By Vanessa Okoth-Obbo
The scene is a dimly lit room, possibly a basement, in someone’s suburban house. Empty beer bottles litter the floor, half-eaten pizza slices lie on the glass table; one girl is missing a shoe, and some guy has lost track of his jeans. As we see more of the house, we meet the people who left this wreckage behind. Most of the guests are asleep, and many are closer to nude on the spectrum of undress.
None of this imagery would seem particularly unusual on TV today (or on a Friday night, depending on how you roll). But when the video for “Criminal” arrived in 1997, directed by Mark Romanek and starring a 19-year-old Fiona Apple in the scenario described, it was a subject of major pop controversy. From the moment Apple stared at the camera and pronounced, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” it was clear that whatever came next was going to be memorable.
“Criminal” came to prominence more than a year after the July 1996 release of Tidal, Apple’s debut album. Coming in the wake of groundbreaking works by female soloists like Alanis Morissette’s blockbuster Jagged Little Pill, and preceding Sheryl Crow’s self-titled work by a few weeks, Tidal was perfectly timed to capitalize on the popularity of unapologetic, unabashed women in mainstream pop and rock.
While its tantalizing opening line might be the most readily quotable, it is not by any stretch the best lyric on “Criminal” — a song that Apple described as being about “feeling bad for getting something so easily by using your sexuality.” By the time she pleads, “Heaven help me for the way I am / Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done,” you’re almost ready to grant her redemption. She knows her action is wrong, but she can’t resist. If you find this situation at all relatable, then you’ll recognize what it’s like to look elsewhere for absolution when you’re too self-conscious to forgive yourself.
Apple wrote and recorded Tidal in her teens, subtly deconstructing themes of love, lust, and anguish with an expert’s skill. A close read of the lyrics, with the understanding that Apple is credited as the sole songwriter, provides keen insight into the mind of someone living through the tumult of adolescence. She’s up, then she’s down; she’s sorry, but she doesn’t care; she can’t be without her lover, then she can’t run far enough in the opposite direction.
“Sleep to Dream,” released as the second single from Tidal in 1996, is a warning to an unserious partner. “I have never been so insulted in all my life / I could swallow the seas to wash down all this pride / First you run like a fool just to be at my side / And now you run like a fool, but you just run to hide, and I can’t abide,” Apple snarls against the deep rumble of the percussion, her rhymes cascading to devastating effect. On the next track, Apple takes you somewhere else entirely: “Sullen Girl,” a haunting, piano-driven ballad, starts out by describing what seems like everyday adolescent ennui, but soon reveals something more sinister — the aftermath of a sexual assault by a stranger when Apple was just 12 years old.
The emotional peaks and troughs continue this way through the album, cresting on “The First Taste,” a surprisingly perky tune about the thrill of a new pursuit. Tidal only lasts 10 songs and 51 minutes, but the listener feels so much in a short span of time. This thrilling, painful depth of feeling — a large part of the struggle to navigate the transition into adulthood — hasn’t gotten easier for young people in the 20 years since Tidal was released, and the work she did to catalogue the contradictions of youth in full emotional color are one reason the album has aged so well.
Above all, like most teens, Apple just wanted to be understood. This has continued to be a major force driving her career in subsequent years: Not only does she lay her soul bare on record, she flouts the norms of celebrity reservedness in interviews and in public, most notably in her famous/infamous “This world is bullshit” speech at the 1997 VMAs, where she won Best New Artist. For her sins, Apple has been labeled in the media as “precocious,” “a shrinking violet,” “a moody teenager,” and “an underfed Calvin Klein model” — that last one as recently as 2005.
It’s interesting to consider the stakes of releasing such an unguarded, nakedly confessional record in 1996, compared to 2016. The same approach that led to mockery and misunderstanding for a young Fiona Apple in the ’90s is closer to the norm today, when fans expect their pop stars to be open and accessible about their inner lives. Adele is the closest thing we have to a universally loved musician right now, in large part due to the perceived realness and emotional intimacy she shares with her audience; pop stars from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift welcome fans into their lives via regular glimpses in song and on social media.
Apple negotiated a different path for herself after Tidal. While that album’s frankness never left her music, she largely retreated from the pop scene within a few years — which has, in turn, made her later albums feel like highly sought-after grails for her loyal fans. When she does speak with the public through the press, she’s as inimitably forthcoming as ever. In one interview after her 1997 VMAs speech, Apple said, “I'm just hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s OK." Twenty years later, Tidal stands as the historical proof that it is, and will continue to be, OK.