In 1997, an almost 20-year-old Fiona Apple delivered a succinct yet powerful takedown of the mainstream music industry and our capitalistic society: “This world is bullshit.” She’d just been awarded Best New Artist at MTV’s Video Music Awards; her debut album Tidal—an empath’s moody, swirling, orchestral body of work that crackled as though powered by the divine mystery of dark stars—had been released the previous year. Apple’s speech was less than two minutes long, and though the audience applauded it, the backlash was instant. Music critics dismissed the singer-songwriter as a bratty ingénue, a naive young woman who didn’t know her place; comedian Janeane Garofalo mocked the speech with appalling cruelty and eating-disorder jokes. A November 1997 issue of Spin magazine referred to Apple as “a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl,” as though being a teenage girl automatically negated her burgeoning talent and artistry.
Apple’s discography, as well as the long breaks between albums, charts the musician’s uncomfortable, divisive path to self-reliance—a 20-year voyage that has tested both the desire to belong to a larger collective and the ache to be self-contained. Her fifth studio album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, takes the next step in Apple’s personal and creative evolution, with 13 tracks that take patriarchal systems of power to task. Along with 2005’s Extraordinary Machine and 2012’s The Idler Wheel, Apple’s latest release is a refusal to relinquish control of her own story. Early narratives attached to Apple were saturated with patronizing misogyny. Fiona Apple the Anti-Pop Star, the Angry Singer-Songwriter, the Waifish Sad Girl: the persona never belonged to her. Even after her career was established, these images remained unshakeable. Her brilliance has always been conditional, something highlighted by a PopMatters review of The Idler Wheel suggesting that an album delay was indicative of her pickiness and that her lyrics were borderline pretentious.
Sometimes the act of writing unearths past hauntings: a collection of wounds both old and new, the ghosts of ex-lovers and ex-friends, snippets of memories that inspire joy or incite pain and sadness. Fetch the Bolt Cutters collects all the traits associated with Apple’s art: cutting, poetic lyrics that burrow into your consciousness; heaviness settled next to lightness; portraits of specific people, and the deep ripples created by specific, cataloged regrets. Apple’s songs tell stories from her personal history and they use this biographical lens to examine cultural discourse. Previous albums have featured songs about personal reckonings—including the shortcomings of particular ex-boyfriends and the shock of failed romantic entanglements—and they have all shared overarching themes: loneliness, isolation, self-preservation as a coping mechanism, power imbalances between men and women in heteronormative relationships, and sexual abuse against women. On this album, catharsis gives way to self-reflection; self-reflection is necessary to survive in a world that remains institutionally biased against women, and during a global pandemic that highlights our racial and socioeconomic inequities.
In a recent interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, Apple said, “If I can be like a surrogate of the catharsis, if maybe you can get that feeling from listening to it happen, that’s just the highest goal of any art that I can think of.” Fetch the Bolt Cutters is meant to offer relief from repressed emotions; it’s an album that challenges the expectation that women must behave in socially acceptable ways or that successful womanhood is defined by an ability to obey. On the track “Under the Table,” Apple sings, “I told you I didn’t wanna go to this dinner/ You know I don’t go for those ones that you bother about/ So when they say something that makes me start to simmer/ That fancy wine won’t put this fire out, oh.” The song’s defiant chorus is a declaration of conviction: “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” The song’s indictment of obedience was inspired by an experience at a dinner party “where there was lots of expensive wine and lots of bragging about things I wouldn’t brag about,” Apple told Vulture in a song-by-song breakdown of the new album.
She reveals that she called out one of the attendees because he said something she “thought was offensive.” Although saying something changed the mood of the party, it didn’t matter to her because, she stated, “I was right.” Within systems of power that are designed to maintain misogyny, a woman’s refusal to stay silent is a threat. And, for Apple, a career in music has required grappling with the reality that by many she is regarded as another temperamental woman with a chip on her shoulder—just as Sylvia Plath is still regarded as the patron saint of suffering, Elizabeth Wurtzel as the poster child for white female Gen X depression, and Hamlet’s Ophelia as the Mad Girl floating in a shallow, watery grave. In his New York Times review of Extraordinary Machine, music critic Jon Pareles wrote that “As a songwriter, she’s the same Fiona Apple who sold millions of copies of her first two albums; she’s still sultry and sullen, obsessing in detail over why her romances went wrong and teetering between regret and revenge.”
Under the banner of patriarchy, gender roles dictate a person’s relationship to their emotions. Toxic masculinity mandates that “boys don’t cry.” The act of being emotional is viewed as an exclusively feminine trait, and therefore a degrading one. Men are allowed to be angry; it’s an expected performance of their gender. For women, expressing anger or sadness—anything other than complacency—is assumed evidence of instability and a lack of self-control. Apple is well aware that people think she’s erratic: on her sophomore album When the Pawn…, the opening verse of “Limp” declares, “I went crazy again today.” And in “Fast As You Can,” she sings, “O darling, it’s so sweet/ You think you know how crazy/ How crazy I am.” Though the review was positive, the Houston Chronicle said of The Idler WheeI: “Fiona Apple’s album revels in her misery.”
Intimacy, in the context of songwriting, takes on a different meaning when created by male artists. The emotional intimacy that courses through Apple’s music is often used against her. Musicians like Jeff Buckley, John Mayer, Ryan Adams, and Sufjan Stevens, however, are all praised for their sensitive, introspective lyrics; their music is not typically described as melodramatic or self-indulgent. Their willingness to be emotional is understood as proof of their creative genius, not weakness that obstructs artistic potential. The language employed by critics to describe Apple and her music leans heavily on assumptions that a woman’s emotions can lead to chaos, emotional and/or physical damage, and selfish ruin. Yet suppressing emotions is like drinking slow-acting poison.
Maya Angelou, whom Apple invoked during her VMA speech, famously said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The narratives we tell ourselves can become our own gilded hell, and Fetch’s title track is a call to liberation. According to Apple, it was inspired by the BBC crime drama The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson plays a police investigator on the trail of a serial killer in Ireland. The killer specifically targets young women. In one scene, Anderson discovers a locked door. Believing there is a victim trapped behind the door, she declares, “Fetch the bolt cutters.” For Apple, the phrase meant: “Fetch your tool of liberation. Set yourself free.” Both the album and the title track reflect the need to seek satisfaction beyond the constraints of social hierarchies. In the final verse of the song, Apple sings, “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/ When they came around, I would stand real still/ A girl can roll her eyes at me and kill/ I got the idea I wasn’t real/ I thought being blacklisted would be grist for the mill/ Until I realized I’m still here (I’m still here).” In a world ruled by patriarchy, resilience can offer a form of rebirth.
Tracks like “Relay,” “For Her,” and “Ladies” offer biting reflections about abusers in power and the ways they are protected and enabled. The rhythm of “Relay” mimics its title, resulting in sounds of perpetual motion. The chorus marches like a nursery rhyme: “Evil is a relay sport/ When the one who’s burned/ Turns to pass the torch.” Apple said of the song: “The Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 brought on a lot of shit to deal with. I don’t know what it is, that guy. There are so many of them out there, but that one guy—the fact that he’s on the Supreme Court really is probably the thing, but his fucking attitude is just like—it was the externalized version of what you know a lot of them are feeling inside.” The specter of Kavanaugh and other men in power form the foundation of “For Her,” which Apple says was inspired by conversations with a woman who was once an intern at a film-production company.
What if a radical act of feminism was as simple as opting out of the everyday demand to perform—to fulfill the roles created by capitalism and the patriarchy?
The opening of the song features an audible sigh; during certain verses, Apple’s voice is layered to mimic a chorus of women. A bridge interrupts the first half of the song: “Good morning/ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Apple explains, “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. And my hope is that maybe some women and men will be able to sing along with that line and allow it to tell the truth for them.” Apple, who revealed she was raped at the age of 12 by a stranger who followed her home after school, has used music as a witness to her truth. While “Relay” is all frantic energy, “Ladies” features a prominent bass line, steady drums, and waltzing verses. A cautionary tale couched in heartfelt confession, the song is about how gender roles can warp friendships between women.
She told Vulture, “This album is a lot of not letting men pit us against each other or keep us separate from each other so they can control the message.” Apple said that her grandfather had a mistress; her grandmother aimed all her resentment and anger at the other woman instead of holding her husband accountable. This double standard is rooted in misogyny and the need to maintain control. It’s easier to control women who remain divided, who keep quiet and do not share their stories. The suppression of comradery and allyship between women is also brought up on the track “Newspaper”: “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me/ To make sure that we’ll never be friends.” In an Elle interview conducted before shelter-in-place orders were issued to address the spread of COVID-19, Apple’s parting gift to the interviewer was offered in the form of questions: “Who are you trying to impress? Who are you trying to satisfy? Are you going to make yourself happy?”
Women are indoctrinated into acquiescence at an early age. We are expected to abandon our needs, our happiness, and our sanity. Selflessness becomes self-sacrifice. But what if a radical act of feminism was as simple as opting out of the everyday demand to perform—to fulfill the roles created by capitalism and the patriarchy? Of course, this is easier said than done, as evidenced by Apple’s metaphorical snapshot of depression in “Heavy Balloon.” However, experiencing depression does not mean admitting defeat. Fetch’s closing track, inspired by a night spent in a Texas jail in 2012 after getting arrested for possession of hashish, is a stomping chant: “On I go, not toward or away/ Up until now it was day, next day/ Up until now in a rush to prove/ But now I only move to move.” “This world is bullshit” may be the most remembered sentiment from that VMA speech, but another thing Apple said—“Go with yourself”—reverberates as well. It’s a phrase that could easily be dismissed as the musings of an earnest but green 19-year-old, but remarkably and admirably, Apple has stayed true to herself.
Fetch exhibits a perspective gained through years of painful yet fortifying growth. On the track “Left Alone” from The Idler Wheel, Apple asked, “How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?” However, her conflict of self-isolation versus relationships (romantic and platonic) seems to have been soothed into submission. In a series of videos posted to Consequence of Sound two years before the new album’s release, Apple answered fan questions submitted via Tumblr. When asked about a 1997 Spin article in which she is quoted saying “There’s no hope for women,” Apple recants the statement. “That’s not true anymore.” She adds, “We’re gonna be fine….There’s always hope for women. We are hope. We are the hope in the world.”
Over the years, critics have wanted Apple to fit the mold of acceptable, marketable femininity. But she hasn’t wavered. Apple’s sound has progressively moved away from tightly-arranged, full-bodied, studio productions to welcome imperfections and unconventional instruments, signaling an increased comfort with her musical and personal identity. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the first album where Apple had the final say on “all production decisions,” was recorded in her home; the album’s songs were often recorded using GarageBand and her iPhone. This professional and artistic autonomy is in stark contrast with the early days of her career. This album champions the beauty of unconditional freedom and ultimately concludes that living in one’s truth is the key to liberation. For Apple, external validation is not proof of her existence.