Three years ago, a friend of mine recommended I check out alternative singer-songwriter and pianist Fiona Apple. But first, he suggested I watch her famous speech from the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards.
She had just won Best New Artist. But instead of reading through a long list of people she’d like to thank, as musicians typically do at award ceremonies, Fiona Apple chose to deliver a statement about society.
My friend told me to watch the video because Fiona Apple started with a quote by Maya Angelou — an author and poet we both adore.
“Maya Angelou said that we as human beings at our best can only create opportunities,” Fiona Apple said. “And I’m going to use this opportunity the way that I want to use it.”
In her speech, Fiona Apple stressed the importance of resisting the urge to stifle your true self for the sake of being accepted.
“You shouldn’t model your life about what you think we think is cool,” she said.
Instead, she suggested her fans embrace their individuality: “Go with yourself.”
After watching the video of her speech, I immediately admired her personality. She exuded honesty and originality, and I was excited to get to listen to her music. I started with “Tidal,” her debut album from 1996.
I felt a weight tugging at my heart as I listened to “Sullen Girl.” “It’s calm under the waves,” she sings, “in the blue of my oblivion.” Her sadness landed heavily on the piano keys.
And what starts as a haunting melody in “Pale September” blooms into a beautiful song about emotional vulnerability: “All my armor falling down, in a pile at my feet, and my winter giving way to warm, as I’m singing him to sleep.”
I found “Tidal” to be profound and complex. Her talent was impressive for her age, many critics said — citing the fact that she was only 18 years old at the time of its release. I was 19 when I first discovered it, so her age didn’t matter much to me. I believed it was great music, regardless.
As I gradually found the rest of Fiona Apple’s albums, I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to hear them when they first came out.
Two years ago, during the 20-year anniversary of “Tidal,” plenty of older fans took to music blogs and other websites to reminisce about the album’s release. They expressed finding joy, reassurance and courage in Fiona Apple’s lyrics. But some people’s praise felt more like backhanded compliments.
People voiced admiration for her music, but some were also dismissive — deeming “Tidal” a product of teenage angst that was simply a good soundtrack for their rebellious high school phases.
This disappointed me. How could someone’s understanding of such a talented, mature artist be so reductive and limited?
I can admit I’ve had times where I associated a song with a specific phase. I remember two summers ago when I desperately tried and failed to breathe life back into a crumbling relationship. I put “Not About Love” on repeat, a song from Fiona Apple’s 2005 album “Extraordinary Machine.”
“This is not about love, ‘cause I am not in love,” Fiona Apple declared. I sang along until it felt real — searching for a solution in her confident voice, the clash of cymbals, piano and thumping drums.
But even after I stepped out of that phase, my affection for Fiona Apple’s music did not dwindle. Because Fiona Apple has always expressed such a wide array of emotions to which I could relate, my respect for her music evolved instead.
As I’ve reached womanhood, I’ve especially admired Fiona Apple’s willingness to explore anger in her music. I’ve learned being able to talk about rage rather than be forced into silence is not just liberating, but also necessary.
In “Limp,” a song from her 1999 album “When the Pawn,” Fiona Apple confesses to an aggressor, “You feed the beast I have within me. … You fondle my trigger, then you blame my gun.”
The piano is steady and deliberate as she considers this truth. Then the song accelerates as she reacts, trusting that the tables will turn.
“It won’t be long till you’ll be lying limp in your own hand,” she sings.
Instead of passively going along with the unreasonable demands of others — something women are often conditioned to do — Fiona Apple put emphasis on confronting what’s unfair. Thinking about the social spaces I inhabit as a woman, I was moved by her ability to step up and move on from a situation that was not serving her.
And her choice to stand up for herself echoes the advice she shared during her VMA speech: “Go with yourself.”
My friend and I still reflect on this piece of wisdom, quoting lyrics and reminding each other to stay true to ourselves when we have a dilemma.
These past few years, I’ve come to realize the truisms, affirmations and emotions embedded in Fiona Apple’s music are applicable to more than temporary hardships.
Instead, her music has become a consistent rhythm and source of inspiration in my day-to-day life. And I plan on continuing these lessons with me.