By the time Lana del Rey released her album Born to Die in January, the discourse around her had swirled hard enough that critics merely had to push back for an angle. Many of the reviews served as backlash to the backlash regarding her persona, her inadequacy as a performer, and her deeply frivolous lyrics. Some of the best (/-paid) thinkers about pop music responded to her antagonist, the Internet, to say that it didn't matter if she changed her name from Lizzy Grant and obscured the real her with "gangster Nancy Sinatra" posturing. The biggest sham in question wasn't del Rey but the entire notion of "authenticity."
In The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones neatly summed up the debate and the critical consensus:
Why is pop music the only art form that still inspires such arrantly stupid discussion? The debates that surround authenticity have no relationship to popular music as it's been practiced for more than a century. Artists write material, alone or with assistance, revise it, and then present a final work created with the help of professionals who are trained for specific and relevant production tasks. This makes popular music similar to film, television, visual art, books, dance, and related areas like food and fashion. And yet no movie review begins, "Meryl Streep, despite not being a Prime Minister, is reasonably convincing in The Iron Lady."
OK, but five months later, we are in the midst of an authenticity renaissance led by Fiona Apple. Her fourth album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, was released this week to universal acclaim that almost always mentions, if not centers on, Apple's unflinching honesty and her music's role as a conduit for her truth. She's out Joni-ing Joni. In reviews, multiple critics have used imagery of bones and marrow to describe Apple's self-excavation and perhaps echo her own words in the first single (if that's what you want to call it), "Every Single Night": "That's when the pain comes in / Like a second skeleton / Trying to fit beneath the skin." Another line from that song is the go-to reference regarding Apple's unquiet mind and its manifestation: "I just want to feel everything."
- "You learn a lot about Fiona Apple by what she chooses to reveal in the lyrics to her new album," says the Los Angeles Times.
- "In a world of animated-GIF reaction shots and retweets turning human expression into a nuance-obliterating, endlessly self-cannibalizing, pop-culture-referencing semaphore system, Apple's willingness (or maybe the correct word is need) to dig deep and pick the scabs, to excavate the black gunk that has settled at the bottom of one's heart after so long, is a welcome shock," says the Village Voice.
- "She's still here, brave enough to indulge in raw emotion and smart enough to make those feelings carry," says Pitchfork.
- "Apple turns herself inside out," says the A/V Club.
- "There's room to hear her parakeet heart beating wildly, feeling every emotion," says Entertainment Weekly.
- "You don't want to live through this, per se, but there is something liberating about bearing witness to someone so unrepentantly fucked-up; she is the martyr-saint, crucifying herself so that we might live dramz-free," says Spin.
On The Idler Wheel, Apple's music comes virtually unadorned, with just a piano and some leftfield, often found-sound percussion from Charley "Seedy" Drayton supporting her orchestra of vocals. There's nothing there to obscure the emotion. "I wanted to make everything as stark as possible, so you could hear everything," she told the New York Times in a feature that ran last month. And we feel it, unmistakably. She hollers and shrieks and moans and declares, "How can I ask anyone to love me / When all I do is beg to be left alone?"
She corroborated the solitude in New York magazine's recent Apple profile, as brilliant a companion piece to its tie-in album as ever there were. The result of several days writer Dan P. Lee spent with Apple, on different coasts, the article co-signs a lot of Apple's lyrical claims, as well as the outside interpretation that Apple's m.o. is to transmit the signals in her head. "She believed that sharing her story — all of her story — would also make herself feel better. It did not," writes Lee.
Sometimes these signals are scrambled and not even she is sure of their veracity. Lee describes Apple's enrollment in "a visual-perception course at the New School, which explored the science behind how the eyes interact with the brain. She'd wanted, she said, ‘scientific proof that I could be wrong about what I was seeing about myself.'"
That's tremendously honest, too, while exemplifying the slippery nature of honesty. Feeling something doesn't make it so. "What I am is what I am / ‘Cause I does what I does," sings Apple in "Every Single Night," and what she does is make weird, melodically irreverent, expertly sung songs brimming with language that translates truth to metaphor so that it can be more deeply understood. (From "Valentine": "I'm amorous but out of reach / A still life drawing of a peach / I'm a tulip in a cup / I stand no chance of growing up.") Where we the people are concerned, Fiona Apple is primarily a singer-songwriter.
The Idler Wheel largely avoids clichés and it finds its creator engaged with every note, which makes it more arresting than something as blasé as del Rey's Born to Die. But it's also a product of the packaging that Frere-Jones describes above, and a savvy one at that. If Fiona Apple's an oddball, a weirdo, a chafe against the grain, she picked no better time than to show the full extent of it. She reenters pop culture after seven years to find it teeming with self-conscious freakism that advertises itself in neon wigs and exclamatory non sequiturs. Apple's back with her brain and octopus hat to show ‘em how it's done. Timing is everything in showbiz.
Elsewhere in the Times article, she says, "If I have one success in my relationship history it's with the people who listen to my music," she said. "I think that they'll be there with me forever, and I'll be there with them forever. And I'm totally satisfied with that." And that, the tangible bond between the audience and the artist and her need for it, is about as real as it gets.