Remembering the Mainstream’s Feminist Moment With Fiona Apple

Fiona Apple performs in Atlantic City, NJ, March 2012. Photo: Bill McCay/WireImage

Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.

Not to be obnoxiously Carrie Bradshaw about it, but after Fiona Apple’s recent show at the Bowery Ballroom I got to thinking about feminism. My mom went to Wellesley in the ’60s and my dad is a liberal philosophy professor and yet as a kid I always considered “feminism” a dirty word. It seemed like if I were a feminist I couldn’t be anything else. And what did I need activism for anyway, right? I played on a co-ed soccer team. Over the years, I’ve sometimes wished I’d been more prepared for the fact that there’s something different about being a girl, but I also realize I was warned by Courtney, Liz, Alanis, PJ and Fiona.

“Grown up and composed as we may be, the carnal insecurity, fear and defiance Apple tapped into when she first sang ’I’ve been a bad bad girl … I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins’ is as deeply felt as it was in the ’90s.”

For a brief period that now seems remarkably progressive (considering women who use birth control are today considered sluts) slightly unhinged, opinionated, aggressive and highly sexual women were not just tolerated, but considered cool. I suspect it began in part with ’80s hardcore and indie rock, a realm in which liberal politics blended with the dirty sexiness of rock and roll in a way that made rock smarter and smartness cooler. That led to Riot Grrrl and that led to Grunge and before you knew it, ’90s mainstream music culture boasted an array of outspoken female rock stars who ran the gamut from enraged and vaguely hippie (Morissette) to lewd and patrician (Phair) to quirky (Björk) to bawdy (I first learned that oral sex wasn’t just for boys from a Rolling Stone interview with Garbage’s Shirley Manson). Kathleen Hannah famously gave Kurt Cobain the title “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a drunken night in Olympia spent vandalizing a right-wing clinic masquerading as a teen pregnancy center. Can you imagine the coolest rock star in the world, circa 2012, as someone an old friend would describe as “an angry young feminist”? I don’t know what happened — that’s a question for the dissertation. What I do know is that of those women who rose to power in the ’90s, there is only one that still mystifies and enthralls: Fiona Apple, who has been on a mini yes-I’m-still-alive tour in advance of the June release of her new album. It’s always been hard to define Fiona Apple. One minute (infamous VMA speech circa 1997) she comes off like a eating disordered self-loathing waif antihero for the cutters of the world and another (defiant shelving of her last album Extraordinary Machine until Epic agreed to release it on her terms) she seems like a steely rebel willing to stand up to the man. It’s that mercurial quality — the fact that after fifteen years and three excruciatingly confessional records we still don’t really know who this woman is — that partially explains why her return has caused such a stir.

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