Because this MTV Unplugged blew the world’s mind like Dylan had just gone electric. Because Kurt’s green sweater was just exhibited at an in-depth Nirvana retrospective staged by the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Because rock legend Dave Grohl is wearing a Normcore turtleneck. Because Nirvana fundamentally changed all of us 90s kids, whether or not we understood that.
Fiona Apple has had her ups and downs, publicly. There is her well documented Best New Artist acceptance speech at the 1997 MTV video music awards where she told us all that the “world is bullshit,” and, more recently, she stormed off stage during a performance at a Louis Vuitton event because the crowd was inconsiderately chatty. This is unfortunate since it dilutes the impact of her music, which is damn good. Coming of age at the height of Lilith Fair meant I have a profound connection to most female musicians of that era, but Fiona always spoke stronger to me. While I can’t imagine my mother was pleased to hear her 7th-grade daughter singing “Criminal” in the shower–“I’ve been a bad, bad girl / I’ve been careless with a delicate man / And it’s a sad, sad world / When a girl would break a boy just because she can”–her music, and my butchering of said music, was an integral facet of my development as a female. The ability to play act the scenes she sang about fattened my lexicon for real-life scenarios foreign to a sheltered kid. Plus, she made playing the piano look way cooler than it is, and I appreciated that as a fellow pianist.
My love for this woman is as wide as it is strong. Tidal, When The Pawn…, and Extraordinary Machine all save space on my shelf, and all three albums have, at one time or another, been invaluable companions on monotonous highways driving south. In fact, she’s been with me for so long, been through so much with me that I feel as if we’re old friends. Not in a Single White Female way, but in the spirit of mutual understanding–much like one could have with a bartender or barista at a frequent haunt. You don’t know them, they don’t really know you but you understand one another due to a shared interest and there is no judgement, it is a safe space. No, Fiona Apple does not know me but I probably know a thing or two about her because her music is nothing if not personal; this is the curse of being an artist.
Her music bonds the fragility of heartbreak to the venom of a breakup and the vacuum of the afterbirth, so to speak: that state of purgatory where love hasn’t fully seceded to hate or ambivalence, and you’re merely empty. It’s complex yet simple, and utterly relatable for a teenage girl whose every emotion is extreme (aided and abetted by watching too much My So Called Life). Listening to her old albums now is like a trip down memory lane where each song represents a different freeze frame in my life. I see the home in which I grew up, me sprawled on the floor of my bedroom, in winter, reading skateboard magazines with the comfort of my parents on the other side of the door yet shut out. I remember driving in my first car, sun roof open and hair whipping out the windows as I rushed through the warm Southern California night from one party to another and then home. So, what I guess I’m trying to impart on this Throwback Thursday is that Fiona Apple is home to me. The faces have been swallowed by the ground and the places have changed ownership, but I’m home in the house of memory as long as Fiona is by my side. And in these uncertain times, comfort may just be the quintessential throwback.
The greatest thing about the present is the ability to know the past. That’s why it’s called the present: because that ability is a gift. What we do, what we are now is a patchwork of all the things that came before us. Whether or not this is a conscious facet of our existence depends on our engagement with what surrounds us and the frequency of self reflection.
There are always links. We just need to pause, look and listen to find them. Doing this the other day, my brain immediately connected the 1996 Bilboard sensation “No Diggity” by the utterly forgettable Blackstreet featuring Dr. Dr with Bill Withers’ 1971 classic “Grandma’s Hands” from the album Just As I am.
The first video below is Bill Withers performing some of his iconic songs for the BBC in 1973. The roughly 30 minute show can be seen in its entirety HERE. The second is the official music video for “No Diggity” that dominated the MTV airways, and all of my Middle School dances.
In 1996, Bush released their second full length album Razorblade Suitcase. I was 12 and, thanks to MTV and his penchant for performing shirtless, in love with Gavin Rossdale. Due to the genius technology of my Sony Walkman, that album went everywhere with me: in the car on the way to dinner; at the dining room table as I did homework; to the airport for a flight to San Francisco. You get the picture.
I had to have more.
That year, my citified uncle gave me a solo trip to San Francisco for my birthday; that’s right: no parentals. My parents nervously drove me to the airport to see me off; I confidently packed my steadfast Walkman and favorite CD. I endured the barrage of questions from my overprotective father as we waited in the terminal for my flight. What do you do if you get lost downtown? Who do you call in case of an emergency? Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Finally, it was my time to board. Being the little tyke that I was and flying alone, Southwest graciously allowed me to pre-board which meant I had to walk the gauntlet of a crowded terminal filled with eyes that all seemed to be upon me. Just as I approach the Southwest agent, I hear my Dad yell from across the room, “!!!Nic!!! If any guy tries to touch you, remember: you hit him in the throat or the balls,” as he added appropriate hand gestures for effect. Mortified, I nodded and boarded without a word. Wouldn’t you know it, not a soul sat next to me.
I arrived in San Francisco safely, and now my uncle had to organize an itinerary for a shy pre-teen tomboy who awkwardly loved nothing else besides baseball, rock n roll, and antiques. Yes, antiques. First stop was Planet Hollywood with some mild success, and from there we hit every kid friendly landmark in town, from the Exploratorium to FAO Schwartz. But even he, an accomplished guide, had trouble truly making an impact on a nervous little twerp unaccustomed to being so far from the familiarity of home. That is until he took me to the Motherland, otherwise known as the Virgin Megastore on Market. I may not have understood San Francisco, with its foreign fog and panoply of diversity, but Music? Ahhhhh, music I knew and my little face instantly began to flush with anticipation.
I looked up at my uncle, who smiled in acknowledgement, and was told he would buy me whatever albums I wanted; the hunt was on. Where to go first?! To find my way, I did what any self-respecting pre-teen would do: I looked to where the older kids (older meaning 16) were congregating. There, in the Rock section, I methodically worked my way through each listening booth. Romeo and Juliet Soundtrack, with Everclear and Radiohead? Check. No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom? Check. Then I went looking for “archival” Bush albums, or…the only other album they had then–Sixteen Stone. After some digging, it was found. Finally! Glycerine was mine to be listened to whenever I desired and I was no longer bound to the whims of KROQ DJs and MTV VJs; I now possessed the total power of recall.
I didn’t know it then, but those few hours spent in Virgin would be a pivotal moment in my short life. These albums went on to define my junior high existence and, in many ways, my world as an adult. Not just the albums themselves, but the process of selection endured to own them. Wandering the infinite aisles of a music megastore; getting lost amongst people at once intimidating and inspiring; and, most importantly, losing my conscious self in a public, shared music education.
Today, I’m a proud resident of San Francisco having shed my Southern California roots a long decade ago. Not surprisingly, in this age of relentless change, none of the commercial landmarks I visited in 1996 remain; no more planet of Hollywood gobeldigook and BLT sandwiches; no more never-ending frightening floors of stuffed mechanized toys that are three-times your size; and, sadly, no more refuge for the lovers of listening. As I sit here now, the monstrous murals that ran the entire circumference of the Virgin Megastore–murals of Hendrix, Joplin and Dylan installed as a reminder of where we’ve musically been and where we can hope to go–are being torn asunder to make way for another Forever 21; slashed to pieces so tweens may have better access to cheap sequin tops.
This, I suppose, is progress at its finest. MTV is known better for its reality television than its music videos. College radio is an endangered species, and Live Nation controls the box office. Copyright is dead, and any asshole with a computer is a self-professed music expert worthy of doling out judgements from a Lazyboy. The death of music may be near, my friends, and ascension of uninformed noise will officiate its funeral. As sad as this is, I try not to dwell. I will always treasure my days of public music exploration, when every main street had a record shop and every mall a music megastore. I will treasure the discovery and the disappointment, the endless hours of browsing without looking at a computer screen. And as days go by, I become a little older, a little less thin and much more grim. But through it all, I still own that same Walkman as I also own the very same copy of Sixteen Stone after all these years. Both things still so tangible and effervescent with what I was, where I was, and who I was with. Which is why I continue to buy vinyl and compact discs, even an occasional cassette tape at Goodwill.
Because there ain’t no goddamn cloud big enough to hold my memories.