The Feminism of Fiona Apple

How American singer-songwriter Fiona Apple weaves themes of feminism and her life expereinces into her music.


Content warning: Mentions of rape

Bitterness and remorse, bluntness and desperation, unhingedness and restraint, Fiona Apple’s 2020 release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is teeming with contradictions that make up the patriarchal world. Track after track, the album paints a bold and brash picture of the female experience, as Apple explores the resentment built up from years of suppression and mistreatment, finding catharsis in anger. On its titular track, Apple croons “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long,” perfectly encapsulating the essence of the album: a call for liberation. 

Released to much critical acclaim, ranking as the second-best album of all time on Metacritic and recently being rewarded three Grammys, Fetch the Bolt Cutters has made huge waves in the realm of music criticism. However, its impact goes significantly past the industry’s reviews. Music has long been used as a vessel for social movements, including feminism. The Riot Grrrl subculture of the early 1990s was a dip into the water of third-wave feminism in music, providing a space for women in a predominantly male punk scene. Bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile tackled issues like rape, patriarchy, and female empowerment with songs full of vulgarity that would not be expected from a “proper” woman. Typical feminine dresses were juxtaposed with fishnet tights and derogatory terms used to shame women were reclaimed. While the movement intended to provide a safe place for women, it became clear that not all women were included in the Riot Grrrl model of feminism. The subculture proved to be abhorrently trans-exclusionary and only open to the coalition of white women, largely failing women of color. 

The year 1998 saw the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a neo-soul and R&B album, released as the solo project of prior Fugees member, Lauryn Hill. The album amassed huge critical acclaim and Hill became the first female rapper to go diamond. The album explores Hill’s pregnancy, spirituality, and black feminism. With its mainstream success, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill brought the realities of the lives of black women to huge audiences while providing representation in an industry so heavily dominated by white men. 

Today’s fourth-wave feminist lexicon, while having a long way to go, includes more discussion of intersectionality. On top of that, the fourth-wave of feminism ushered in a greater conversation around sexual assault, with the #MeToo campaign arising in 2017. The movement against sexual violence allowed more victims to come out against their perpetrators, including rich, powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Brett Kavanaugh. More open discussion about this heavily taboo area provided Apple, a victim herself, with the grounds to release Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an autopsy of her traumas, and the tumultuous nature of being a woman. 

Full of aggressive arpeggios and clattering, unconventional percussion, Apple’s self-recorded album is far from euphonious. Recording the album in her own home, Apple bangs on walls and includes the barking of her dogs, creating the cacophonous discomfort that makes Fetch the Bolt Cutters her magnum opus. Fiona Apple began her career at just 18 with the release of her debut album, Tidal. Immediately, the “Criminal” singer was launched into the ravenous sabers of critics, with The New York Times calling her an “underfed Calvin Klein model.” At her young age, every part of her being was displayed and scrutinized. The brutality only worsened after her angst-ridden 1997 MTV Video Music Award acceptance speech, which caused the media to label her as a hot-headed, unhinged drama queen. Apple was a porcupine quill under a microscope, her sharpness overemphasized. The damages done to her reputation caused her to be blacklisted, which she sings about in the following lyric from the track “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”, 

“I thought being blacklisted would be the grist for the mill, until I realized I’m still here. I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill. Shoes that were not made for running up that hill. And I need to run up that hill, I need to run up that hill, I will, I will, I will…” 

In this lyric, Fiona delves into the harsh ostracization she received at the beginning of her career, and how she felt being blacklisted might bring her relief, but ultimately found herself in the same place. The next line is a reference to singer Kate Bush and her song “Running Up That Hill.” In one of the many feminist sentiments of this album, Apple stateshow she was restrained by society’s limited opportunities for women, describes the shoes they are forced into, and reflects on her longing for freedom, running up the hill. Society restrains women from the “hill”, but Apple is adamant, repeatedly stating that she will.

 On the following track “Under the Table” Apple laments on how she will not be silenced, how she will not fit the societal expectation for women to sit still and look pretty, how she won’t be pushed under the table. She stays morally aligned with her early career, despite the controversy it stirred, controversy that was never received by her brash male counterparts. When bold words roll off the male tongue, they are listened to and often praised for their bravery. When women are bold, they are silenced and made out to be bratty. Male celebrities, like Quentin Tarantino and Chris Brown, continue to have successful careers, despite accusations of racism and domestic battery, whereas female celebrities like Mira Sorvino were blacklisted after making sexual misconduct claims against Harvey Weinstein. Hollywood proves that men will be defended at every opportunity possible, while women will be demonized at the first opportunity possible. This rampant double standard is further explored in the subsequent track, “Relay” where Apple chants “I resent you for being raised right, I resent you for being tall, I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.” While her first two statements seem petty and tongue-in-cheek, her final statement “I resent you for not getting any opposition at all” reflects her rage toward powerful men whose immoral actions do not terminate their authority. This specific line was inspired by the hearing of Brett Kavanaugh. Fiona Apple was assaulted at the age of 12 and stated in a DemocracyNow interview that watching the hearing of Brett Kavanaugh and the election of Donald Trump unfold brought back all her traumas. The chorus of “Relay” states “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” This torch-passing is signified in the anger and hatred visible in the verses of this song, but subverted by the interlude of the song where Apple states “I’m sorry.” At a surface level, this apology appears to be ending the cycle of hate by being the bigger person. Tonally, it is evident this is not a sincere apology. Apple is not apologizing out of the desire to be the bigger person. She is apologizing because society expects women to be the bigger person. “Proper” women do not hold grudges, “proper” women are polite and forgiving. This very expectation is what gives many men a sense of entitlement, what makes many men believe that because they were young, they deserve forgiveness. This relates back to the Kavanaugh hearing, which Fiona Apple described in the following excerpt from a Vulture interview, “There are so many of them out there, but that one guy- the fact that he’s on the Supreme Court really is probably the thing, but his attitude is just like- it was the externalized version of what you know a lot of them are feeling inside. Just this indignant, ‘How could you be mad at me? Don’t make me suffer. But I’m married, but I have kids, so I can’t be the bad guy. But I was just so young, don’t be so mean to me, that girl’s being mean to me.’” 

The eleventh track, “For Her,” follows a similar theme- the endless and disheartening cycle of powerful men feeling entitled to forgiveness and to their power. During the climax of the track, Apple sings “Good morning, good morning, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” There is an uncomfortable nature that surrounds this lyric, but, the discomfort it provides combats the unconscious comforts around aspects of rape culture. Locker-room talk and “boys will be boys culture” face occasional scrutiny, but are overwhelmingly normalized. Jokes made about sexual assault brush over the legitimate trauma it can cause to both men and women. Fetch the Bolt Cutters continues its feminist agenda in tracks like “Ladies,” meant to empower women rather than pitting them against one another, and “Rack of His,” taking an expression used to objectify women and reversing it. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a feminist stable piece, managing to be bold and bitter while peaking through with moments of vulnerability, rawness, and desperation.