Fiona Apple’s reckoning, 24 years in the making

By Joshua Sokol, Staff Writer

At the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, a 20-year-old Fiona Apple took the stage to accept her award for “Best New Artist in a Video.” She won the award for her music video, “Sleep to Dream,” leaving her mark as a unique, powerful and melancholic face of 1990’s baroque pop. Apple wasted no time accepting the award, and declared herself a force to be reckoned with, ending her acceptance speech with the ever-lasting, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life after what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing or what we’re saying. Go with yourself.

She was pinned as unhinged, unprofessional and ungrateful for the fact that she had received critical acclaim at such a young age. But in reality, this moment set a tone, leading the charge against scrutiny, to define yourself on your own terms. Never tolerating the “bullshit” of the power-dominated world we live in, she became a 21st century Joan of Arc, not afraid of a little fire.

Now, in 2021, Apple is not finished reckoning with the powers-that-be in the music industry, cutting up the big suits that dominate the money and influence of the songs we hear on the radio. Fighting a culture war where the masculine ethos dominates and compassion—and by extension, empathy—is seen as a weakness. 

Apple’s fifth studio album, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” is an impassioned series of songs that have their lyrical and musical roots in forging the tools for personal liberation. The memories of being blacklisted after the 1997 VMA speech make their appearance as Apple sings on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” “I thought being blacklisted would be grist for the mill, until I realized I’m still here.” Apple has never shied away from the fight for freedom, and this year is no different.

On being blacklisted, “That [lyric] was improvised. I didn’t feel like I’d been blacklisted in my career,” Apple said in an interview with The Guardian. “I want to be completely honest but I can’t because I have to fucking protect people that I don’t even like.” 

To bring home this message and dedication to liberation, Apple partnered with Seeding Sovereignty, a collective working to aid Indigenous communities in the fight against COVID-19 after the government failed to provide them with adequate support. As a small portion of these efforts, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” features a land acknowledgment. The album states, “made on unceded Tongva, Mescalero Apache and Suma territories.”

When the 2020 Grammy Award nominations were announced, Apple was nominated for Best Alternative Music Album, Rock Performance and Rock Song. Most artists crave this sort of validation from the Recording Academy. It’s a marker that the work they bring into this world has an impact beyond their fan base. But for Apple, this year’s Grammy nominations meant something completely different. The struggles of good versus evil and power versus freedom were as apparent as ever.

The controversy of this year’s awards stems from the fact that Doja Cat’s hit song “Say So,” which was nominated for Record of the Year, topped radio charts and social media alike, was produced by Lukasz Gottwald, professionally known as Dr. Luke. The producer is credited in the song’s production under a pseudonym “Tyson Trax.” In 2014, singer-songwriter Kesha sued Dr. Luke on the basis of sexual harassment as well as sexual assault and battery. These lawsuits continued up until 2016, where they were then dismissed due to the statute of limitations, according to Spencer Kornhaber. Justice for Kesha was never formally found in this case.

Despite this, Gottwald maintained a career in the music industry, painting an obscene and frankly shameful picture of wealthy male privilege in every aspect of our culture. As of December 2020, Gottwald is now suing Kesha for defamation and breach of contract.

Apple, in response to the nomination of “Say So,” recalls Kesha’s live performance of her song “Praying” at the 2018 Grammy awards, a song believed to be about the singer breaking the shackles she was bound to under Gottwald.

“I keep going back to them putting Kesha on stage like, ‘We believe you’—and I believe her—then two years later, fucking Tyson Trax.” Apple said in an interview with The Guardian. “Not to go back to that word, but it’s bullshit.” 

In the same interview, Apple confronts the question of what she would do if she were to win any of the awards (spoiler, she won two: Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Performance), taking no prisoners with her response in usual Fiona Apple fashion.

My vision was that I would just get up there with a sledgehammer and I wouldn’t say anything, I would take the Grammy and smash it into enough pieces to share, and I would invite all the ladies up,” Apple said.

This declaration of destruction is allegorical in nature. Apple declares to take the Grammy award, a physical embodiment of power and influence, and break it apart, distributing it to all those who make it a possibility. In doing this, Apple emphasizes the part of her mission that is putting power back into the hands of those who create and seek women’s autonomy, in the art that they make and seizing their means of production. Fetching their bolt cutters, per say.

In 2004, before the release of her third studio album, “Extraordinary Machine,” Apple almost decided to call music quits once and for all. She had recorded the album with producer Jon Brion but ended up in a disagreement with her label at the time, Sony—which is coincidentally the same label Kesha had worked with Dr. Luke under. This resulted in Apple’s fans sending thousands of foam apples to Sony corporate offices in protest, which was soon coined the “Free Fiona” campaign. Apple was prompted to re-record the album with bassist and producer Mike Elizondo, and it was finally released in 2005, three years after its conception.

It’s a double-edged sword to celebrate Apple’s wins. On one hand, it’s important to respect her wishes as an artist (what truly matters) and realize that the Grammys—or any awards show for that matter—are truly inconsequential in determining artistic merit, and by most standards, are highly performative. On the other hand, it’s gratifying to see the artists whose work you love gain recognition, even though Apple is already a well-established artist in her own right, away from institutions of validation. 

As for the acceptance of her awards, Apple opted to skip out on the awards ceremony. In a video posted on Stereogum’s Twitter, Apple said that she chose to stay off national television as an act of self preservation. The singer-songwriter has struggled with drug use in the past, and said that she cannot stay sober if she were to be compared to others and scrutinized. “I’m just not made for that kind of stuff anymore,” Apple said.

Apple took the rest of the video to advocate for transparency in courtrooms across the country. She urged viewers to sign an online petition that keeps the virtual access to courtrooms open for court watchers. Apple said, “Why are they trying to shut us out? What don’t you want us to see?” 

In a world where the speech and freedom of artists, particularly women, in the public eye is often limited, Apple rages against this. She fights for transparency in all respects, bringing truth to light in a crystal-clear fashion. She is unbound and unafraid to uproot the evils that have been planted in the commercial music industry, and uses her platform to uplift marginalized communities. She has found her freedom, setting a trend to make artistic liberation an attainable goal.