Fiona Apple's 'Tidal' Promised Me The Unknown
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
I listened to Fiona Apple's Tidal for the first time in a hospital bed. Just before I started fifth grade, I suffered a small tear in my appendix — a rare, random occurrence that results in a more gradual release of bacteria into the body than happens when an appendix fully ruptures. When I first went to my pediatrician late that summer with a bright, shooting sensation in my abdomen, he dismissed both my condition and my mother's concern, telling us blithely that it was probably just a stomach virus that was going around. He declined to do a blood test. Had he taken either of us more seriously, he would have detected the potentially lethal infection that was slowly spreading through my body.
I was an athletic kid, then eagerly preparing for another season of soccer, but in the weeks that followed I grew wan and weak. Personal history and pop-cultural narrative have always swirled together in my recollection of the past, so one of the only things I know for sure about the humid, late-August night I was rushed to the emergency room for the first time was that it was also the night Princess Diana died. Everything in my world at that moment felt in transition, careening out of control. Liquefied but also somehow hardening into something past the point of changing. This was not just because of my illness, of course. I was 10, staring down 11, which was, as the writer Melissa Febos so aptly and ominously describes it in her latest book of essays, "the time when my childhood became more distinctly a girlhood."
I do not often revisit that corner of my memory, so even as an adult I never fully understood what made my particular case of appendicitis different and more dangerous than usual. Recently, curious, I Googled "appendix rupture vs. appendix tear." I was startled to find that one of the suggested auto-fills was "appendix rupture vs. menstrual cramps." I thought of that disbelieving pediatrician, of the pain that so many women are always managing silently even as we're being told it can't be that bad, or at least that it's something improper to speak about in public. I felt similarly several years ago, when revelation after coiled-up revelation of sexual misconduct kept unfurling in public, and with it a bilious cascade of emotional pain so many women had been processing privately for years. Sometimes it feels like we are waging constant battles out of sight, fighting villains hitherto invisible. So many of us have been shadowboxers.
My aunt and uncle came to visit me in the hospital and brought the greatest of all possible gifts: a Sony Discman. My dad offered to go out and buy me a few CDs, so I gave him a list. One of the ones he came back with was Tidal. "Sleep to Dream" and "Shadowboxer" had both been hits that year on the alternative rock radio station I listened to, and I'd been drawn to the pearly grumble of Apple's voice. IV still lodged in my bruised left arm, I popped in the CD and gazed at the cover as I listened: A girl with a face as pale and ghostly as I then felt. But her eyes were like that part of the ocean so far out from the shore that it's impossible, and even a little dangerous, to fathom its depths.
"There's too much going on," she sang on the second track, in one of the most beautiful and defiant voices I'd ever heard, as she characteristically pounded her piano like a percussion instrument, "but it's calm under the waves in the blue of my oblivion."
I loved this record partially because at 10, 11, even 12, I didn't feel like I understood all of it. Tidal inundated me with the unknown, promised it had secrets yet to reveal. But most powerfully of all it did what my doctor could not: It validated my experience of pain, and of the strange disjuncture I was just beginning to notice between how I felt internally and how I was perceived externally. "Is that why they call me a sullen girl?" Apple sang. "They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil seas."
I wrote down bits of Tidal's vocabulary to later look up in the dictionary: sullen, undulate, appease, carrion. So many things hovered just outside my understanding at that time. Sometimes when you're young, the weight of all that you don't know can accumulate and rush above your head, making it feel like you're drowning. Apple — who was just 18 when Tidal was released and even younger than that when she wrote it — seemed to understand this, too, but she and her music offered a way out. As she reflected in a Spin cover story in November of that year, "I'm underwater most of the time, and music is like a tube to the surface that I can breathe through. It's my air hole up to the world."
I got better, stronger. After about a month, I was rewarded with the mixed blessing of getting to go back to school. I still listened to Tidal feverishly in my headphones and on my bedroom stereo at home, but my friends didn't particularly care about Fiona Apple. She wasn't pop enough, and anyway, she was already starting to be maligned by the media, reduced to a one-dimensional caricature of a pouting, angsty young girl. That winter — as you did at recess in 1997 — four of my friends and I formed a Spice Girls clique. I was Ginger. I liked her because I thought she was the only Spice Girl whose personality wasn't boxed into a defining adjective. I didn't feel particularly sporty, scary, baby or posh. Sullen Spice? I didn't know what I was.
But — as Apple was then finding out herself, in the spotlight's glare — a girl can only stay undefined for so long. "I had to change my name to Posh," I wrote in my diary a few months later, in June, "because Ginger Spice left the Spice Girls." In my still-forming consciousness, pop culture and internal experience continued to swirl. I think of this now as the beginning of my exile.
"I used to walk down the streets on my way to school, grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible," Fiona Apple sings on "Shameika," a song she released last year on her album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, almost two and a half decades after Tidal. It brings to life her state of mind when she was an alienated schoolgirl and the still-forming lyrics to her debut album were bubbling beneath her surface. "I didn't smile, because a smile always seemed rehearsed," she speak-sings. "I wasn't afraid of the bullies, and that just made the bullies worse."
Fifth grade tripped into sixth for me like a fall from grace. My former best friend and I fell out, and, newly popular, she spread cruel rumors about me that echoed through the hallways for years. I felt alone and underwater almost all the time. It seemed like I was never the right kind of girl. No one could figure out my adjective, but some of my classmates tried to affix some particularly stinging ones onto me. I almost expected such behavior from the boys — I already knew they sucked, and anyway I was starting to recognize the fine line between over-performed disgust and clandestine attraction. But it was the cruelty of other girls that left me marked, and in my lowest moments almost destroyed me. We were all too familiar with the patriarchy's daily attack of death by a thousand cuts, so among ourselves we knew intimately and precisely where to land a fatal blow. Such is the gnarled logic of the mean girl. I inhaled internalized sexism all around me — "she looks like a fat slut," I recorded overhearing one of my female classmates say of a new student in our English class — so I learned to blow it back at my adversaries in the privacy of my diary. Misogyny was all around me then, a toxin thickening the air I breathed.
But there was so much more to me (and, of course, that new girl in English class) than anybody cared to know. I was sullen, yes, sometimes but also silly, joyful, thoughtful, passionate. I wrote stories and made awesome mixtapes. I wanted others to know this, to see all the prismatic, secret sides of me. I wanted to rumble like the elemental, earthquake percussion that opens "Sleep to Dream." Make what was underground come up to the surface, where it could be accurately seen.
Again, I got better, stronger. In eighth grade, in my Humanities class, we were given an assignment that usually terrified introverts like me: We had to memorize our favorite poem and recite it to the class. Even more terrifying than public speaking, somehow, was the thought of choosing something as my favorite and presenting my own idiosyncratic tastes to my peers. But I chose to read "Never Is a Promise," by the poet Fiona Apple. Over the years it had become my favorite song on Tidal, and I didn't have to do any extra work memorizing it since I already knew it by heart. Apple wrote this elegiac, scorched-earth piano ballad when she too was a teenager, about her first real break-up. But I hadn't had a boyfriend yet, so in my mind I directed its spirit of dissent towards the most narrow-minded of my enemies: "You'll never see the courage I know, its colors' richness won't appear within your view." My recitation went well, and I was proud of myself afterwards, but I noticed everyone else picked what the textbooks had told us were poems, Shakespearean sonnets or neatly rhyming couplets. It felt like a small act of bravery to stand in front of my classmates and assert that a song could be a poem, too. Maybe I was a little bit strong after all.
"How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl?" Apple wondered aloud in that Spin profile, considering the aftermath of her own trauma, which caused her to write songs like that one. "How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?"
I am older now, but the ocean of what I don't know is still so vast. Many years later, in a meditation class, an instructor introduced me to another word I'd never heard before: entelechy. It's a Greek philosophical term that roughly translates "the realization of potential." It is the entelechy of a caterpillar to become a butterfly, goes one of the most common examples, or of an acorn to become an oak tree. I also think Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple's long-gestating 2020 masterpiece, is the entelechy of Tidal.
For many years, I found it difficult to listen to some of the songs on Tidal. The hit singles were one thing: They'd drifted through pop culture and taken on lives of their own in movies, on radio airwaves, on the random playlists and Pandora stations that seemed to soundtrack so many of the liminal moments of my life. But a song like "Never Is a Promise" reminded me of the moments when I felt lonely and helpless, as though I'd never find my proverbial gang of Spice Girls and the heavy cloud that followed me would never pass. I ached for a younger version of myself who saw herself so clearly in this song.
So it was a great comfort to me to hear Apple so vividly revisiting a similar period in her own life on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album she made with all the cumulative wisdom of her early 40s. With each song, she seemed to be untangling the knots of her past traumas, and using the lingering pain of her youth to inform some of the most fearless writing of her life. Her language had become blunter and more direct with time, but there was such power to her plainspokenness. "Kick me under the table all you want — I won't shut up," she sings on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an even more spirited and streamlined statement of self than Tidal's "This mind, this body, and this voice will not be stifled by your deviant ways." But, of course, there was now a lifetime of experience animating those hard-won words.
A sentence or lyric that prompts you to flip through a dictionary has its value, of course, but often the truths it takes us decades to express can be told in deceptively simple terms. Here is what I could not say until many years after Tidal came into my life: I was depressed. I'd been bullied. I endured trauma. I never used any of these words to name my experience until I entered therapy in my late 20s, mostly because I preferred to avoid thinking at all about that period of my life. I'd survived, hadn't I? I did not want to believe this dark time had shaped me, or that I had not yet "gotten over" things that seemed to have happened to me so long ago, when I was a girl.
But I have come to believe that our past selves have plenty to teach us. The younger version of me felt so deeply and had such an acute sense of injustice. Her past explains so much of my present experience, like the patterns I repeat without realizing and the feelings that sting me with unexpected sharpness. She holds so many of the keys. Or, when it's necessary to take more drastic measures, she knows exactly where the bolt cutters are stored.
On Tidal, I can now hear Apple similarly forging the tools of her own liberation in the generative fires of youth. When the album came out, a lot of people figured her blazing success would be short-lived, that she would be a one-hit — or at best one-album — wonder forever fixed in the time of her easily dismissible girlhood. In our culture, so few female artists are granted becomings, let alone the gradual kind that take a few patient decades to fully reveal themselves. Plenty of forces tried to inhibit Apple's artistic growth, from the misunderstanding media to the record executives who tried to reshape her sound when they believed it was becoming too strange, unruly and anti-commercial.
But, as she says herself, she didn't shut up. She watered herself and she grew, from a seed to a tall tree bearing the sweet, bitter fruit of knowledge. To me, that seems like a worthy path. Years after learning the word entelechy, I made its connection to my own last name, which comes from the Polish word meaning acorn. I like being so elementally associated with this, a small, rough thing dense with potential. After all, we can only know our past, not our future. Maybe I don't yet have the word for whatever I become.
Lindsay Zoladz is a writer living in Brooklyn and a frequent contributor to the New York Times.
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