SPIN · Nov '97
by John Weir
|Pop's newest star is
barely 20, still lives with her parents, and doesn't have a driver's license. So what is
Fiona Apple doing half-naked all over MTV? John Weir puts Girl Culture's great
controversialist on the couch.
Pop stars are different
from you and me. They figure out early on that the most interesting person they know is
themselves. All teenagers are natural pop stars, and so are most Americans,
especially if they grew up being promised a dollop of fame in exchange for their
misery. Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.
you talking about me?" she says. Her eyes are heavily outlined in liner
and shadow, and in profile she looks like Dresden china crossed with Marilyn Manson.
"Because if you're talking about me, then it's not about 'a
place you go.' Making music, I mean. It's about a place
you get out of. 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. If I
didn't have the music I'd be under water, dead."
Later, she does her number. Afterwards she's surrounded by a gaggle of flatterers and business associates watching her closely and telling her how good she was. Apple isn't impressed. She's standing in the middle of the crowd, clutching a red rose and saying, "Don't appease me." Then she goes with Slater into another room to have the kind of tense, hushed conversation that parents have with their brilliant, excitable children.
Fiona Apple was raised Fiona Maggart -- Apple is from her grandmother, her dad's mom. Until about a year and a half ago, she was a neighborhood kid, and her 'hood was the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Currently, she doesn't have a home of her own. Blaine's homeless too, so when the two of them are together, they end up wherever. When she's on tour, her home is a bus. In L.A., she stays with her dad. But in New York, she stays with her mom, in the apartment where she grew up. It's uptown, near Columbia University and the borderline of Harlem. Riverside Church is nearby, where Spike Lee got married, and so is Grant's Tomb, and you can walk to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Fiona and her older sister, Amber, appeared in holiday pageants.
On a Sunday night, a few days after the Leno shoot, Apple is taking me on a hometown tour, crisscrossing upper Broadway from Columbia down to 89th Street. Columbia is where Apple and her friends hung out together one summer. That was 1993, when Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? was the hot sound, and Apple and her teenage gang, broke and bored, scammed cabs up and down West End Avenue. They sometimes went into stores and took things. "You can do it if you have the right attitude," she says. "I'd go to the cashier and hold up a can of soda or something and say, 'I'm taking this, okay?' It always worked. I mean, I was a kid, I couldn't afford stuff."
Heading down Broadway, we run into friends of hers from grammar school, get stared at by surprised fans, and shop for vegan snacks at a health food store where the guy behind the counter only knows her as a local kid who won't eat anything with eggs in it. Then we hop the subway back up to her mom's place. "I'll never not take the subway," she says, "no matter how famous I am. If it reaches the point where I have to wear disguises, I will." To reach her apartment, we pass by black kids throwing a ball around in the August heat. Apple grew up listening to street rap and the soul-searching of college sophomores. It's a combination that shows up on her album, with introspective lyrics posed against a hip-hop beat.
Her mom's apartment is as big and cozy as you can get in New York without a trust fund. It's got a view of the Hudson River, high ceilings, exposed brick walls, sleeping lofts, a kitchen open to the living room's climbing plants, mood lighting, and an upright piano with a sticker on it saying, PEACE THROUGH MUSIC. We crash on the living room couch and she tells me stories: She woke up so angry one morning recently that she kicked a hole in the ceiling above her sleeping loft. When she was a little girl at St. Hilda's School, she went through a phase where her sister Amber was the Queen and she was the Dog, and lots of classmates were mean to her. She calls this period Dog Time. Once, at Amanda Wheaton's tenth birthday party, some guys made ten-dollar bets with one another to ask her to dance, so they could reject her when she said yes -- the plot of "Criminal" reversed. She got mad and poured a bucket of cold water on them.
Her mom walks in the door, home from a bicycle ride. She comes in the room quickly and breathlessly, a funny, overgrown kid, kind of like her daughter. Unlike Apple, however, she doesn't seem to worry what people think of her. A line from "Never Is A Promise" might be addressed to her: "Your presence dominates the judgements made on you." Apple's mother knows how to handle attention. Graceful as a dancer in her summer dress, she's got a lot of long black hair and an instant, quotable joke for the visiting journalist. "There's Fiona, my candle-burning vampire child, who stays up all night long and gets phone messages from Marilyn Manson," she says. "Every mother's dream." Actually, the name on the message pad is "Michael Jackson," Manson's current alias. Mom floats away, and Apple and I compare zany mother stories. She says, "Does your mom do stuff like this?" She runs off and comes back with some dolls her mother made. They're two-foot long anatomically correct multicultural knit yarn dolls, African and Asian and Hawaiian, with nipples and pubic hair and little yarn penises, and one with a pink vagina. After that, she shows me her old high school yearbooks, just to show that her childhood had it's totally ordinary side.
Then suddenly she's talking about when she was raped. She doesn't wait to be asked about it; she just quietly tells me, sitting forward in an overstuffed chair with her feet splayed but her back straight and her head tipped down.
"I was in the hall," she says, "home from school. It was the day before Thanksgiving, 1989. I got off the elevator, and this guy came toward me, and I remember thinking that he wanted to hurt me." When she says "hall" and "elevator," she means the ones right outside the apartment where we're sitting. A few minutes earlier, I watched her look both ways when the elevator door opened, checking to see if anyone was out there.
"So I thought I'd better memorize what he looked like," she says. "In order to tell people later. Except, he kept coming toward me, and for some reason I started kind of hallucinating, like he was somebody else. He was Jimi Hendrix. Okay? I know that's weird. But I was a big Hendrix fan at the time, and I flashed on that. I was just getting over Dog Time, so it was like this turning point.
"Afterwards, I went out to L.A. to live with my father and go to high school because I was scared. I was scared for a long time. I didn't make any friends in California, so I came home, and took this self-defense course, 25 hours of it, five hours a day for five days, just fighting as hard as I could. And I told myself, I have to fight my way back. Because after the rape, I thought I was supposed to have died. I fought for that, I fought to be alive, I fought for here," she says, as if to indicate what she got in return: all the hype, the interviews, the guest appearances, the photo shoots. As she said back in Los Angeles, "I'm impressed with myself for getting here, but I'm not so impressed with here."
She's already cried by the time I reach the photo studio in downtown Manhattan, which is crowded with onlookers, including a bunch of Apple's friends from high school. There's catered food, huge windows, a sound system, and a black leather couch. Apple is standing behind some flats, out of sight with just her publicist and some stylists and the photographer. I hang on the couch with her friends. They're all about 19 or 20, but like Apple, they're such a wild combination of innocence and experience that it's impossible to pinpoint their actual age. We feed hip-hop music into the CD player, mostly Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death, and go watch Apple get photographed.
She's standing there, staring hard at the photographer, who's saying, "Give me sexy, seduce me." I can see why she hates photo shoots. "There's no hope for women, there's no hope for women, there's no hope for women," she says during a break, like she's the white girl rapper speaking out for her homies. She's full of the ghetto fatalism she learned from black performers like Tupac, who died on her birthday, and Biggie Smalls.
Later, the shoot moves upstairs and I'm sitting with Apple's friend Chris when she runs into the room in a Blanche du Bois house-slip, falls to her knees in front of us in a supplicating crouch, lifts her head like she's looking at a vision of the Virgin Mary, and says -- confesses -- in her whiskey voice, "I know I'm going to die young."
"Drama," Chris says in italics.
"No," Apple says, insisting. "No." She sees that the Spin guy is sitting there with his pad on his lap taking notes, and this seems to be the image she wants to leave with him. There's urgency, anger, honesty, and a kind of brutal longing in her face, her voice, her arms tensed at her sides, her fingers laid flat and stiff on her thighs like rigor mortis is already setting in. She's been given a chance to be heard and she's terrified that now, instead of a handful of people not understanding her in grammar school, she's going to be misunderstood worldwide.
"I mean, it's not like I'll run home right now and shoot myself," she says. "But I know, I 'm going to cut another album, and I'm going to do good things, help people, and then I'm going to die."
It's a fact, not a complaint. She's certain. What she's certain about isn't her power but her vulnerability. Or rather, she makes you rethink your understanding of power. I remember her saying that the guy who raped her was much weaker than she was. "How much strength does it take to hurt a little girl?" she asked. "How much strength does it take for the girl to get over it? Which one of them do you think is stronger?"
She is strong enough to admit she's a mess. In fact, she may be the world's first self-demoting pop star. "It's impossible for me to be happy, psychologically and chemically impossible," she says, still kneeling on the floor. "So I'm going to help some little girl out there. I'm going to let her know that I have stretch marks on my ass, and bunions, that I don't have my shit together. I want to give that girl some hope. I want her to know that she doesn't have to have her shit together. She doesn't. It's okay if she doesn't. I'm going to prove that, and then I'm going to die." fin