When I was in high school, the musical icons were poised and impossibly beautiful. They were usually multi-talented pop stars and at sixteen, I related to exactly zero of these traits. It was difficult to find complex, relatable female figures in mainstream culture, especially in the music industry. So when Fiona Apple stumbled into the media with her furious piano ballads and candid attitude, it was a moment of revelation.
Society often casts women as overly emotional and then uses this stereotype to invalidate and dismiss female experiences. Yet it is in emotion that Fiona Apple finds strength. The fury and sadness in her music are her ways of regaining independence, and she finds self-respect in admitting imperfection. Her music asserts that the female experience has value and gives women permission to write their interior lives into songs.
In the two decades since her album Tidal debuted, countless singer-songwriters have worshipped Fiona Apple. But at the time of its release, the music media didn’t know what to make of her songwriting; few could fathom how the album functioned as both an emotional appeal and an offensive strike. Her record label was equally anxious, and worried that her music wasn’t suited for either a commercial or independent audience; it is a well-known industry story that, on the eve of the release, Sony pushed for a more pop-savvy hit. Apple sat down at the piano, banged out the dissonant opening chords of “Criminal,” and finished the song in an hour. The single became a pivotal moment in her career—Apple was an artist to reckon with.
Someday when Fiona Apple is written into music history, she will be remembered as a true rock star. The visceral lyrics and intelligent instrumentation on her early releases alone are enough to qualify her for this title. However, the prevailing narrative of her career has been less positive; there is a Tumblr blog titled “Fiona Apple Acting Crazy,” and Rolling Stone published a list of her “bad girl” moments. And yet, when male artists like Ryan Adams write the same kind of songs that fill Apple’s first releases, the media applauds their honest songwriting and rebel attitude. In recent years she’s received more critical acclaim, but her reputation as a loose canon persists. This is a reaction to Apple’s uncompromising approach to public life, where she chooses to defend herself in the face of extreme scrutiny.
It is my belief that the most interesting folk music right now is made by women. While these artists may not top popular charts, they are receiving the critical praise they deserve. On her debut album, Angel Olsen used retro styles to write her way through a time of emotional difficulty—then followed it up with a record filled with celebration and recovery. Mitski disarms listeners with her surreal poetry and blend of folk and punk. Julien Baker wrote a simple folk album that is inexplicably sad; it is not uncommon for the entire audience to cry at her festival performances. These artists exist in the wake of Fiona Apple, taking advantage of the space she carved out for women in folk music. These artists, and their critical esteem, offer the optimistic vision that the media is slowly moving toward an era of appreciating emotional art without sensationalizing it. When I think about all the artists teenage girls today will be exposed to and inspired by, I’m almost jealous.
In 1999, Fiona Apple further secured her role as an industry outsider when she rambled off an unscripted speech at the MTV Video Music Awards. “This world is bullshit,” she said, looking into the camera. “And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool, and what we’re wearing, and what we’re saying—go with yourself.” It was the kind of bold moment that the VMAs are now notorious for, but the candid speech nonetheless caught the audience off guard.
If Fiona Apple’s career can be condensed into one moment, it is this. Sometimes, when I’m feeling stressed or frustrated with the music industry, I revisit this speech on YouTube, and know these words have inspired more women than just me.