Monday, October 3, 2016

1996 - Tidal

Miley Cyrus. Rihanna. Madonna. Year after year pop stars push the boundaries of sexuality. The latest love/disgust combo? The infamous sans pants starlet heard round the world, Miley Cyrus, whose bisexual antics and attention-seeking booty grinds have the world in a Twitter; we cringe/swallow vomit/high-five her sexual bravery, but will it still be shocking 20 years from now? What weird shit will we be into by then?

Back in 1996, Fiona Apple got into hot water (video reference) both in her "Criminal" video and with the press. She got like, you know, tons of attention (90s reference). There are even academic theses devoted to the sexuality presented in the music video. Today, it's still considered one the most controversial music videos of all time, and the sexiest. Why all the fuss? For starters, the entire video follows Fiona in the aftermath of a vaguely raunchy sex party. She croons, "I've been a bad, bad girl," and from the look of things, Fiona isn't having movie night with her galpals. There are legs and clothes strewn among a plush toy with a phallic nose. Fiona is bedecked in a grungy glam ensemble: layer upon layer of lingerie. She rakes her bony fingers over her body in presumed love anguish. What indeed has she done with her lover?

Fiona has been "careless with a delicate man," apparently, "just because she can." (What did you do, Fiona?) Shadows permeate the space while the petite singer wanders the halls staring seductively into the camera with giant, childlike, dark-lashed, doey eyes. Yup. That's an issue that's not-so-ambiguous. Critics agreed she looked more than a bit childlike. Fiona came clean not long after about her anorexia and attributed it to a traumatic rape incident she endured at age 12, though critics still generally felt she was slinking around looking like a Calvin Klein model, rather than making a statement. Sadly anorexia isn't a choice and Fiona contends it still affects her today.

So how does "Criminal" compare to our more modern—and shocking!—music vids? Yeah, "Criminal" oozes sexuality (face it, Fiona is hot as shit), but even with her rogue nipples and sudless bath-time, it's way more subtle than today's straight-up nudity bandied about like so much popcorn. The fact that "Criminal" still raises an eyebrow says something strange about its influence on the ever-evolving confluence of female sexuality and pop music. In retrospect, Fiona is the reason Justin Timberlake had to bring sexy back; Miley's not sexy, just exploitative, looking for the next outrage like a shock jock. Will we all just up the music video ante until our pop song-birds are singing along to their own porn shoot? In a world where nudity is par for the course, how will they ever keep the media hungry for more? Maybe the 2014 cover version of "Criminal" by a two headed circus freak on American Horror Story says it all. "Criminal" isn't a happy record, but a beautiful one. They don't seem to make those anymore.

Of course, with that said, "Criminal" is one of those seminal songs that detract from an LP so fervently as to deem it unnecessary. But Tidal is far from filler for one of the best singles of all time. Fiona Apple's debut is a gift in a world of superficialities, and a standout from the 90s.

The LP's opener, "Sleep to Dream," was written when Fiona was just 14. "I got my feet on the ground, and I don't go to sleep to dream," she sings in her deep, dusky ridiculously sexy voice. "You got your head in the clouds, and you're not at all what you seem." She's frustrated, self-assured and scornful all at the same time. On the one hand it's an innately teenage cocktail of emotions; on the other, it's a barbed brew that anyone who's ever felt under-estimated can empathize. "Sullen Girl," is even more impactful. "Is that why they call me a sullen girl?" she wonders in lyrics that betray a rape at 12. "They don't know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea," she sings, "but he washed me ashore, and took my pearl, and left an empty shell of me." Devastating.

Apple keeps gnawing at us with music that's sometimes grunge-y and sometimes jazzy, but always feels like the work of a true singer-songwriter. Her piano-playing is superb, but truly it's the words that get to you. They're unsparingly raw in their teen honesty. On "Shadowboxer," Apple sings about being played emotionally by someone "cunning" who has "no reverence to my concern" (conversely, on "Criminal," she was obviously the one doing the playing, branding herself the girl who "will break a boy, just because she can"). 

"The First Taste" is so light and vibey you're reminded of Sade, and then Apple's lyrics about the itch of young lust take over to reveal her seductive technique: "I do not struggle in your web/ Because it was my aim to get caught." It's a classic Fiona Apple line: smart, honest, subtly empowered. These songs are feminist because she's singing about who she is and what she's feeling, even when the pictures she paints are not particularly flattering.

They're also feminist because she's so open about her ripening sexuality and its knotty consequences. "The Child Is Gone" is cryptic enough to lend itself to multiple interpretations, but when Apple sings, "Suddenly I feel like a different person/ From the roots of my soul come a gentle coercion," it's hard not to presume she's recalling a sexual awakening. Elsewhere "Never Is a Promise" (which features Apple's most sensitive and textured vocal performance on an album that's full of them), was apparently written after she discovered that the guy to whom she lost her virginity was showing an interest in someone else; universal emotions on the sleeve of a shirt we all wear.

Yet she saves her most brutal imagery for the closer, "Carrion," on which she purrs over brushed snares and strings about her feelings for a guy "Decaying in front of me/ Like the carrion of a murdered prey." Not since 17-year-old Kate Bush's debut have we heard such telling tales of what it means to be a young girl on the verge of womanhood. From a male perspective, it's a set of emotions from which we are removed, outsiders though we're standing right there. Here, somehow, we get it. 

There's a blight of AM10s in the 90s, and then there are those LPs that make up for it. Tidal may be the best of them all, or at least the most sophisticated of the lot.