Contents of Issue #5 Contents of Issue #5 [Welcome] [Features] [In Focus] [Reviews] [Info]

Fiona Apple
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4    by Mark Zeltner -- page 1 of 4

When her debut album was released in 1996, Fiona Apple seemed an unlikely candidate for musical stardom. But Apple happened to time things just right. Riding on a wave of interest created by other female singer-songwriters, Apple has managed to defy the odds against success. Apple's first video "Shadowboxer" received heavy air play on MTV and VH-1 and the album received a large number of positive reviews. Sales of the album have been re-energized and seem to be peaking with the heavy airplay of Apple's video for the single "Criminal" on both MTV and VH-1. But with this video, Apple takes a deliberate step away from her female peers. The difference between Apple and her contemporaries is that she is not pursuing the tough independent image that is now dominant among other female singer-songwriters. Apple seems to be using her gawky adolescent sexuality to promote a sexually compliant persona that is more in keeping with the sexually exploitative early years of music video.


"I've been a bad bad girl ..."

For the last few years several dynamic woman rockers have dominated the charts and altered the primarily masculine viewpoint of popular music. Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette, and Joan Osbourne have all been successful by presenting gritty, sometimes almost masculine, music. Morrissette in particular has become popular because of her caustic songs about poisonous relationships and duplicitious men. As a necessary part of the rock and roll promotion package all of these women have participated in making videos for consumption by MTV and VH-1, the current arbiters of what is hot and what is not in popular music. All have created interesting visual accompaniments to their songs, which promoted the tough independent image they desired. Morrissette was particularly successful in combining idiosyncratic but nonetheless fascinating images with her searing lyrics.

The independent and essentially non-exploitative style of these videos can be traced back to female musical artists of the early eighties. Prior to the early eighties MTV was dominated by videos in which women were depicted as back-up singers, dancers or in other minor roles, but their major purpose was to be beautiful objects to be looked at and desired by adolescent males (Jhally, 1990). Jhally also claims that women in the early days of music video defined themselves by their relationship to the male gaze. The women in these videos seemed to pose for the camera and wanted to be objects of voyeurism.

But in the early eighties a number of female artists attempted to reframe the discourse of music videos (Lewis, 1990). Lewis says that these female artists were creating female-address videos that challenged assumptions about boundaries that gender, as a social construct, draws around men and women. Male-address videos, in contrast, position girls and women as objects of male voyeurism. Lewis used videos primarily by Cyndi Lauper and Madonna to illustrate her point. Madonna in particular was identified as someone who used her image and her videos to "tap into and disturb established hierarchies of gender and sexuality" (Schulze, White, Brown, 1993). Other critics noted how Madonna made meanings and pleasures available to her fans instead of her critics. They positioned Madonna as a positive role model for young adolescent girls (Fiske 1987; Lewis 1987). Now that Lauper has sunken into semi-obscurity and Madonna spends her time starring in overproduced film versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, women such as Morrissette and Apple are left to take up the fight. But Apple in particular is not following the lead of her predecessors in her use of the music video format. In contrast to Fiske and Lewis' critical reaction to Madonna's videos, it would be a difficult to make a case for Apple's sexually-charged child abuse fantasies (as seen in her "Criminal" video) as a depiction of a positive role model for adolescent girls.

Before the video itself is analyzed for content, it is worthwhile to document a little of Apple's short life. In 1989, Apple, then 12 years old, was raped by an intruder in the apartment building she shared with her mother and sister on Manhattan's Upper West Side (Helligar, 1996). This incident has been alluded to by Apple in a number of interviews and is said to be the inspiration for a number of the songs on her latest album, Tidal. In 1994 Apple gave a demo tape of three songs to a friend who was the babysitter for music publicist Kathryn Schenker. Schenker passed the tape along to producer and manager Andrew Slater who helped Apple land a recording contract with Sony Music. These details are important because they have become well known to Apple fans and are a vital part of her image, much like the story of Elvis' discovery while recording a birthday song to his mother has become an indelible part of his legend. In other words, from the beginning, Apple has presented herself as a sexually abused child--a disturbing concept when combined with the impact of the visual images of Apple's "Criminal" video.

page 1 of 4


Get the complete lyrics for "Criminal"
and download a sound clip,
courtesy of the Fiona Apple Home Page at Epic.


Top Welcome Features In Focus Reviews Info