“I didn’t prepare a speech, and I’m sorry, but I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m not going to do this like everyone else does it,” Fiona Apple said at the 1997 VMAs, 19 years ago this weekend. Apple had just won her first VMA for Best New Artist.
On the rise from her 1996 album Tidal, which would go triple-platinum by the end of the year, she was a natural star for 1997: an easy queen to crown from among the rising waves of angsty singer-songwriters and heroin-chic fashion. And crowned she was at the VMAs — but the young queen spurned her coronation.
Fiona Apple is one of the most literate songwriters in pop music — famously an inspiration for Kanye — and she wrote most of her first album at 16, making her that all-too-rare phenomenon of a pessimist wunderkind. She had released two videos from the album — “Sleep to Dream,” in which she moodily sang to the camera between bouts of insomnia, and “Criminal,” the infamous confessions of a bad, bad girl. But although, 20 years later, Apple has confirmed and reconfirmed and re-reconfirmed her commitment to artistry, she appeared in the ’90s like a vision from a record company’s dream. She looked just like she sang: beautiful, intelligent, and dark.
“See, Maya Angelou said that we as human beings at our best can only create opportunities,” continued Apple in that same acceptance speech. “And I’m going to use this opportunity the way that I want to use it. So what I want to say is, everybody out there that’s watching this world? This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool, what we’re wearing, and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself.”
Apple then went on to thank her mother, her producers, and her management for their support, but the damage had been done. Her comment was an even faster sensation than her album, and she was the butt of jokes not only from the system that she’d denounced — with scathing articles to be found everywhere from Spin to NY Rock, but also from those who might have been allies. Most famously, fellow ’90s alt-girl Janeane Garofalo wrote “A Reading from the Book of Apple,” which skewered everything from then-20-year-old Apple’s self-seriousness to her then-boyfriend David Blaine (!) to her by now public eating disorder.
Apple caused a global storm in 1997, but her statement doesn’t quite land now the way it did in the time before social media went from being a solid start-up prospect to a seamlessly integrated part of everyday life. Apple was denouncing an idolatry for the generation that was in the process of idolizing her, in an industry that had proven itself historically successful at producing idols. But in the flattened plains of today’s media fame, major-label stars are on Instagram, Instagram stars are in music videos, YouTubers are making movie money, and movie money is investing in Snapchat.
Fiona Apple was crucified in an attempt to use her time in the clouds to get viewers back to earth, but only (almost) 20 years later, the world she described is a relic of a foreign past where a new artist could sell 3 million albums and still only wind up the second-biggest alt-rock sensation of the moment. Instead we live in the Appleonian future. We’ve gone with ourselves, we’ve become our own idols — so is the world more or less bullshit now?