This essay is running as part of the 2020 Uproxx Music Critics Poll.
“I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying.”
— Fiona Apple, “Ladies”
The rise of Instagram therapists has made it easier than ever for psychotherapy tidbits to be passed around like gossip. This year, therapeutic shorthand offered the chance to combat the misery in our own heads while experiencing the terrifying impact of a full-blown pandemic. But recently, one directive stuck in my brain much longer than usual. Hyper-independence, the post explained, is another sign of trauma, noting that keeping others out and refusing to rely on anyone but yourself is a learned response to past disappointment and abandonment. Furthermore, it’s a maladaptive coping strategy that just doesn’t work long-term. We all need help. We need each other — it’s only human. Or, as Fiona might put it: Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies.
Hyper-independence was on my mind when rewatching Fiona Apple’s infamous VMAs speech from 1997, the one where she proclaimed the world was “bullsh*t” and urged anyone listening to “go with yourself.” I’ve been someone who prided myself on not needing other people for so long I never even realized it was a choice, I’ve always been dead set on making it on my own, going with myself, even if it meant against the grain. But, if there’s anything that Apple’s own delirious, insightful 2020 comeback album Fetch The Bolt Cutters argues for, it’s the power of other people, and how connected we are at our core. There’s a reason this album was lauded as the No. 1 album of the year in our annual critics poll, during one of the most divisive year’s in recent memory, Fiona’s brilliant prison break is something we could all agree on.
Even so, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, as an album title, offers an uneasy greeting. The down-gazing, close-up shot of Apple’s face gracing the cover, and her wide-eyed expression, vaguely suggests unhinged behavior. Right off the bat, Fiona turns the trope of mad woman on its head; instead of writing a song about it, she literally, physically portrays it, then, grinningly, offers her wisest most level-headed album ever. And before going further, yes, I know comeback is a ridiculous word in the case of someone like Fiona, who has long been an iconic figure as a songwriter and performer. But what she’s done on this album, in a literal sense, is come back, letting us back into her world, and returning to ours. More true to herself than ever before, this time, the other characters in Fiona’s story are part of what helps her explain who she’s always been and what she’s cutting herself out from.
The record’s centerpiece, “Shameika,” is an obvious standout so immediate that the real Shameika made her own song off the strength of this lyrical portrait. Most of the memories Fiona sings about from her adolescence, or even early on in her career, focus on the bullying and the negative feedback she got. Which is totally normal, it’s all too common for our brains to zero in on the negative and magnify it, an evolutionary survival mechanism that helps us avoid repeating dangerous or painful situations. Mentally, though, drowning out the positive voices can be equally damning. Here, Fiona remembers a tossed-off comment from an acquaintance that was powerful enough to anchor her, decades later, during the task of writing an all-time great album.
Friends, acquaintances, ex-lovers, and enemies have long shown up in Fiona’ lyrics, but they show up in a different way on Bolt Cutters. An ex’s ex-wife leaves her a dress and a gentle note in a closet, a strange kindness embedded in a strange kinship (“Ladies”). On the title track, she interrogates her own disingenuous overtures in friendship, and later flames a spineless, social-climbing friend on “Under The Table,” refusing to silence herself for another’s comfort, this time. “I wonder what lies he’s telling about me to make sure that we’ll never be friends,” she muses on “Newspaper,” refusing to vilify the next victim to fall under her former abuser’s power, achieving the difficult work of limiting blame to the correct source.
On that subject, Apple’s breakout record, Tidal, rather infamously dealt with the horrifying subject of her sexual assault at a very young age, and subsequent entries into her file have repeatedly been marred by the fingerprints of overbearing men, either quite literally (see: Jon Brion, circa 2003) or figuratively, as plenty of male music critics, in particular, read weakness into her vulnerable lyrics, unable to comprehend their steely strength. In fact, it’s impossible to tell if the reception to Apple’s latest work is due to increased (or feigned) emotional intelligence across the entire industry as a whole, or to the specific voices of a new generation of female critics who have championed Apple’s genius with such precision that even the thickest dolt has no recourse but to bolt cut old dismissals.
The tides began to turn in the early 2010s, and yes, plenty of Good Men can back-pat themselves for praising her all along, but specters of the worst offenders — complete with photos by Terry Richardson (!) — still linger. It’s hard not to think about the damage inflicted on Apple by the sexist dismissals and overt sexualization, and where she would’ve been by now if she’d never had to ingest that misogynistic poison. These subjects come up during this song cycle, depression and anxiety expertly rendered on “Heavy Balloon” as communal issues, not confined to Apple’s singular experience. “People like us we play with a heavy balloon,” she sings, aware, now, of those who have gone only with themselves for far too long, fearful others won’t be able to carry the weight.
Later, “I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans” is a line delivered with such force that it doesn’t read as monologue, but mantra, readily available to anyone wishing to celebrate their own long-standing resilience. And, as any good gardener will tell you, for all three of those plants, their infamous capacity growth is owed to one thing — strength in numbers. Perhaps the quickest way to break out of a self-made prison is to let someone else come in and help dismantle it. Who knows what potential exists on the other side of those bars.