Fetch The Bolt Cutters — Fiona Apple’s just-released fifth album — has received an extraordinarily rare perfect ten score from Pitchfork. It’s the second time in my life — her debut album Tidal being the first — where I’ve felt profoundly inspired by the excellent quality of Apple’s music. However, Fetch The Bolt Cutters lacks the gauzy veneer of funky trip-hop enhanced by taboo fetishism and 70s pornography that guided how and why I discovered and fell in lust with Tidal 24 years ago. Thus, my appreciation of her latest output feels more uniquely pure. Finally, detaching my lustful, fetishistic teenage desires and the impact of male gaze-driven marketing away from Fiona Apple’s brilliant career has been beneficial. As well, a quarter-century later, I’ve reframed both my sexual eye and musical heart. Cutting the metaphorical bolts on why I love people and how I listen to music has been an astounding experience.
“Criminal” was the fifth of six singles from Tidal released within an eighteen-month album push that I distinctly remember mattering nary a whit to me while I was a high-school senior and college freshman in 1996. Those were the days where my ears were primarily hearing The Fugees and OutKast solely, as their respective albums, The Score and ATLiens, were the perfect blends of woke boom-bap and neo-futuristic soul. The pop-aimed jazz fusion of early hits like “Shadowboxer” and “Sleep to Dream,” while good, hadn’t resonated with me. But “Criminal?” That was a whole different story entirely. It was a story that motivated me, evolving my sexual life.
By 1996, I was a full five years into learning how to accept just how much I truly fetishized porn and kink, respectively. I’d discovered the former by accident, having fallen asleep on the couch while watching Showtime one evening at the age of 13. I awoke to see My Swedish Aunt, a 1980 Italian softcore film release with a plot described like this by IMDB: “The machinations of domineering relatives threaten an affair between a college student and his uncle’s bride.” Ninety-two magical minutes of busty and lustful Europeans later, and I was paging through the TV listings noting that the hours between 10 PM — 5 AM on Showtime, HBO, and Cinemax were a repository of soft and hardcore pornography. Insatiably aroused and intrigued, my sleep schedule switched and fetishized sexual interests were piqued, forever.
Fast forward to 1993, and I was in The Biograph, a then 25-year old repertory movie house in Washington, DC’s Georgetown neighborhood that’d seen better days. Three years from being converted into a CVS Pharmacy, they were showing classic pornography, every afternoon and evening, on the big screen. Intrigued, I saved my allowance, and due to a cousin of a high school acquaintance being the ticket clerk, I sneaked in repeatedly to see numerous classics of porn’s golden age. Namely, Debbie Does Dallas. However, it wasn’t even the story of the film, or it’s erotic action, that had me hooked.
It was the film’s opening theme that was something else. The film’s bassline was hard, thick, and funky. It sounded similar to both the classic 70s funk of Issac Hayes that I grew up loving, as well as the slower, heavier trip-hop of acts like Portishead that were cool in the era. These bass-heavy grooves also found their way into seductive mid-90s sex features that I loved watching like HBO’s “Real Sex” series and Showtime’s drama “Red Shoe Diaries.”
By the time I was 19, if you played a minor-key driven bassline accompanied by heavy drums, my mind immediately turned to sex. Ideally 70s porn sex, sex in basement rooms with wood-paneled walls, between teenage-looking kids wanting to explore — like I, as a teenager, similarly wished to explore — intense feelings of developing sensuality. When Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” video dropped in May 1997, I’d just lost my virginity. Blended with everything else I was into at the time, it felt like the perfect song and the perfect video at the ideal time.
I had an unhealthy fixation on “Criminal” during the summer of 1997. Images Journal’s Mark Zeltner notes my exact reasoning for my abundant interest. “‘Criminal’ is a viciously effective combination of typical pre-eighties sexual imagery with a low-tech porno loop/home video visual style. Director Mark Romanek knows his source material, and he has created a soft porn four-minute masterpiece masquerading as a contemporary rock music video.”
“Criminal” was a gateway drug for me to dig into my then-loosened sexuality. It made the crucible of my desires active in real-time and was played on repeat in such a way that tuning into MTV gave me solace in my willingness to hyper-fetishize all things sex and porn. It roused in me a depraved-feeling lust that felt alien at first, but by the end of the summer of 1997, it was wholly comfortable and intrinsic to the groundwork of the rest of my life. By the end of the summer of 1997, Fiona Apple was not just my favorite pop star but was worshiped as a sexual deity.
Since 1997, Fiona Apple has released three other albums before her current masterpiece. With each record, she, to me, has moved markedly further away from 1997’s insatiable ingenue. Instead of inspiring my headlong dive into a life where my desires for love and lust expanded further and more profound than taboo notions occurring within wood-paneled rooms, she’s offered something greater.
With each album, I intently listen for cues that recall my fetishistic roots, and maybe some sense of improving the erotic course I’ve traveled. Instead, I’m left hearing songs that are works of musical genius delving into Apple’s own life that, because they do not impact me sexually, leave her as an artist that frustrates me. Instead of existing as a personal beacon for my hyper-sexed life, she’s more the world’s lighthouse for creative genius. It’s the most bizarre of pills to swallow.
Interestingly each Apple album release has found me at a point searching farther and broader for fetishized sexual inspiration, while personally, the roots of Apple’s creativity were drawing nearer to my search for something more inspirational than salacious seduction.
By the year 2000 and When The Pawn… dropped, I was into Vivid Entertainment and the likes of Jenna Jameson. By 2006’s Extraordinary Machine, hardcore gonzo porn queen Belladonna had captured my imagination. By 2012’s The Idler Wheel, I had settled down somewhat, as, in 15 years, I felt like I had seen and done everything I’d ever imagine I’d want to do in a bedroom or elsewhere. That album’s only released single, “Every Single Night,” features a hook, “every single night’s a fight with my brain,” that resonated differently than Apple had ever done before. It spoke directly to the crossroads I was at with the significance of sex and kink in my life and the potential for something different to occupy a position of control.
It was the opening paragraph of Jenn Pelly’s Pitchfork review of Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters that made me listen to the album. In under 200 words, it spoke to my soul and straightened the path of fetishized sexual discovery to which Apple’s debut album had led me.
It happens to most of us at an early age: the realization that life will not follow a straight line on the path towards fulfillment. Instead, life spirals. The game is rigged, power corrupts, and society is, in a word, bullshit. Art can expose the lies. The early music of Fiona Apple was so much about grand betrayals by inadequate men and the patriarchal world. Did it teach you to hate yourself? Did it teach you to bury your pain, to let it calcify, to build a gate around your heart that quiets the reaches of your one and only voice? Fetch the bolt cutters.
At 18, a song crystallized my lusty teenage desires. It catapulted me into a life where I felt chained by lust and, like Apple’s protagonist in “Criminal,” was frequently careless with my delicate self. I bent and broke my erotic spirit, often presenting myself as a glad sufferer of the pains of this unique, sexual existence. Now, I’m 42. Sex is still an essential part of my life. However, it’s not the only thing that makes me feels insatiable. I’ve been a music journalist for the past 12 years, and because songs impact me more profoundly now, music maybe, to me, as, or more important than sex is. From this notion, a radically new version of myself has emerged.
For the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum, in an article serendipitously entitled Fiona Apple’s Art of Radical Sensitivity, notes that on Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ track “Shameika,” “[Fiona Apple] celebrates a key moment in middle school when a tough girl told the bullied Apple, ‘You have potential.’” Upon reading this quote, I scanned Spotify for the album and pressed play on “Shameika.”
Sebastian said I’m “a good man in a storm”
Back then I didn’t know what potential meant and
Shameika wasn’t gentle, and she wasn’t my friend
But she got through to me, and I’ll never see her again
She got through to me, and I’ll never see her again
I’m pissed off, funny and warm
I’m a good man in a storm
And when the fall is torrential, I’ll recall
Shameika said I had potential
I still have potential.
I’m not an over-sexed mess of a person who put a fetishized desire for passion and pleasure ahead of logical, common-sense behavior. I still have these words, and I still have this music. Cutting the metaphorical bolts on why I love people and how I listen to music has been an astounding experience.