Here’s a thing I was writing where I got trumped by another site. TRUMPED! It’s not finished, but I thought I’d post it here rather than waste it. I might put hyperlinks in it later if I have time.
“How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” asks Fiona Apple on “Left Alone” from her 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. She’s singing it at 34, but it’s an unwittingly distinct summation of the teenage impulse: craving affection and identification whilst rejecting all advances of that ilk because none of them fit right, none of them understand. “Look at! Look at! Look at! Look at me!” goes “Daredevil”. Having arrived as a teenage star in the mid-90s, Apple has never lost any of the precocity or preciousness of that era. It’s long been said that musicians are frozen in time at the point at which they become famous.
Unlike for my American colleagues, Apple was not a feature of my early-mid-00s British teenage years. She never had a breakout hit here; her cultural insignificance in the UK was accidentally but amply illustrated when NME used a photograph of Alanis Morrisette to head their review of The Idler Wheel last week. Intrigued and bemused by the flap around Apple’s SXSW performance, I downloaded Tidal and listened to it a few times before deciding she wasn’t for me; her vocal and musical style was too self-conscious, too outré. I’d used up all that goodwill on Regina Spektor around 2004, before switching my allegiances to gruff old men. However, I was immediately certain that if I’d heard this record back then, it would have ousted Soviet Kitsch from the pile and found a comfortable home alongside the Ani DiFranco live albums that clogged my hi-fi for a good few years. Its showy indignance would have fit like a non-uniform glove defiantly brandished in school assembly.
The point of this is not for me to sneer, “Yeah that thing you all like? I hate it! It’s so childish! And here’s why!” As the string of serious, and increasingly thorny Apple profiles winds on, it’s clear that calling her a teenage concern would be reductive. Apple’s artistry clearly hits profound depths for her fans, and her music is the opposite of infantile; it strikes me as intensely methodical and considered, based in enduring adult experiences— or at least experiences that one would only hope to go through as an adult, if ever, although that’s not always the case. Her lyrics on paper are often astounding. In interviews and in song, however, she comes across in that exasperating, precious way that teenagers do; incorrigible and indulging self-aggrandizing impulses that tend to slip away in one’s early 20s for most people. (Though that is something of a generalization.) To be blunt about it, she strikes me as a quite the pain in the backside. But having been a teenage fanatic and pain in the backside in a fashion too obsessive and embarrassing to recount in much detail, I know full well that expressing glib dislike of such an evangelism-inspiring artist will provoke protective ire among some of her fans. Opinion aside, something I find fairly unequivocal is the fact that Apple’s music speaks to that teenage instinct that’s protective to the last about the art that couches its personality the most deeply.
As Carrie Battan remarked in her interview with Apple, “Fan camps have become territorial— arguments over who’s liked you longer or more genuinely.” “Shadowboxer” going mainstream was a fine way to split the Apple camp between Lillith Fair acolytes and MTV-watcher late adopters, but with an artist like Apple, that kind of line-drawing is just a surface-level concern. “Every Single Night” from The Idler Wheel goes, “I just want to feel everything,” an intensity and emotional greediness that’s certainly symptomatic of being a wallowy, music-loving teenager; I’m sure there were at least a couple of months in each of our teenage lives where you were convinced that no-one else could possibly think, or feel, or mope, or long as much as you. (A few years past teenage, but in the season finale of Girls, Hannah claims that no-one could possibly be as scared as her.) Transfer that lyric about feeling back onto the kind of music that’s speaking those words, and you’ve got a wholly absorbing web of behavior and opinions reinforced in the music you love, which only intensify within as the two feed off each other. The arguments go beyond who’s liked Apple longer or more genuinely into an emotionally territorial— and unsubstantiated, untested, thereby increasingly irrational— land-grab to prove who is the most kindred of spirits with the artist in question.
As such, any attack on this fannish behavior or opinions inspired by the musician inevitably become personal in a way that’s usually set aside with age. When I was 11, I fell out permanently with my best friend of five years over who was better, S Club 7 (her) or the Spice Girls (me). (It was a double jib as I had really only started liking them because of her, though the obsession quickly transcended copycatting.) A few months before, a sworn enemy of mine had stolen my Spice Girls folder (a cardboard file full of cut-out images that I hadn’t yet had time to stick into my third lever-arch file glued full of such things) and claimed to have burned it, the most scathing attack on my personality of my short life to date. If that experience was playground-tribal where you’d fight over who got to be which Spice Girl, my teenage experiences with extreme fandom represented more of a personal struggle to internalize as much as I possibly could about the artists I admired. I would find out where they bought their clothes, get my hair cut the same way, draw their tattoos onto my arms and hands with a Sharpie before school every day; buy every CD they recommended, fight to get the highest daily post percentage on their message board. Parents, teachers, and sometimes friends would try and embarrass me about it; their comments just made me more belligerently besotted.
It certainly wasn’t rational, and it probably became unhealthy. I can’t imagine how exasperating my behavior must have been. It’s long since passed, luckily, but one of the reasons I felt moved to write this piece was because extreme fandom fascinates me, probably due to having escaped it and being able to look back without that myopic gaze. Back then, I certainly behaved in ways— and to musician’s faces— that were creepy. If I see people doing it now, my instinct is to try and rescue them from the devoted myopia that’s left them bereft of the ability to realize that they’re going too far. I’m definitely not intimating that fans of Apple are embarrassing themselves, or transferring my teenage idiocy onto them; if anything, this is a longwinded way of saying, I don’t get it personally, but I absolutely see why you do, and understand the relationship you have with this artist.
Vulture’s astonishing piece with Apple, published this week, draws on something she said at a 1997 industry party thrown in her honor: She was “hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s okay.” It’s the opposite of the tempered emotion that put paid to my teenage obsessions; it sees nothing irrational in letting emotion flow freely and unexpurgated, appealing to the naïve teenage evangelist who believes that emotional honesty is the path to happiness. Even though Apple’s not reached that happy zone yet (and perhaps may never do so) The Idler Wheel sticks to that path with a fervent belief, matched by all those who trail behind.