I found Fiona Apple just when I needed her. I was on the cusp of adolescence, and feeling misunderstood like most eleven-year-old girls do. Except my demons were of the dark variety; my trauma unspeakable. Neither I nor my peers dared whisper about it. Instead, I wrote hundreds of tortured poems, sobbed often into my pillow, and drank myself sick in basements with my delinquent friends; gulping one shot from each bottle in our parents’ liquor cabinets, chasing it all with a splash of orange juice.
It was the summer of 1997 and I spent most of the long, hot days in my bedroom sprawled out across my blue inflatable couch, watching MTV on loop. Those were the peak boy band years when music television was dominated by the likes of Savage Garden, Matchbox Twenty, Backstreet Boys and Sugar Ray. As much as I loved these bands, and dreamt of being saved from my unfortunate life by someone like Rob Thomas or Mark McGrath, they never spoke directly to my experiences.
And then there was Fiona. Her video “Sleep to Dream” nearly blew my developing mind. As I watched her writhe around in agony and pace a dirty apartment (no doubt a symbol for her dark, lonely mind), I saw myself; the deep alto voice, the too-intense feelings, and the big, sad eyes. She’d apparently written “Sleep to Dream” at 14 — not much older than me.
I rushed out to get her debut album, Tidal, on CD as soon as I had an extra fifteen dollars to my name. The day I brought it home, I observed my usual first-listen ritual: I sat on the floor of my room, pressed “play,” and leafed through the album booklet so I could follow along with the lyrics and really grasp the emotional resonance of the songs.
As the second track, “Sullen Girl,” played, I instantly began to leak hot, captive tears. It was as though I was discovering a soulmate I’d never even realized I needed. So many of Fiona’s words could have been written by me, in one my hundreds of journals:
Is that why they call me a sullen girl?
They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea
But he washed my shore, and he took my pearl
And left an empty shell of me
My thousands of poems carried the same themes as her songs: a complicated relationship with my body, even more complicated relationships with the opposite sex, and finally, a desperate desire to be seen, loved and accepted.
Fiona gave me music that hit me right in my heartstrings and told me I wasn’t alone. Because of her, I knew there were other people out there in my sad sorority. Even more encouraging, I learned that from our kind of pain could come beauty; the beauty of four chords on a piano with just the right words — just the right voice — to take the listener on the journey, too.
That fall, when Fiona Apple ascended the VMA stage and made her now-infamous speech (“This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself.”) I was stupefied. Here was a young woman who’d written a flawless, virtuosic album in her teens and who still managed to be so absurdly cool and glamorous in her refusal to play by the rules. How dare she do everything I longed to do? I wanted to know her. I wanted to be her.
Throughout the years, the themes of her albums nearly always coincided with my own experiences. It almost felt as though we were living life — and healing from its subsequent wounds — in tandem. Her music was there for me through it all: childhood trauma, bullying and alienation from my peers, an emotionally abusive relationship, multiple sexual assaults and losing my mother at 27.
Fiona saved my life. She made me feel so much less alone. She showed me I could have a unique voice in a world that didn’t appear to value me. She proved with her own journey that I, too, could be smart and sexy and talented and take no shit and be my own person; I could make art the way I wanted to make it, without bowing down to the bullshit world of “the man.”
These days, I’m in a much better place. But I still turn to Fiona when I need her, especially in my darkest times. There’s something special about an artist that you can lean on when everything goes wrong. They stay by your side like an old friend, reminding you, “you’re not the first to feel this way and you won’t be the last. This is what it is to be human.”
I will always be indebted to Fiona Apple, my ultimate lady-hero, for that.