst,” says Rose, “it is a kind of insult: don’t think that this life, for all your efforts, will ever be anything other than the thing you truly are.”
I bet you could never tell
that I knew you didn’t know me that well
It is my fault you see
You never learned that much from me.
In an absurd April 2020 New York Times Op-Ed, “The Nude Selfie Is Now High Art,” novelist Diana Spelcher argues that we must treat the insurgence of quarantine-induced nude selfies—an effort to maintain some sense of sexual normalcy during social distancing—as art on par with painting or sculpture. She supports her claim by saying that
“many artists, not just painters and photographers, leave a final selfie as a sort of last will and testament: Sylvia Plath published her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar shortly before ending her own life.”
Our titillation with Plath’s suicide has become so canonical and insistent that we discuss The Bell Jar not as a carefully crafted study of the human psyche, but rather as a mere suicide note: a diary entry: a selfie.
“Sending a nude selfie is a request to be witnessed,” says Spelcher, and it’s easy to imagine why she analogizes Plath in this context, because this is largely how we read her work. We imagine in her some desire to be witnessed. We frame her art so determinedly in the context of her life that we forget to treat it as art at all.
“What is the relationship for a poet between writing a mind and writing a life?” Rose asks. It’s a difficult question to answer in the context of Plath and Apple, because both their work is frequently categorized as confessional. But in grappling with the honesty of their writing we devolve into dealing instead with personas we have crafted for them. We often do this to clever women: we pulverize their craft so that we can tackle various abstractions of pained femininity.
I said, “Honey, I don’t feel so good,
Don’t feel justified.
Come on put a little love here in my void”
“There are worse things than not receiving love.”
“There are sadder stories than this. There are species going extinct, and a planet warming. I told myself: who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?”
–from CJ Hauser’s “The Crane Wife”
I am constantly humiliated by my emotions. There is something mortifying about crying in a dark room, craving affection that you wouldn’t really need if you were tougher—more resolute, in that classically feminist Erin Brokovich way. This is the narrative I have drilled into my own head; I need to be imperious, and I need to have grit.
All my armor falling down, in a pile at my feet
These are not descriptions anyone would ascribe to Fiona. She is the exact type of girl I have always been so terrified of becoming. Hauser again: “I would need less. And less. I got very good at this. Even now I hear the words as shameful: Thirsty. Needy. The worst things a woman can be. Some days I still tell myself to take what is offered, because if it isn’t enough, it is I who wants too much.”
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Fiona told the world, without shame, that she needed more. She felt disappointed, demeaned, shortchanged, but she flipped the owness of this dissatisfaction onto worthier culprits than herself. I tell you how I feel, but you don’t care. I say tell me the truth, but you don’t dare. Her lyrics helped me calcify my spinning insecurities and recognize what is always so difficult to articulate without guidance: I want more, and that perhaps that is okay.
No matter what I try,
you’ll beat me with your bitter lies.
So call me crazy, hold me down.
Make me cry; get off now, baby.
At some point Fiona surmised that if she wanted her art to gain legitimacy outside of the preoccupation with her involuntary persona, she would need to shed the image of the sullen girl. If she wanted to–in the words of Emily Nussbaum, “keep bringing new songs into the world, she needed to have thicker skin. But that had never been her gift.” Fiona’s often quoted for her searing lyric, I just want to feel everything. I think ultimately, beyond her wunderkind status, haunting voice, or intricate lyricism, it is exactly this vulnerability that makes Fiona so revelatory. She feels absolutely everything, articulating her emotions with an obscene clarity.
I have never been so insulted in all my life
I could swallow the seas to wash down all this pride
In A 2005 New York Magazine article, Ben Williams called her the “queen of therapized lyric writing;” she is not, it explained, “content with an insight until she’s fessed up to her own complicity…she’s always processing, always moving toward, as one song puts it, a ‘Better Version of Me.’” I agree completely. She is strikingly self-aware; she writes always with the lucidity of a woman suffocated not so much by her circumstances themselves but by her absolute comprehension of these circumstances. Fiona manages to sublimate her pain while also establishing enough critical distance that she forces you to grow beyond your commiseration. Listening to her songs thus becomes an exercise in self-improvement. Her music makes you smarter—keener, in the way that watching Scenes From A Marriage helps you understand your suppressed fury.
We get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row
The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know
This same article, “A World Class Drama Queen,” also likened her to an “ex-girlfriend your friend is still besotted with but you’re suspicious of because she’s such a drama magnet.” Praise of her acuity is almost always tangled with sneer towards her open display of emotion. It’s a shame, because ultimately, all the stories about Fiona’s mistreatment are all just marginalia on the body of text that is her work. Her songs are searing, profound, consistently brilliant. But for women writers, the marginalia adamantly becomes the body of text, both in the archetypal sexist framework of ridiculing women, and also in our newer framework of corroborating their worth. As Jia Tolentino observes in her book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, “valuing a woman for her difficulty can, in ways that are unexpectedly destructive, obscure her actual, particular self.”
Here’s another speech you wish I’d swallow
Another cue for you to fold your ears
We are terminally obsessed with the idea of a woman’s fragility. Our fixation takes many forms, and often presents as emancipatory, even when it demeans the object of our affection—as evidenced by Fiona’s discomfort with people’s desire to protect her. Porn star Stoya, who has gained popularity for her perceptive feminist analyses of the porn industry and is referred to as a “sexual intellectual,” has expressed frustration at progressives’ desire to frame her as a symbol of either empowerment or trauma—usually with an intention to liberate, always without her own input: “I have been turned—numerous times— into a story,” she explains. “People frequently see me as a two-dimensional representation, and twist my timeline to suit the narrative they have in their heads…they project their shame or their need for inspiration onto me.” In trying to justify her career, people always want to “figure out some guess as to what went wrong in my childhood to damage me,” she continues.
The famous 1997 SPIN story catalogued Fiona chanting to herself while on break during a photo-shoot, “There’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women.” Over two decades later, she said she’d changed her mind. “That’s not true anymore. We’re gonna be fine… There’s always hope for women. We are hope. We are the hope in the world.”
She’s right to note a shift, as Tolentino puts it, “we’ve come into a new era, in which feminism isn’t always the antidote to conventional wisdom; feminism is suddenly conventional wisdom in many spheres.” However, as feminism has gained sentience, we’ve simply adopted a slicker form of reduction: we fixate on the material conditions surrounding a woman (rather than the woman herself) under a guise of progressivism.
I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me
I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me
When Fiona first broke onto the scene in the mid-90s, she was ridiculed for what Emily Nussbaum aptly coined her “art of radical sensitivity.” Two and a half decades later, the shtick has shifted to an ostensibly more progressive desire to vindicate this condition of female fragility. Similarly, where for decades (and even today, in many circles) we denigrated porn stars and sex workers, deeming them disempowered and disempowering, we prefer today to patronizingly admire them for some perceived feminist quality.
In both cases—contemptuous and uplifting—we reduce our subjects. We hijack a woman’s person-hood, aestheticizing her experience to fit whatever feminist narrative we’ve decided is in vogue for the day. Suddenly these women become avatars of our own conceptions of empowerment or disempowerment. Tolentino again: “Analyzing sexism through female celebrities is a catnip pedagogical method: it takes a beloved cultural pastime (calculating the exact worth of a woman) and lends it progressive political import.”
As much as the fixation with Fiona’s fragility (or Britney Spears’ media manhandling—or basically any characteristic of a once deprecated woman) may seem like some cathartic form of restorative justice, in reality we’re doing to women what we’ve always done to them. We ascribe them involuntary narratives: define their existence by their vulnerabilities, albeit now within the framework of delayed emancipation. “The plain fact is that I have written a book largely about Ted Hughes,” writes Rose about her Plath biography.
Well, good morning, good morning
You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in
“Even though it’s an awkward thing to say in a song–‘You raped me’–some people need to say it out loud in order to understand that’s what happened to them,” Fiona explains, in reference to the searing track “For Her,” from her newest album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. “It’s hard to say something that harsh about it. So even though I felt like, wow, it’s just a clunky thing to put in the middle of a song, I also feel it’ll be important to the people it matters to.”
It feels, in some ways, like a sharp turn for Fiona to adopt such raw presentation on her latest album when her lyrics have usually been so crafted. But beneath her tongue-twisters, she has always been unapologetically accusatory: Here’s another speech you wish I’d swallow—another cue for you to fold your ears. The unforgettable bridge in “For Her” therefore signals less a shift in messaging and more a recent willingness to publish her thoughts without laboring them too much. In the past, she has called her rape a “boring pain,” refraining from writing about it because “it’s such a fuckin’ old pain that, you know, there’s nothing poetic about it.” There is a liberation in her decision to speak so bluntly, she who is so notoriously parnassian. In throwing out much of her regular polish, she underscores the album’s central messaging: “Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation that you’re in — whatever it is that you don’t like.”
I spread like strawberries
I climb like peas and beans
I’ve been sucking it in so long
That I’m bursting at the seams
Is that why they call me a sullen girl, sullen girl? They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil seas.
I am writing about Fiona because I am searching for a way to write about myself. Because I am trying to understand why I am so sad, and why I’m so angry, and why I despise men and seek validation from women. Ultimately, I am writing about Fiona because I am so small, and I’ve only ever wanted to be big. I have never tried to be whole; I have only ever worked to be tough. Fiona was a revelation. She promised that there is strength in trying to feel everything. And if female fragility is a prison, Fiona teaches how it is certainly also a prism.
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
I just want to feel everything
Natasha Roy is a writer from Boston, MA who is terminally fascinated by Fiona Apple, Maggie Nelson, and other feminist writers.