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Apple in Agony

Fiona Apple
Mathew Ralston

Lighten Up: Angst-ridden recording sensation Fiona Apple obsesses about her boyfriends on her debut album, 'Tidal,' in ways that are unseemly even for a 19-year-old.

Love-tortured Fiona's not the only 19-year-old with something to say; Lauren Hoffman also knows what it means to be young

By Gina Arnold

YOU MAY not have heard of her yet, but Fiona Apple is what passes for a success in this, one of the dreariest eras in the record business ever. Her debut album, Tidal (Work/Sony), released last fall, has been on the charts for 40 weeks; she has recorded an MTV Unplugged; done a stint opening on the Wallflowers tour; and her own tour--which reaches Santa Cruz July 1 and San Jose two days later--has been quite a success, particularly given the terrible state of rock touring.

But for all that, Apple hasn't quite managed to distinguish herself yet from the host of similar young, pretty, female singer/songwriters who populate the charts these days. Like most of those women, Apple has experienced a success so sudden that her fourth performance ever was televised--so sudden that even rock critics have a hard time figuring out who she really is.

I recently emailed a colleague in the hope he'd seen her perform live and could say what she was like, but his response was resigned rather than informative.

"What do I know about Fiona Apple?" he wrote back rhetorically. "She's 19, has big lips, and her boyfriend is a magician. And like everybody else, she writes songs that are 'unflinchingly candid and frankly sexual.' In short, absolutely nothing."

Further research revealed that Apple only uses her first and middle names; she resides in Manhattan; her parents are actors; she was raped at 11 and in psychotherapy at 12. "In short," I emailed back to my friend, "she's a cross between Tori Amos, the Throwing Muses' Kristin Hersh and Liv Tyler."

Apple probably doesn't deserve to be ridiculed either for her earnestness or for her rapid success, and yet, with a biography like that, it's hard not to be flippant. Also, one listen to Tidal, with its endless succession of maundering ballads on the grand piano, does little to mitigate the idea that she is both industry-manufactured and utterly pretentious.

Her hits, "Sleep to Dream" and "Criminal," are quite conventional folky ballads that delve into Alanis Morissette territory--slightly less enraged but equally earnest.

To her credit, in a recent issue of Spin, Apple is quoted as saying, "I'm sure five years from now, I'll probably look back on the things I'm doing now and cringe." Unfortunately, that remark doesn't spare us from cringing for her now--particularly at her lyrics.

"Oh, it's evil, babe, the way you / let your grace enrapture me," she sings on "Shadowboxer." On "Slow Like Honey," she turns repetition into rhyme: "You came near to me, and you endeared to me, / but you couldn't quite discern me."

On "The Child Is Gone," thesaurus in hand, she continues, "From the roots of my soul come a gentle coercion / and I ran my hand o'er a strange inversion." And finally, from "Carrion": "My feel for you, boy, is decaying in front of me / like the carrion of a murdered prey / and all I want is to save you, honey, / or the strength to walk away."

In addition to noting the awkwardness of her turn of phrase, one can't help but think that Apple's level of obsession about her boyfriends is a little inappropriate. Most 19-year-olds work through this pretentious "po-try" stuff privately, but Apple has lucked out a bit, since in the record industry, 19 is the magic age right now. Alanis was 19 when she wrote "Jagged Little Pill"; Jewel was 19 when she was signed (though she owns up to age 23 now).

And now there is Fiona, who--judging by her songs--has also had an awful lot of affairs already. Of course, it's not their fault. These women are only 19--but as I listen, I find their insights into life just don't ring true. Their music inevitably makes me want to listen to Big Mama Thornton, Edith Piaf, Patti Smith, Patsy Cline--women over 30 whose experience is audible, believable, deep.

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Official Sony site.

One of many fan sites.

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NOT ALL 19-year-olds are as love-struck and clichéd as Apple, however. Lauren Hoffman is a 19-year-old whose debut record, Megiddo, is quite a bit quirkier than those of either Apple or Jewel--not to mention more likable. Like them, she may play older than she really is, but lyrics like those for the song "Rock Star," a paean to Kurt Cobain, are much more in keeping with the things that today's real 19-year-olds think about.

Moreover, her record--which was produced by Cracker's David Lowery--is a lot more fun, full of cheesy keyboards, lo-fi rock tricks, fuzzy guitar and unnecessary "la-las." Hoffman has her earnest moments, but they don't translate to one long grand-piano solo, as Apple's do.

Hoffman hasn't lived that long, but at least it sounds as if she's listened to a lot of records in her few years, and I'd take that experience over Apple's agonies any day.


Fiona Apple performs Tuesday (July 1) at the Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 16 and over; tickets are $17 adv./$18.50 dr.; (408/423-1336); and Thursday (July 3) at 8pm at the San Jose State University Event Center; tickets are $20; (BASS).

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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