“Get healthy – we want to see you in 10 years!” someone recently shouted from the audience of a Fiona Apple concert in Portland, to which the singer retorted, “I am healthy! Who the fuck do you think you are?” (Fiona, as we all know, has a well-documented history of engaging with the Fourth Wall, including her infamous “This world is bullshit” speech at the ’97 MTV VMAs, as well a recent tirade against an irreverently noisy fashion crowd at a Louis Vuitton event in Tokyo). Though the sentiment that evening was perhaps well intentioned, this person – in my humble opinion – is a fucking moron. If Fiona Apple hasn’t died yet, she’s probably not going to die anytime soon.
Since arriving on the ‘90s music scene as a strung-out-looking teen, Apple has never been the poster child of good health. To this day, nothing has glorified bellybutton rings, shag carpet, and eating disorders quite like the video for “Criminal.” Watching her writhe against a kitchen counter pulling on a silk slip and twisting around her own jagged hipbones, Fiona Apple became my instant hero, a welcome anathema to my early ‘90s musical collection, that candy-coated coterie of Ace of Base, Paula Abdul, and Cathy Dennis. This chick was damaged and fucked up in a way that made being damaged and fucked up acceptable. And those lyrics… that voice…
When it comes to pop culture anti-heroes, girls looking for role models within their own gender get the short end of the stick. The ratio of totally unhinged female musicians to male ones fall disproportionately in favor of the latter. Maybe it’s because culturally relevant women are “supposed to be” precious and withholding. Only the men are allowed to fall off the rails in public, a social norm reflected in pop culture. Guys have their Sex Pistols, their Rage Against the Machine. But if I want to find a compatriot in the raw and angry fight against the world, it sure as shit isn’t going to be in Ingrid Michaelson’s navel-gazing songs about sweaters and cupcakes.
To prove my point, let’s go ahead and measure angst and dysfunction within pop culture by combing a list of musicians who have died from drug overdoses (generally a reliable sign of inner turmoil). With the exception of less than five women, the list is all dudes. Going further, if we want to get real grim, we can peruse a list of generally famous people who have killed themselves over the years. That list, though more rife with dark female promise than the previous one, is still predominately male. If you’re a fucked up little girl with hopes to finding someone similarly wretched to look up to, you’re kind of SOL.
And this is why Fiona Apple matters.
Everyone talks about good role models, especially for young children. Parents want upstanding pillars of pop culture, people with clean fingernails and good teeth that their children can aspire to be. I’m sure my mother didn’t look at all 80 pounds of Fiona Apple circa 1997 and think, Man, I hope my daughter turns into that when she grows up. Because, sure, if you take Fiona at face value – the sinewy arms, the gaunt cheekbones, the deathly pallor — she is not emblematic of healthy living, not then and definitely not now. She is, however, emblematic of living her art. This is someone with a history of damage, of reported sexual abuse and eating disorders, who took that pain and made something remarkable out of it.
If I, as a parent, had to pick between Fiona Apple and Selena Gomez – who, by the Portland heckler’s standards of health, will continue living and singing someone else’s crap music until she’s 102 — I would undoubtedly pick the fucked-up, creepily beautiful, probably anorexic Fiona Apple for my kid. (Hello, Child Protective Services, I’d like to file a report…) Why? Because Fiona is one of those rare women who publicly feels life in an interesting way, a woman who has long told us that the world isn’t always sunshine and rainbows. No, the truth is that sometimes life is an unending clusterfuck of thunderstorms and tsunamis, and one day you’re going to get picked up by the tide and heaved against the unforgiving side of a building. And, yes, you will bleed. But you know what? That can be just as beautiful. What would Selena Gomez teach my kid? That rolling around in the dirt with your boobs out scores you a Biebs?
The world doesn’t need Fiona Apple to look like she eats three square meals a day or that she doesn’t do drugs. It doesn’t need her to smile or behave or, hell, it doesn’t even need her to live another 10 years. The world, women especially, needs Fiona Apple to be Fiona Apple, because there aren’t enough people out there willing to be raw these days.