This article is a part of the Daily Arts “Canceled” b-side. For a full look at our b-side pieces exploring this theme, click this link.
“This world is bullshit.”
After a tumultuous past year (to put it lightly), you’re probably nodding your head in agreement. But 23 years ago, this statement provoked a slightly more severe reaction.
Fiona Apple, the then 19-year-old alternative pop singer, shocked the world with her utterly honest and expletive-laced acceptance speech at the 1997 VMA Awards. After winning Best New Artist for the single “Sleep to Dream” off her debut album Tidal, Apple delivered a brief but soon-to-be infamous message to her fans, explaining, “I didn’t prepare a speech and I’m sorry, but I’m glad I didn’t because I’m not gonna do this like everybody else does it.”
Toddling her chrome astronaut award from hand to hand, Apple added, “See, Maya Angelou said that we, as human beings, at our best, can only create opportunities. And I’m gonna use this opportunity the way that I want to use it.” Her words, already deviating from the formulaic thank-you-filled speeches of her peers, were met with some intermittent applause, but mostly bewildered silence. Apple continued, “So, what I want to say is — um, everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching, this world? This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.” A sprinkling of audience members clapped at this affirmation, enthusiastic if not a bit puzzled. After a few hurried thank-yous to her family and producer, Apple cinched the speech with one final thought: “It’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me so thank you very much.”
Almost instantaneously, the media launched into a frenzy. In just under a minute and 20 seconds, it seemed that Apple had managed to collect enough criticism to last for years. The press labeled the young artist as everything from woefully ungrateful to wildly precocious, a reputation that stuck with Apple for much of her musical career (and arguably still does today). She was essentially, as we’ve coined the term, “canceled” for being unabashedly honest. Apple’s brazen take on an already taboo issue was merely fuel to the fire for her developing “bad girl” rep. With the release of the sexually suggestive “Criminal” music video, Apple had already made clear her unwillingness to fit into the good-girl charade that’s often dumped on female pop stars. With bright blue eyes, a brooding alto voice and an unfiltered matter-of-factness, Apple was by all accounts developing into pop diva material. But this prima donna persona did little to cushion her from the brutally harsh discourse of gossip columnists and distinguished music critics alike.
One such critic of The New Yorker characterized her as an “underfed Calvin Klein model”; another NY Rock journalist remarked that her speech was “one of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event.” Comedian Janeane Garafalo even went as far as to mock Apple’s eating disorder in a blistering parody, stating, “You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool . . . Even though I have an eating disorder and I have somehow sold out to the patriarchy in this culture that says that lean is better.” It’s a disappointing, if not unsurprising, reaction to a young artist’s openness. Given the media’s constant fixation with women’s bodies, it’s also unsurprising that Apple’s physical appearance became a focal point in almost every fuming article and subsequent album review. There was no escape from the piercing opprobrium of an industry eager to mark Apple as a moody teen, permanently on the verge of a breakdown. Luckily for us, this didn’t stop her from making breathtaking music.
I started listening to Apple this past year with the release of her long-anticipated album Fetch the Bolt Cutters (I know, I know, I’m extremely late to the party). Needless to say, I tore through her entire discography in a day, mesmerized by Apple’s sharp lyricism and unconventional pop sound that makes you question everything you think you know about the genre. My visceral reaction on first listen was how gloriously refreshing Apple’s voice was. She didn’t shy away from hard questions and blunt truths of life, and I felt at home in this mania of biting, vulnerable sincerity.
For the same reason, I believe Apple’s 1997 VMAs speech is a resounding victory. Beneath its overtone of teenage angst and clumsy delivery, Apple presents a gem of a message. As a young female artist in the era before social media, receiving a massive platform to talk candidly about toxicity in the music industry was incredibly rare. Apple merely vocalized the frustration thousands of other women in the public eye had been feeling for years before her. Not only that, but she addressessed the feeling of inadequacy and “uncoolness” that comes from being an adolescent on the peripheries of a celebrity-obsessed culture. In all honesty, maybe we have that speech to thank for Apple’s incredible artistry today. Standing there on national television, in front of hundreds of people, Apple seemed to reach a moment of clarity. She got a taste of pop stardom and subsequently decided it went against everything she stood for.
Despite their best efforts, critics failed to cancel Apple. With each fiery criticism, her commentary on the artificiality of the American music industry is only proven further. Since 1997, Apple has released four more albums, each more introspective and mature than the last. In a sense, she’s finally been justified. Despite all the dizzying circumstances, Apple has found freedom in being unfailingly outspoken. Only this time it’s not in an acceptance speech, but in the intimate lines of her musical masterpieces.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.