all words: Andy Johnson
all photos: Eric Uhlir
You must have noticed the recent, aggravating attack upon woman’s rights. It’s upsetting that in an election year, a time where politicians should push the economy as the deciding issue, conservatives are dredging up the culture war tactics to get Kenyan Socialist Barry Soetoro out of office.
I was pleased to see the Internet rally to smite Karen Handel, the pro-life vice president of the Susan G. Komen foundation in February, as well as the financial blowback that Rush Limbaugh received for years of unchecked douchebaggery. As a heterosexual male, I’ve always seen the sexual double standard as dumb. After all, it’s not really about promiscuity at all, but the power struggle self-conscious bros have toward independent women. While I don’t have a vagina, I frequent it on holidays and methinks running on an anti-cumming platform in 2012 is political suicide.
While politics has not been kind to the fairer sex as of late, what a wonderful year it has been for female musicians.
Adele dominated the Grammy’s. The Joy Formidable’s Ritzy Bryan and Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss destroyed the 9:30 Club on consecutive nights this week. Grimes’ Visions is one of the catchiest bedroom-pop albums in recent memory. Two female-fronted Baltimore groups – Beach House and Lower Dens – have released terrific lead singles from forthcoming albums. Sharon Van Etten’s Tramp is my frontrunner for album-of-the-year. I could go on and on about current releases by Julia Holter, Chairlift, Heartless Bastards, Alabama Shakes and personal favorite The Chromatics, but my point has been made.
No overwrought analysis of female musicianship in 2012 would be complete without touching upon Miss Del Rey, a character whose significance (and non-significance) in the music industry has been argued to death. Lana’s debut video of “Video Games” last summer led to a firestorm of thought pieces about what her popularity meant. Was she a cartoonish caricature manufactured to titillate the male gaze? Or was she just another pop star-in-training whose handlers tried to circumvent Top 40 radio stations by selling her buzz to independent music blog industry? While I’m not rushing out to see her any time soon (her SNL flub proved she needs a few more months to simmer in pop’s crockpot), I’ve never understood the extreme scrutiny she received when compared to other top-heavy pop starlets like Katy or Britney, especially from other females.
But as a guy, there are some things I will just never understand about women. I don’t understand why vampire sex is so popular. I don’t get why so many modern ladies compare themselves to the obviously-stunning-except-in-her-own-mind Liz Lemon. (Saying “What-the-what” during a date is a deal breaker, in my admittingly shallow Seinfeldian way). The allure of celebrity gossip escapes me. If I never see a food photography Tumblr again, it’ll be too soon. Even though HBO’s Girls has yet to premiere, I’m preemptively rolling my eyes to how my girl friends will compare their sexual misadventures to Lena Dunham’s hijinks. Oh, and I particularly don’t understand why women are catty to each other when they should support their sisters, considering the minor tragedies they face daily, like the pressure from the media to be obnoxiously thin, the first-world desire to “have it all,” and the rigors of navigating a world of pathetic man-boys.
And don’t even get me started on Pinterest.
Which gets to my point: I underestimated the impact that Fiona Apple has had upon her cultish, overwhelming female fan base. I’ve always enjoyed Apple’s music, but I would call myself a casual fan at best. Yes, I adore “Criminal” and I was intrigued about the controversy surrounding the non-release of her third album, but that was the extent of my knowledge.
Her performance at Sixth & I Synagogue Wednesday evening resembled a rite. One devotee danced around her feet during “Extraordinary Machine” and many more vacated the pews to snap pictures, literally kneeling before her altar in the middle of a temple. The significance of this image was not lost on me. The communion of Fiona was at hand, and I was a gentile.
But this frail woman has no power over me. As I was watched this priestess sermonize after years out of the spotlight, a battery of demythologizing questions entered my brain. What does Fiona eat? Does she vote? What kind of car does she drive? iPhone or Android? Does she own a television? If so, is she excited for the Game of Thrones premiere? She’s so thin–what’s her workout routine? Does she spin? Does she pin?
Rather than a ceremony, I approached her show like I would a coffee date with a long-expired ex-girlfriend. There would be no lingering jealousy or spite. In their place would a genuine sense of wonder. How are you? Are you healthy? Happy? Are you in love? Creatively fulfilled? In short: “Fiona, we haven’t talked in so long, just what the hell have you been up to?”
Turns out this sullen girl hasn’t changed that much.
After a brief opening set by her guitarist Blake Mills, Apple trotted out on stage with her backing band in a black tank top and a silver dress, her long ponytail protected by a scrunchie. A collection of lit candles and a drawing of her dog (?) on top of an adjacent piano served as decoration. The adjective “waifish” can still applied to her physique, but the angsty girl who once called out the universe for being “bullshit” at the Video Music Awards was replaced by a fit, legit woman.
She let loose a spastic dance throughout opener “Fast As You Can”, letting fans know that her presence has not weakened one bit during her disappearance from the stage. She showed incredible mastery over her vocals throughout the hour-long set (brief, but fulfilling), alternating between her trademark low-voiced rumblings and her piercing shrieks.
As she sat at the piano prior to performing “On The Bound”, she apologized for canceling last week’s date due to illness, saying that she didn’t want to play a “half-assed show” and certainly not a “quarter-assed show.” I don’t know if she was fully recovered – she was sipping on hot tea constantly – but as I watched the veins in her neck pulse in and out while singing, “You’re all I need,” there was no faking the emotion in her words. To her credit, this was indeed a full-assed show.
I haven’t listened to her sophomore album When The Pawn… in many years, but the words of “Paper Bag” snapped back as the crowd quietly sang along to every word. It would be obvious to say that this was an intimate affair, but there was no outward chanting, and with the exception of a few gyrating women in the balcony, the audience remained solemn, mesmerized by this rare performance.
The 13-song set relied heavily off material from Tidal and When The Pawn… but Apple played a trio of new songs off her forthcoming album The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do. Yes that’s the title. Did you expect anything less? Of the three the standout was the brooding “Anything We Want”, which like most of her material focused on themes of a troubled relationship. The lyric of “Let’s pretend we’re reindeers all playing hooky / I’ll draw on the wall and you can play UFC Rookie” out-Lanas Lana regarding the frustration of trying to find common interest with your significant other.
She smacked her waist, clenched her dress, swayed from side-to-side, squeezed the mic, shouted “I got my feet on the ground” through her clenched teeth, and even ducked behind the piano for a bit, but she did not once open her eyes throughout “Sleep To Dream.” She rarely made eye contact, preferring to stare up at the synagogue’s dome, making it all the more life-affirming when her corneas cut across the congregation.
While it would be reductionist to call anything other than the entire show a highlight, the most spectacular songs were “Carrion” and “Criminal”. The former was the most violent song of the evening, exploding in a quiet-loud-quiet fashion like a Pixies tune. Her staccato punch of “My feel for you, boy, is decaying in front of me / Like the carrion of a murdered prey” into a decadent guitar solo by Mills caused this music critic to break his trance and turn to his pewmate, a stranger, to utter “Holy shit!” to degauss the electricity.
But of course it was “Criminal” that catapulted Apple to stardom sixteen years ago. Ever since hearing the opening lyric of “I’ve been a bad, bad girl…”, we all knew that Fiona was different from the rest of the mid-90’s chanteuses. A great irony of this performance is that as she sang her hit about effortlessly using sexuality to get what you want, she was sweating, grimacing, bulging – looking particularly unsexy. Her howling of “And I need to be redeemed / from the one I sinned against / because he’s all I ever knew of love” peaked to a point where it became indecipherable from glossolalia.
Apple concluded the night with two covers: her woozy rendition of The Beatles’ “Across The Universe” and a naked interpretation of “It’s Only Make Believe” by Conway Twitty, which she claims she “sings around the house.” I found “Universe” to be the perfect comedown after the maelstrom of her signature song, reassuring her assemblage that “nothing’s going to change my world.”
And thank God she hasn’t changed. It’s been nearly six years since she has performed in the DC area, and she looked and sounded as powerful as ever, radiating an unshakable confidence that she gained from sitting out a few years, maturing on her own terms. Apple proved Wednesday night that she is no false prophet: she truly deserves the worship. If Fiona’s performance was a religious revival, consider me was saved.