Whenever I’ve felt frustrated and defeated and like Alanis Morissette just doesn’t quite capture my internal conflict, I’ve turned to Fiona Apple. Her brand of nervous but undeniably beautiful songs has, for many, reflected disappointment, deep-seated anxiety, bleak pain, and unbearable love. Even so, her music has often made its way onto Top 100 charts, accumulating mainstream popularity by way of its catchiness. On Friday, after eight years of silence, she dropped Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and let loose barking dogs along with her own animal voice, redefining herself through her own words (and sounds) against a world that can no longer restrain her.
The way that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is different from Apple’s previous albums may be obvious for those who know her music. The ear-worm melodies that make songs like “Criminal” and “Paper Bag” ironically easy to digest are all but gone, replaced with the occasional schoolyard melody, and more often the sounds of animals, heavy breathing, high-pitched squealing, and jagged, almost shouted notes. Lyrically, it is cathartic and self-celebrating. As the title suggests, she spends most of the album rebelling against the warped societal standards which have miseducated her, which have turned her against herself and her humanity. In “Ladies” and “Newspaper”, she aligns herself with the women popular media would suggest she should be turned against. In “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and “For Her” she breaks open the long-established power stratifications of her industry, exposing the men who support them; and in every track, she asserts her power as a self-assured woman with agency.
It goes without saying that the album marks a significant personal achievement for Apple. A woman who once wrote songs urging men to “run, free yourself of me / fast as you can” is instead now turning her power outward. Lyrically, the album is extraordinary. In her new song “Under the Table,” she writes, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up;” in Heavy Balloon, she warns, “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans / I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m busting at the seams;” in her album’s title track, she commands, “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long”. The way that she liberates herself (to put it in a few inadequate words) is by refusing to internalize the narrative that she, and perhaps every American woman, has been sold— that her survival depends on her likability, and that it is safer to suffer within the confines of patriarchal norms than it is to defy them.
It comes as no surprise then that the album feels so culturally important. Fiona Apple is not just resisting patriarchal standards; she is actively breaking them in what can only be described as an act of radical feminism. By refusing to alter her natural sound, by choosing to support other women even when society might tell her she shouldn’t, and by exposing the hypocrisy of the very men she herself has been close to— all with incredible clarity and thoughtfulness— she dissembles oppressive structures with grit and deep sensitivity. She is breaking the rules violently, severing them with bolt cutters because “I need to run up that hill. I will, I will, I will, I will.”
At the same time, it never feels as though Apple is stumbling clumsily through feminism or in any way rallying for the sake of it. She is making the decision, as an established artist with a voice, to lean into searing honesty, to be justifiably unapologetic and offensive. Of course, it would be silly to expect a revamped “Who run the world?” from the woman who once stood in front of an audience of millions at the MTV Music Awards and declared “This world is bullshit.”— a line which, at the time, gained her a reputation as ungrateful and unhinged, but which she likely won’t take back. Rather, she is asking for the bolt cutters; she is running up the hill; she is screaming because her lungs work and because she has a lot to scream about; she is saying, “This world is bullshit, and I’m not playing by the rules anymore because they aren’t fucking fair.” And she is calling on all of us to do the same.