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The Forgotten Ferocity of Fiona Apple's Debut 'Tidal'

Two decades on and Apple's debut continues to sear. Released when she was 18, her unerring ability to turn the mirror on herself puts current confessional teen "engénues" to shame.
July 29, 2016, 2:52pm

"I've been a bad, bad girl," sings Fiona Apple at the beginning of "Criminal," the best-known song from her debut album Tidal, which turned 20 years old this month. Apple, who was just 18 when the album dropped in July 1996, once said the song is about "feeling bad for getting something so easily by using your sexuality." The still startling Mark Romanek-directed video, which includes shots of Apple baring her midriff in a way we're cultured to believe is suggestive, and lying in bed with guys who aren't fully clothed or fully conscious, seems to present her as a kind of faux-innocent sexual temptress. But as those of us who immersed ourselves in Tidal after "Criminal" caught our eyes and ears would discover, there’s a lot more to this artist than just being a "bad, bad girl."

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The album's opening song, "Sleep to Dream," whose lyrics were reportedly written by the New York City born singer when she was just 14, almost feels like a mantra. "I got my feet on the ground, and I don't go to sleep to dream," she sings in her deep, dusky voice. "You got your head in the clouds, and you're not at all what you seem." She's frustrated, self-assured and scornful all at the same time—on the one hand, it’s an innately teenage cocktail of emotions; on the other, it's a barbed brew that anyone who's ever felt under-estimated or condescended to can empathize with. Soul singer Betty LaVette covered it when she was in her late 50s, and the song still made total sense.

Yet somehow, Tidal's next song manages to be even more powerful. On "Sullen Girl," Apple explores the sense of inertia she felt after being raped at the age of 12. "Is that why they call me a sullen girl, sullen girl?" she wonders, before exposing the ignorance of anyone who's judging her behavior. "They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea," she sings, "But he washed me ashore, and took my pearl, and left an empty shell of me." Five years earlier, Tori Amos delivered her chilling depiction of sexual assault with "Me and a Gun,” and now Apple was offering an equally haunting dissection of the devastating aftermath.

As Tidal continues, Apple keeps on surprising us with music that's sometimes grunge-y and sometimes jazzy, but always feels like the work of a true singer-songwriter—her piano-playing is notable, but truly it's the words that really get you. They're unsparingly and raw in their teen honesty. On "Shadowboxer," Apple sings about being played emotionally by someone "cunning" who has "no reverence to my concern," yet on "Criminal" she's obviously the one doing the playing, branding herself the girl who “will break a boy, just because she can." "The First Taste" is so light and vibey, you're reminded of Sade with every repeat play. But then Apple's lyrics about the itch of young lust take over, and she floors the listener by revealing her seduction technique: “I do not struggle in your web / Because it was my aim to get caught." It's a classic Fiona Apple line: smart, honest, subtly empowered. These songs are feminist because she's singing about who she is and what she's feeling even when the pictures she paints are not especially flattering.

They're also feminist because she's so open about her ripening sexuality and its knotty consequences. "The Child Is Gone" is cryptic enough to lend itself to multiple interpretations, but when Apple sings, "Suddenly I feel like a different person / From the roots of my soul come a gentle coercion," it's hard not to presume she's recalling a sexual awakening. Elsewhere "Never Is a Promise," which features Apple's most sensitive and textured vocal performance on an album that's full of them, was apparently written after she discovered that the guy she lost her virginity to was showing an interest in someone else. But she saves her most brutal imagery for the closer "Carrion," on which she purrs over brushed snares and strings about her feelings for a guy "Decaying in front of me / Like the carrion of a murdered prey."

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A year after Tidal dropped, Apple won an award at the VMAs and told the audience as she collected her Moonman: "This world is bullshit. You shouldn't model your life on what we think is cool, and what we're wearing and what we're saying and everything. Go with yourself." It was sound advice that might provoke a few appreciative thinkpieces in 2016, but back in 1997, with the "Criminal" controversy still fresh in the collective memory, it was perceived as pretty ungrateful and, perhaps a little bit weird, but hey that's teen angst. Since then, sections of the media keen to portray Apple as a so-called "difficult artist" have hardly struggled to build their narrative.

She named her 1999 follow-up album—take a deep breath now—When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.

Then her third album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine, finally arrived after a protracted delay because Apple shelved an original version she felt was overproduced; her fans ended up petitioning her label to release it because they thought it was corporate douchebags holding things up, not Apple herself. And while touring in support of 2012's The Idler Wheel album, Apple made gossip site headlines by ejecting a fan from a gig after she'd yelled at the stage, "Get healthy, we want to see you in 10 years!" Apple told Pitchfork after the incident, "She hurt my feelings. I don’t think what I look like is relevant."

But no one who listens to Tidal would call Fiona Apple "difficult," or think of her as merely a one dimensional "bad, bad girl" from "Criminal." These days we're overwhelmed with apparent pop engénues but in reality, bar Swift and a few other exceptions, these singers stand as interpreters, their compositions, stitched together with many helping hands. Apple's debut continues to resonate for many reasons—her wise beyond her years turn of phrase for one, the assured slink of her vocals for another—but also there's a striking clarity in her total lack of filter. This album introduced us to a complicated, conflicted, candid young woman whose willingness to say what she's thinking, however dark and unvarnished, is ultimately pretty inspiring.

Nick Levine is a writer and editor living in London. Follow him on Twitter.