COLUMN: Fiona Apple is finally free


Fiona Apple’s new album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is played on a phone. Photo illustration by Sarah Zygmuntowski

I first fell in love with Fiona Apple when I watched the music video for “Criminal” on VH1 when I was an angsty teenage girl. I wanted to be just like the 19-year-old singer lying naked in a bathtub with a man’s feet on her shoulders, confessing, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.”

At the start of her career, an angsty teenage girl is exactly who Apple was, or at least who her audience had her figured out to be. But now, with the release of Apple’s fifth studio album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” the self-proclaimed “Sullen Girl” showed she doesn’t let her girlhood ghosts haunt her anymore.

She’s taken her liberation into her own hands, and she didn’t bother asking anyone for permission. As the track “Under the Table” declares, “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.”

Feeling her feelings and not apologizing for it has long been Apple’s game. The problem, however, is that no one has been listening — the first lyrics on her first album are, “I’d tell you how I feel but you don’t care.” Now, after an eight-year hiatus, Apple doesn’t care.

“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the first album Apple has released since 2012, and it was well worth the wait. Pitchfork gave the album its first 10 out of 10 rating in a decade. The last album to receive a perfect rating was Kanye West’s 2010 album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”

Originally scheduled for an October 2020 release, Apple insisted on pushing the album drop up to April 17. Luckily, the album is the perfect reflection of these tumultuous times. Every note sings out on behalf of our collective frustrations and longing.

Apple, 42, is known for her arrangements, which heavily rely on percussion and piano. This time, the brutality of the music is much more personal. Apple and her backing band used objects around her Venice Beach home, such as a decorative metal butterfly and an abandoned stove to bang out the backdrop to her shocking, revelatory lyrics. These unorthodox recording methods crystallize her decades-long revolt against the music industry and traditional studio recording.

Apple is fed up, but she’s far from despairing. Over a chorus of barking dogs on the album’s title track, she commands the audience, “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long.”

And while many pioneering women in music have had their art reduced to comparisons to diaries and love letters, to call Apple’s music confessional does not give her due credit as a woman who has worked long and hard to reclaim her agency.

Maybe the lyrics to early tracks such as “Shadowboxer” can be considered diaristic. But Apple’s latest release is more of a manifesto, an essay on emancipation for women who have delivered themselves from insecurity, mean girls and bad ex-boyfriends.

It would be too easy to say “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” establishes Apple as a woman who’s finally been freed and leave it at that. But that’s not the whole story. Apple may finally be more affirmed in her insurrection, but she’s been at it for nearly 25 years, steamrolling through the patriarchal music industry since 1996.

The difference now is that Apple doesn’t just embrace her painful existence, she revels in it. This isn’t what’s expected of women, and that’s exactly the point. This is liberation. This is what freedom sounds like.

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