Whenever people talk about the most surprising moments in MTV VMA history, Fiona Apple’s 1997 speech — wherein she declared that “this world is bullsh*t” before telling people to resist the urge to emulate celebrities — inevitably comes up.
Apple didn’t really fit in beside The Spice Girls, Hanson, Jamiroquai (she bested the latter two in her win for Best New Artist in a Video, by the way), or other similarly pop-centric acts in 1997’s version of what an MTV star was. They were bubblegum and she was earnest and an outsider who took MTV’s trophy and then ruined everyone’s glittery good time with a few harsh words and a Maya Angelou quote. But did her speech warrant its awkward response simply because it wasn’t the standard? Was it because of people’s reflexive want to defend, not just their popstar heroes, but also their prerogative to place those popstars up on a pedestal? It’s hard to say in reflection, but when you hear the speech now, it’s easy to see value in Apple’s words beyond the fact that this was a strong young woman seizing a moment and speaking from the heart. Something she should have received more credit for at the time regardless of people’s opinion about the contents of her speech.
Apple had an intensity to her when she took the stage that didn’t feel typical for a VMA win. She told the audience that she had not planned a speech, dropped that Angelou quote about creating opportunities, and then launched into the polemic that would come to define her in the minds of many.
“So what I want to say is everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching this world. This world is bullsh*t! And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — 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 and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself.”
That’s it. She spent the rest of her time — as much time as she spent talking about the world and celebrity culture — thanking her mom, her sister, and her record producer. She then finished by saying, “And it’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me so thank you very much. And I’m sorry for all the people that I didn’t thank, but man…it’s good. Bye.”
This wasn’t a lengthy diatribe. Apple wasn’t condescending or confrontational. The only charge you could honestly levy against her is that what she was saying was thunderingly obvious. However, considering the reaction to her speech at the time and upon reflection, perhaps it wasn’t as obvious as you would assume. One audience her remarks seemed to resonate with, though, was the audience at the VMAs. The part in the transcript of her speech where she says “wait a second” is because the audience was cheering so much after her “This world is bullsh*t” remark that she needed to wait for them to quiet down. This was not a reaction of “vague enthusiasm and confusion,” as MTV News would declare in 2010.
How somebody saying “go with yourself” could ever be so controversial is baffling when you consider that this is the kind of lesson we push on kids all the time. The idea of anybody modeling their life after what they see on MTV may seem odd now because Catfish and Teen Mom, but in 1997, MTV was still an arbiter of taste. It’s what made them so successful. It’s what got them advertisers and it’s why popular musicians ended up working for some of those aforementioned advertisers. That’s how business works. MTV plays Madonna videos, girls start dressing like Madonna and idolizing Madonna, Madonna sells Pepsi, girls buy Pepsi because Madonna sells it. Or, they would have, if Pepsi hadn’t gotten mad at Madonna for kissing Black Jesus… but you get the point.
The idea of idolizing a musician, or modeling your life off of a celebrity is something that should be preached against, in general. It would be lovely if it was a relic of a bygone era or, at least, a youthful indiscretion that we all grow out of, but “Celebrity Culture” is alive, expansive, and in the words of Apple, “bullsh*t.” This is not to say that things like the VMAs or this weekend’s Emmy awards are completely absent redemptive qualities. While they might ultimately be a hollow endeavor, award shows are also potentially fun experiences and people have the right to enjoy a little escapism, glitz, and glamor. Apple wasn’t arguing against the existence of frivolous culture or celebrity. She just didn’t want anybody to take these things too seriously or to use them as guiding lights in their lives. She was trying to pull back the curtain, in what she likely knew would be her only chance to give a speech on MTV, and speak to the reality of things as she saw them.
To her credit, Apple never apologized for her speech, presumably because she realized she had nothing to apologize for. It is unfair to her that the legacy of the speech has been twisted into a bit of “wacky VMA moments” ephemera. The fact that she was right, though, and took the time to actually vocalize the fact that the world she had found herself in was bullsh*t, is what made it a moment worth going back to. Certainly, it feels more relevant today than the video for “Virtual Insanity.”