We All Owe Fiona Apple An Apology, And Her 1997 VMAs Speech Proves It

"You shouldn't model your life around what we think is cool, and what we're wearing and we're saying and everything," Apple said. "Go with yourself."

Fiona Apple 1997 VMAs speech

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By the time Fiona Apple took to the VMAs stage in mid-1997, her debut record, Tidal, had been out for about a year.

That album, a twisting collection of rich oak melodies, was a massive success. It sold 2.7 million copies. Lead single ‘Criminal’, written in 45 minutes to prove to her label that she could bang out a hit, caused a minor outcry with its sexualised, vaguely disturbing music video. As the press told it, Apple was an enigmatic, unpredictable genius.

So when she won MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist for the song ‘Sleep to Dream’, she already had something of a reputation behind her. But still, neither the audience in the venue nor the reporters waiting outside seemed ready for what she was about to do.

“Oh man, oh man,” she said, batting the award between her hands. “I didn’t prepare a speech and I’m sorry — but I’m glad that I didn’t, because I’m not going to do this the way that everybody else does it.

“‘Cause everybody I’m thanking — I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to use this time.”

The room fell oddly quiet. Later, there’d be shrieks of applause as Apple dropped a Maya Angelou quote, but they were scattered, making, if anything, the silence feel thicker.

“Everybody out there that’s watching this world: this world is bullshit,” Apple said, with a slight shrug. “And you shouldn’t model your life around what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing and we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself.”

The speech wasn’t well-received, neither in the short or the longterm. In the days after the VMAs, publications like NYRock painted her as a diva “suffering for her art” and forcing the audience to suffer right along there with her.

Even those reporters who took the moment in their stride still saw it as somehow obstinate or rebellious — Rolling Stone included it in a list of the musician’s so-called “bad, bad girl moments”, nestled inbetween other alleged indiscretions like dating David Blaine and having a “big mouth”. Almost a decade after the incident, in a snotty-nosed review of Extraordinary MachineSasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker said that the acceptance speech made Fiona Apple “sound more insulted than grateful”, while also calling her out for publicly discussing the sexual assault in her past.

To the assorted press, Apple’s infraction was obvious. Popstars are meant to be squeaky clean and polite, and Apple was neither of those things. She had spoken out against the pop machine, and the endless desires for more it foists upon a young and malleable listenership.

None of her critics denied that what Apple had said was true. They just got angry with Apple for saying it. For the American press, speaking out against injustice and risking sounding rude was worse than the injustice itself.

Of course, that sensibility hasn’t died away completely. The American elite is still obsessed with this anachronistic notion of civility. In the world of politics, activists are expected to use the language dictated by centrists, lest they appear ‘rude’ or ‘toxic’. Which, of course, is just another means of control.

Those in power always want to enforce the rules of the game as they see them, which gives them the ability to make ugly personal truths that they don’t want to contend with seem unpalatable and obnoxious. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it well when he wrote that the oppressors “have had the wit to teach the oppressed a language in which the oppressed will sound crazy — even to themselves — if they describe themselves as oppressed.” Apple explained the world as she saw it, and was pilloried for speaking aloud facts that journalists themselves largely agreed with.

The injustice of having terms dictated by the polite and powerful remains something we must rail against. But we’re at least now aware of the need to take up that fight. Public discourse has shifted, particularly when it comes to what we expect from celebrities. Now, we rightfully demand that those in power use their exposure to cast light upon important debates, fighting the system that gave them their unequal sources of power. After all these years, Apple has been vindicated.

And that it took so long — that it was such an uphill struggle — only further makes Apple’s case. These days, any celebrity can buy some easy press by throwing their support behind Bernie Sanders, or shouting some vague political slogan. It’s easy. When Apple did it, it wasn’t. It was one of several incidents that turned the press against her, drawing negative attention to such ridiculous ‘indiscretions’ as her decision to give her second album a long title.

History has proved Fiona Apple right. You shouldn’t model your life around what someone else thinks is cool. And you should always, at the end of the day, go with yourself. Like she did.

Fiona Apple’s new album Fetch The Bolt Cutters is out today.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He Tweets @Joseph_O_Earp.