Fiona Apple was a popular singer when I was a teenager. One song of hers was always on the radio — I’ve been a bad, bad girl, it begins. In the song, she positions herself as both victim and victimizer; she sings about sin and love and redemption. The accompanying video is filmed in a style that was favored at the time, the camera moving mechanically, limited in motion by a fixed track — pan left, pan right, pause, pan up slightly, pan left again, etc., roving around as though searching for evidence. A spotlight is affixed to the camera, lighting up what appears in the center of the frame, the edges falling off to darkness. The set looks like a house, familiar domestic objects can be seen in each scene. The feeling in the video is like after the party, or everyone is coming down, or has come down and is now lying around in a “post” state — post dance, post drugs, post rave, post sex. Energy has been spent, or was never present to spend in the first place.
As the video camera moves across Apple’s face, she holds up a camera and takes a picture. The flash goes off. The camera here is important, for what it signifies — an act of looking, of being seen: she sees the camera, “us,” looking at her, we see her. The spotlight affixed to the video camera is also important, as is the flash on the camera Apple holds. Both are used to light things that would otherwise not be seen, therefore they are, to some extent, coded as secret. They can then be further coded as “dirty,” or “dangerous,” or “sexy,” or “forbidden,” or “explicit,” or “scary,” or “exciting”, or all of the above, depending on what they look at, and how they do that looking. In the video, the spotlight reveals the detritus of this “post” world — bodies, limbs, carpet, a closet, a bedroom, beer bottles.
The video was released in 1997, when heroin chic was popular. Kate Moss and her boyfriend, Johnny Depp, were photographed everywhere; when The Dandy Warhols were told on the radio that the port city they were in was the heroin capital of the world, the singer chuckled in a deep voice, and in all seriousness drawled that is sooooooo cool; the black and white Calvin Klein ads shot by Richard Avedon featured models partially dressed in clothes that were loose on their bodies. Everyone looked tired, distraught; androgyny was in. It makes sense that soon after, the culture turned to Britney Spears, ’N Sync, the Spice Girls, and Backstreet Boys; towards radiant colors and maximal quality of sound; to the fleshiness of youth, maybe its exuberance — the sex was less complicated. It hid its distress, its problems, behind sweetness and feigned innocence.
In the video, the camera moves around and finds Apple, and also parts of the bodies that she is lying around and on. She is beautiful, but angry. She holds the camera’s gaze, and it holds her — she demands to be seen, to be looked at. Her body is an afterthought, something separate even while her beauty depends on it, is embedded in the way it appears unconnected to her. This is the thing that is beautiful — the body depicted as discarded object, which in being discarded becomes an object of desire; in the video, she is the girl who doesn’t care but is beautiful in her not caring. But not caring is different from being sick. She was raped, as we all knew, and we used this somehow to explain her gaunt and sickly appearance. She wears her pain, is what we thought, and we looked on, eagerly. Apple spoke about the anorexia that resulted from her assault, and so in some way we can conclude then that this body here is an anorexic body, and it is being rendered desirable in its disease.
The camera moves over the floor, away from Apple; we see a yellow vacuum cleaner, pieces of half eaten pizza, crumpled pillows, and we return to her, her crotch, as she fiddles with the button and zipper on her pants.
Looking back now, the erotic signifiers are clear — the long, lank hair, the skinny body that was part girl/part woman, tank tops worn without a bra, the small breasts beneath, the hip bones that jutted out in the silky skirts popular at the time, the economy of motion, and the big eyes that remained closed, lost in a private space of solace or pain or mystery or pleasure, or looked at us pleading, wanting, complicated. In the video, she sits on a kitchen counter in lingerie, then stands and takes it off with frustration. She glares at the camera.
This is a construction. I want to talk about it and I’m not sure where to start. I remember watching the video with a group of friends, at a party, and feeling a complicated blend of envy and desire and discomfort. I both wanted Apple and wanted to be her; I wanted also to wear my pain, but I didn’t know who I was hurting for, or what the pain was; I wanted others to want me the way I was wanting her. While watching, something clicked into place, something felt right, and so it became a psychosomatic wrong, the performance of wrong, which you enact until you actually believe it. Or it is there in the first place and you try to find the right form for it, something that makes it real and makes others believe you. You look around to see what looks right, or what image fits the way you feel, and you conform to that image because there is nothing else. Somehow, the just being with it isn’t enough — it has to be visible, because if it can’t be seen, then it must not be real.
I talk to the healthcare professional about this, but don’t know if what she and I talk about is made up, or if it is simply the first time I have tried to put words to something that is not tangible. That is, thought and feeling are rooted in the body, they are of the body, and I wonder where the problem is that I am talking about, if it is on the inside, or if it sits precisely somewhere outside. She always stresses the importance of knowing the self, and asks me to qualify this, what outside means, exactly. How are you feeling? she asks. I tell her that I often feel like I am a manager at an elaborate factory in charge of making this thing run, this thing being a life and body that are “mine.” We talk about this, how alienating this experience is. I like it when my lover lays on top of me, his weight pressing every part of me down. I ask him to lean into me against the wall, press his belly to mine and lean in. Nothing more. This is potentially the most erotic experience I have ever had, feeling all the air come out of me, the effort to pull it all back in again. She waits for me to continue. I tell her that sometimes I feel as though there is another version of me living my life parallel to mine, only living it better, right. This life is just on the other side of a screen that I can’t see. There is a tenuous link between the two, and yet something keeps me rooted here.
I realize how much I pay attention to the bodies of people, women, to communicate what is otherwise not being communicated; looking for an experience that reaches out to confront me, or one that sits below the surface, pulled in, and remains unseen — how this manifests in physical form. In the video for her song Criminal, I watch Fiona Apple’s body and wait for it to tell me how I should feel about her, or towards her, and in this video, the messages are mixed. Her body says that something is wrong, but what she sings is more complicated and as the way she is filmed renders her as a thing, I come back to thinking that her body, in its communicating that something is wrong, is where the attraction lies. Because this is the way the camera asks us to look at her. And it is the vulnerability that it communicates that we are meant to read as beautiful.
In one scene, we see Apple in a bathtub; she is filmed as though we are in the bathtub with her, our chins resting on the surface opposite her, and the male legs that frame her face appear to belong to us. She strokes one of the legs as she sings. The next shot is of her looking distraught, leaning over the lap of a man whose pants are undone. She looks like the girl at the party who had too much and is being coaxed into doing something she doesn’t want to do. Thanks to cellphones and the internet and football and pornography, we are familiar with this kind of face. Why does it exist? Why does this have to be something that we already know when we see it? And then used in a music video of a woman who was raped when she was a child? Back in the bathtub, one of the feet strokes her face.
As teenagers, these were the images that were given to us, and the ones we learned. She was the body that communicates that something is wrong — some internal state is made manifest discretely outside which makes it visible i.e. tangible, therefore real, justified, and she was promoted, sold to us as such. The vulnerability itself was the thing being sold to us — the woman in distress, the woman in pain, the woman in need, and the body rendered desirable by its suffering — this cloaking the familiar dichotomy of prurience/prudishness.
I didn’t like to perform, Hope Sandoval of the band Mazzy Star said. She stood in front of the microphone with her lips just touching it and sang the song, fffaaaaaaaade innnnto you, straaaaaaaaaannnge you neeeever knew. The men in the band played their instruments, wrapped up in their own tasks — no one cared about them, anyways. It is shocking when she starts banging the tambourine against her hip, and I don’t know if the shock comes from surprise that she is moving, or that she can move. It looks like she is resisting the effort, making the motion as small as possible, just enough to get the tiny cymbals to chime. She seems to dislike this movement, or is uncomfortable with it, the way banging the tambourine becomes a whole body effort. So much of her allure lies in the fact that she doesn’t move; she projects complexity in this lack of motion, this frozen interior state. Saying I didn’t like to perform is not acknowledging that her lack of performance was a performance in itself; the one that pulls in instead of pushing out to meet us, everything happening below the surface, which only serves to draw us further in.
In a way I think it might have gone better if I hadn’t been bald, drunk, depressed and jealous. And if, when Travis whispered in my ear move with me, I hadn’t said: To Montreal? When he meant no, now, here, my body. And if afterwards he hadn’t given me an old mini-golf scorecard to wipe the blood off my legs and I hadn’t started crying in the truck on the way home and slammed it into reverse for no good reason going fifty miles an hour, I read in a novel. I remember once speeding around a corner too fast and nearly sideswiping another car. The man next to me laughed and asked if I was trying to kill us. I was not, and I was. I remember thinking that at that moment I would have liked to run into something, or for something to happen. His carelessness, her rage, their sadness, her loneliness. And I feel sad that this text exists, that when I read it for the first time in my early 20s, I was struck by a feeling so devastatingly true. Before reading this I just thought that this was the way it was, that this feeling and the actions that led to this feeling were normal. That my sadness was in fact the thing that was strange, and that this was the thing I somehow needed to fix (because sadness is always a problem).
I looked behind me and watched as you rode away and the fog swallowed you up, a lover once wrote, the morning after we first made love. His sweetness, my confusion. Somehow, this act had softened him, and muted me. This matters because it got in the way, and it still matters because it still does. I wonder if this is just a normal experience — to feel a fluctuating but constant unease with oneself and one’s body; to be perpetually vigilant, to feel out of place, at risk — to spend a life attending to all the lines that keep the life steady, every moment making minute adjustments in order to maintain equilibrium, while simultaneously anticipating any imminent squalls or swells or flotsam or objects or people or anything that may cause an interruption. I wonder if at some point, something went wrong.
This man used to say that he would sometimes ride his bike by bars or places where people gathered at night and not even wish that he could join them, but wish that he wished to join them — this doubly damning desire, wishing for the desire to want something you don’t. He always encouraged me to change. Is it possible to imagine other worlds?
What would you do if you weren’t anxious? the healthcare professional asks me. She says that she thinks that I am living with chronic and debilitating anxiety, and that she doesn’t think I am taking it seriously. We need to be careful to separate the sickness from the rest of the life, she says. We have spoken before about this — keeping things separate, the private life from the public one. But if the sickness is the experience, then what is the real experience, or what are we parsing here? Anxiety is a symptomatic response to conflict, Carol Becker writes. Perception relates to how we do and see things, Robert Ryman said. We write our own narratives, my father said. I knew I was ruined. If I agreed to be female. Eileen Myles wrote in the foreword to Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick — a damning verdict.
I wish I could get wasted; I wish I could skin my knees on the streets when I fall down drunk; I wish I could have sex with a man and the next morning only know that it happened because I’m sore; I wish I could have sex with two men; or two women, or some combination of both; I wish I could have a bad trip; I wish I could pass out in the back of a car with strangers; or cry until everything turns black. Maybe it’s the same trap when the pendulum swings too far in either direction — concave or convex — the experience that pulls in and the one that pushes out. Maybe they are just mirror images, taking opposing forms, but ultimately stemming from the same source.
In a bedroom scene, Apple sprawls across a shirtless man who is not conscious, a victim of one of the various “posts” suggested in the video. The implication here is that she is confessing, she is still conscious, a lone figure in this sea of comatose bodies. Is something wrong with her? Why is she still awake?
There is another man sitting in a chair directly facing the bed. He is positioned between the camera and Apple so when we look at her, we see her the way he sees her. Then a tv comes out of a table and on it, Apple is singing to us in a home video. She is the same age as she is in the video we are watching, and this screen within the screen highlights the levels of looking in the video — the ways she is viewed, rendered as object. This tv makes us aware of the act we are already performing by watching the video. I feel shocked, nearly caught; guilty for having spent so much time looking at her.
I guess this is the turn, the thing that makes it ok; the thing that makes this video intelligent and aware of its own gaze. I don’t think it is enough. The camera pans over a car engine and then Apple is in the car in a sparkly shirt and underwear, singing to us curled up in the back seat. There is motion at least, she moves around, she is restless, even if this restlessness is a performance. We watch as she squirms, performing the discomfort of being looked at, she squirms against us — the movement is read as resistance, even as she smiles. She is quite aware that she is being looked at, and this makes her all the more watchable, more desirable, for saying no in one way, but also saying yes.
Photograph by Fiona Apple, Criminal, 1997