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Fiona Apple and Our Moment of Regression

All this is textbook teenage girl stuff, LiveJournal stuff, and that's why it works.

by Helena Fitzgerald
Jun 29 2012, 5:30pm

"I don't cry when I'm sad anymore," is something someone who cries all the time is likely to say. Protests of sanity usually come from insane people, and are the most fervent promises of change from people who haven't changed at all. This lyric occurs on the track "Left Alone," from Fiona Apple's new album, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. It may be a reference to her reputation for dramatic emotional breakdowns, and seems to be a claim that she's grown up. But more likely, the protestation that she's changed is the best indicator that she hasn't changed at all.

The transition from adolescence to adulthood is marked by the ability to repress emotion. As an adult one learns to present one's exterior in contrast to one's inner state. Reviews of this album have lauded Apple's development as an artist, her newfound sanity and gravitas. But on another track she says "I stand no chance of growing up," and I think that's where she's correct. This album is effective because its author hasn't matured, and neither have we.

The Idler Wheel…'s cover is an amateur drawing by Apple herself. Its title, similar to 1999's When the Pawn…, is an overlong, self-contained poem. There is a plaintively sincere song about an ex-lover titled with that ex-lover's real name ("Jonathan"). She talks about cutting herself, makes psychosexual reference to scars, and finishes a musical phrase by yelling LOOK AT LOOK AT LOOK AT LOOK AT ME. All this is textbook teenage girl stuff, LiveJournal stuff, and that's why it works. We move on, perhaps, from these behaviors, but not from the longing for them. We know better than to write bad poetry and publish sincere invective about our exes by name, but that doesn't mean we don't wish we could. The album's appeal is not its departure from the singer's previous work, but its return to that work, its reenactment of our own adolescence.

The musical sophistication of The Idler Wheel… is deceptive. The catchiness of certain songs is jarring due to the seeming juxtaposition of sound with content. "Periphery," for instance, bubbles along jauntily while its lyrics catalogue the petty, itchy anguish of losing a lover to traditional modes of home and family. But the song is a simple open wound. Experiences such as this one feel dissonant when they occur. "Periphery" makes the listener uncomfortable not because it's unfamiliar but because it's too familiar. Emotion expressed in pop music generally resembles real-life emotion not at all, and that's what we like about it. Adele's "Someone Like You" is popular not because it mimics our feelings but because it doesn't. That kind of song seems on the surface less adult than the noise-collages Apple assembles, but it is in fact far more so. Pop music doesn't cry when it's sad. The Idler Wheel…, on the other hand, like a teenage girl, cries ugly and doesn't know how or when to shut up. Listening to this album is uncomfortable the way rereading one's own diaries is uncomfortable.

But then, for a significant portion of its audience, that's what we're doing when we listen to this album. This is our diary from when we were thirteen. The Idler Wheel… is the same album Fiona Apple's been making since I was barely a teenager. For all its relentless innovation, the album is a throwback and in that way it is of the moment, because the moment is a moment of regression.

We're all getting younger, our generation aging backward. Internet sociality may have created in part our pop-culture inside jokes, our abbreviated language and penchant for age-inappropriate confessionalism. Our failures to start families, buy property or settle down in one place may have a lot to do with the current economy. But, whatever the reasons, we are staying teenagers longer than ever, rebuilding our adolescence again and again in all its solipsism and magnified emotion. It makes sense that an artist who came to prominence when people currently in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties were teenagers returns now. This album feels current because it's an album from ten years ago.

Even the undeniable growth of Apple's music has a decidedly childish element to it. The weird noises and non-traditional instruments (in the liner notes a comically long list of things played on each track includes "thighs") are reminiscent of a little kid banging on pots and pans (one track in fact opens with the sound of Apple hitting objects on her desk with a pair of scissors). Apple's voice is an implausibly virtuosic instrument, but the degree to which she demonstrates that virtuosity is also somehow childish, a kid who doesn't know to use her inside voice in public.

Nostalgia simplifies us, absolves us from being smarter and knowing better. In its final track, an album that has strenuously avoided cliches bursts gloriously into them, and a singer who has self-consciously refused beauty gives us thick, textural harmonies as satisfying as something Phil Spector might have produced. "Hot Knife," the final track, is kind of stupid, but the album that precedes it has made us so teenage so teenage that we embrace its sappy emotion. It feels like a reward and more specifically a reward that we haven't earned at all. Which is much of what childhood and adolescence are about: Feeling massively entitled to things we haven't earned, and being young enough not to question that entitlement. Maybe this is the permission we're looking for, in turning backward to adolescence. It's a nostalgia for the emotional state that still believed everyone should love us unconditionally and we should never have to clean up our room or go to bed at a reasonable hour. Apple's album offers us that feeling by offering us a return to her previous albums, and to the selves we were when we first listened to them.

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