Fiona Apple is an entertainment industry's nightmare, a stubborn embodiment of unyielding originality—even when she raises eyebrows. Decades after she first rose to fame for her debut album Tidal, Apple's critically acclaimed fifth studio album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, garnered three nominations at the 2021 Grammys. Besting the likes of indie darling Phoebe Bridgers to win Best Alternative Music Album, Apple emerged from an eight–year music hiatus with a bang—and yet decided to skip the ceremony altogether.
Apple has long resisted the more traditional frills of fame during her illustrious career, most notably with her 1997 VMA acceptance speech in which she literally called bullshit on the idea of "coolness" and conformity. It was shocking at the time to say the least, and if the triple–platinum buzz for Tidal created the ripples that led to her VMA Best New Artist win, her acceptance speech created a tsunami.
Public perception turned viciously to attack the then 19–year–old fledgling star, as it so often does with young women in the entertainment industry. Publications labeled her ungrateful and faux–deep, with NY Rock calling it "One of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event." Comedian Janeane Garofalo even went as far as to write a scorching parody in which she skewered Apple's speech, love life, and eating disorder.
Reactions to Apple's speech came on the heels of controversy about her music video for "Criminal," and at first glance, comparing her music video and her speech seems hypocritical. How could Apple call bullshit on the entertainment world and then produce a video so deeply entrenched in typical standards for women in the music industry?
"Criminal" is both similar to many music videos and to none at all. Apple slinks around a grungy house, starts undressing in a dimly lit kitchen, and poses with different anonymous bodies. She croons, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” to bluesy bass riffs, and paints a subverted narrative in which she doesn't reject the archetype of a luring seductress—she embraces it. We're used to seeing women portrayed this way in music videos, but Apple attempts to regain agency over this age–old role, explaining that, "If I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself."
Even though Apple made this self–referential decision on her own, public reception to the video still stifled her attempted expression of autonomy. The same way her message at the VMAs was overshadowed by unrelated critiques, especially those about her body, the public chose to focus on her appearance. Critics of "Criminal" labeled Apple an "underfed Calvin Klein model," sparking comments on her slight figure.
Apple was only barely a legal adult when she released the music video, just a handful of years older than she was when she was sexually assaulted outside of her home. The traumatic incident led to an eating disorder, which she said wasn't "about getting thin, it was about getting rid of the bait that was attached to my body."
Food had become distorted from a source of nourishment to a liability, something that could potentially make her body more appealing to the predatory male gaze. Apple walks the line of purposefully playing into the male fantasy, but her audience saw it as an invitation to prey on the contentiously raw and painful topic of her body image.
"Criminal" is fearless in this way. Apple recognizes the confined box that limits many women in entertainment and runs with it: She is a seductress, a siren–like nymph. Her music video exudes an uncomfortably seedy quality that makes viewers squirm in their seats. We feel voyeuristic, put on the spot. We watch off–putting close and personal scenes saturated with obvious tones of sexuality. We're uncomfortable and Apple knows it—she's engineered it to be this way. She snaps a photo of the viewer at the very start of the music video: We see her, watch her, consume her—but she sees us too.
Throughout the music video, male figures are presented only as body parts, a complete role reversal of the way MTV relegated countless female artists to the background where they danced, faceless, for the majority of the late '80s and '90s. Halfway through the video, Apple poses with a shirtless man, the camera only capturing his body. He is headless and anonymous; this simple, seconds–long shot effectively reduces this man into a body prop for our viewing enjoyment, a subversion of the genre we have come to expect with sexualized music videos.
Apple's lyrics serve as a self–directed warning, a guilty reminder that she doesn't have to wield her sexuality like a weapon or play into the male gaze in order to get what she wants. She's apologetic for her actions but simultaneously hints that it's a compulsive, desperate bid for power: "It's a sad, sad, world / When a girl will break a boy just because she can."
The complexities of Apple's seemingly irreconcilable music video, song lyrics, and VMA speech drew the ire of many and reduced her to a Lolita fantasy. But Apple is sexualizing herself while also taking up space, defiantly proving sexuality doesn't take away from the power of being a whole person, one who is multidimensional and complicated. Seductress and feminist are not mutually exclusive.
“Criminal” exposes the darkest voyeuristic nature within all of us as consumers. Years after Apple broke into the mainstream, we can see major examples of music videos that display sexuality at the forefront—but there's a difference between male authority figures reducing women to their bodies and women choosing to reclaim their bodies or make a statement.
Even with years of experience in the public eye, Apple hasn't strayed from her roots with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, sharply writing about her assault and commenting on the same world she lambasted back in her 1997 VMA speech. "Relay" pushes the cyclical nature of hurt against a frantic, intense rhythm while touching on topics like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, her own assault, and the insincerity of social media and coolness. Apple's issues with social media manifested in a low profile and relatively reclusive life, but her impact is still present and tangible. Countless people who saw and understood her messages are now living through a time of reckoning within the music industry and beyond—and we're still calling bullshit.