Art by Susie Martinez
Paley Martin has Paul Thomas Anderson direct all of her music videos.
When it comes to Fiona Apple, it’s hard to know where to begin.
For me, in the least cool but most truthful telling of events, it was at San Diego State University circa 2012. I was 19, a child of the ‘90s whose mother leaned more towards Alanis Morrissette than Tori Amos, and therefore it was my responsibility to dig into the remainder of that decade’s angst-ridden female acts.
The ‘90s were a hormonal free-for-all, a decade-long enabler of feeling shit in the purest and often most exaggerated ways. And sadly, having been born in ’93, I did not fully comprehend these seemingly liberating, indulgent luxuries at ages zero through seven.
My time would come years later in a sun-drunk utopian city called San Diego, a city in which I was a college freshman with a weird world of frat parties and sorority chants in my periphery and a bevy of new and not-so-exciting emotions. Isolation in paradise followed suit, and I sought a companion to sulk and scavenge the emotional spectrum with.
I was coming off of my first post-high school summer fling. He was older, a friend of a friend’s who I’d crushed on since we met the previous fall. The whole thing felt exciting, fresh, surprising and then, as those summer weeks ticked by, incredibly ambiguous. We were wading in the gray area, seeing each other every few weeks, exchanging infrequent texts and dancing loosely around one another. And it seemed as though I was the only one that noticed.
This was neither my first nor last time with flimsy arrangements that once gleaned promise, but something about it felt overwhelmingly deflating. When it was time for me to go to San Diego, there was no goodbye and no indication that the time we spent together had any meaning. At 19, as a young woman newly out of her hometown and figuring out her place in the world, this unspoken fling fade-out consumed me.
I realize now that an unspoken fade out seems like a perfectly fitting way to end a summer fling, but it gnawed at me for some time as I settled into my new San Diego home. Coupled with being on my own in a new environment and one that I didn’t yet feel a part of, the feeling of rejection only intensified my loneliness and exacerbated my adolescent insecurities.
Dramatic and self-indulgent as it may have been, the experience, for better or worse, helped me tap into that aforementioned emotional spectrum and recognize just how far and wide it’s able to stretch. The summer fling would later become a good friend, but back then, unbeknownst to him, he was what forced me to, as they say, “confront my shit.”
Somewhere in this spiraling journey (and I’m conveniently recalling now that it was through my Amoeba Records purchase of The Idler Wheel), I crossed paths with Fiona Apple. Not the woman, but the music—the dark, sensuous, witty music that punched you in the stomach and grabbed your shoulders and captivated you with unparalleled intensity. Fiona validated every woman’s—and more specifically, my—inner fire.
She had a way of touching great depths in a quick, disarming fashion. She was unapologetic in her desires and her means of expression and made as much sense singing in a lullaby-like whisper as she did in drawn-out, cathartic roars. And she was a seeker who somehow sounded as though her mind was already made up on life’s inevitable pitfalls.
In Fiona, I’d found not only a qualified companion but a writer whose lyrics were so much more than just that. Never were they trite or predictable; instead, they were sophisticated, complicated, unforced and always, always exciting. Time could only give them more power.
Five years have gone by since my first Fiona listen, and I can attest that I’m still stuck in awe, as I hope to always be, at the profundity of her words and their ability to capture some of life’s most fundamental, relatable situations like my fizzled out summer fling, like being a young woman in a world that encourages you to always be at odds with yourself…which brings me to “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song).”
“Tymps” was the last Fiona Apple song that I discovered. It was always there, but for one reason or another, we happened to miss each other. Lately, however, “Tymps” has been the song I’ve returned to obsessively. It’s about making the same mistake with the same man and contemplating whether the love one feels is really that. It’s odd and provocative and so emblematic of this endless undoing of, you guessed it, feelings.
Romance is a balancing act and a topic that never ceases to amuse and confuse me. It’s a scale that teeter-totters and tips and, in healthy cases, simply balances out. But, as my story attests, romance is far from simple. In “Tymps,” Fiona reminds us that romance can be a handing off of power and that a shared experience may mean something entirely different to each party involved. (“Why did I kiss him so hard late last Friday night? And keep letting him change all my plans?” she sings.)
She knows better, but she’s hopeful. She’s done this before—maybe once, maybe twice, but maybe he’ll stick around this time. Maybe, just maybe…last Friday night will mean as much to him as it did her. And if it happens to be love, then it’s all worth it.…right? “Tymps” reminds us that meaning—better yet, impact—is ultimately relative. Despite its gloomy overtones, the song is less pessimistic than it is humanizing, entirely stripped of pride. It’s conversational in a confessional, monologue-y sort of way.
The love and fury we find in “Tymps” is the same breed of love and fury that has been propelling us through the ages and keeping us connected to one another and ourselves no matter how disconnected we may feel. I look back with fondness for my isolation in paradise, my long string of trials and errors with vulnerability and fury in the illusion of love or something like it.
Brutally honest and exceptionally poetic, “Tymps” hits close to home for anyone who’s ever experienced the pangs of unreciprocated vulnerability. And let’s be honest, who hasn’t? Timeless themes like these know no endings, answers or even origins. And that is why it’s hard to know where to begin with Fiona Apple.