Upon its release, “Tidal” made Apple a star almost instantly. Within a year, she was one of the most famous women in pop music — and one of the most reviled. Though “Tidal” is the album her fans are most likely to have grown up with, it might be their least favorite; it’s both the most popular record she has ever made and the most underrated.
“Tidal” doesn’t feel tied together by a singular artistic vision like Apple’s later, more experimental albums do. Produced by her manager, Andy Slater, it’s the only album of hers that feels like it was made by reasonable grown-ups who were worried about hitting sales targets, instead of gifted kids let loose in a studio after hours, armed with marimbas and glockenspiels. It’s a disparate collection of comparatively conventional songs, influenced by hip-hop and jazz, housing her only smash hit, “Criminal.” Apple told interviewers she wrote the song in 45 minutes because her label wanted a single.
“I really like when true things sound pretty,” she recently told the Guardian, and “Tidal,” mostly an album of ballads, is her prettiest. Its most harrowing songs are often its loveliest: Opening track “Sleep to Dream” alternates between melodrama and restraint (“This mind this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways/So don’t forget what I told you don’t come around/I got my own hell to raise”). “Sullen Girl,” stirring and mournful, appears to reference the sexual assault she endured at 12 (“They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea/But he washed me ashore/And he took my pearl/And left an empty/Shell of me”). The orchestral goodbye ballad “Never Is a Promise” is a work of furious beauty. “Shadowboxer” still seems improbable all these years later; that a teenager conceived such a lushly textured Nina Simone throwback, that someone let her do it.
For all its novelty, “Tidal” was also a decidedly mid-90s Angry Sad Girl pop album, one of a bumper crop that followed the release of Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” the previous year. When Apple joined the Lilith Fair tour in 1997, it felt inevitable, as strange as it may seem now. Back then, “Tidal” lived somewhere between Morissette’s bracing bluntness and the ethereal poetry of Tori Amos. Nobody else in the ’90s addressed the actual emotional lives of teenage girls like Apple did, in a way that offered them both validation and permission.
It wasn’t just teenage girls. Without “Tidal,” there is no Billie Eilish or St. Vincent or maybe not even Kanye West, who once told Apple she was the inspiration for his classic album “Late Registration.” West chose co-producer Jon Brion, who worked with Apple on “Tidal, “so I could be like the rap version of you,” he told the singer when she interviewed him for a 2005 magazine piece, a conversation every bit as awkward as you’d imagine.
It’s impossible to separate “Tidal” the album from the “Tidal”-induced misery that followed it. Much of it was spurred by the infamous music video for “Criminal,” in which a lingerie-clad Apple frolicked among half-naked teenagers in a wood-paneled basement from history’s creepiest CK commercial. The look on her face said: I have made a terrible mistake.
Things worsened when Apple won the 1997 MTV VMA award for Best New Artist, beating out beloved pop trio Hanson, which seemed to be some kind of affront to the natural order of things. Everyone knows what happened next. In her acceptance speech, she referenced Maya Angelou, urged fans to be themselves and said the four words that might still be the ones most associated with her: “This world is bulls---.”
After that, Apple became a universal figure of scorn, even though the men of grunge had been making the same point for years: Winning an award makes you one of the popular kids. It turns you into the shiny thing you hated. And so it was open season, a case study in how not to treat somebody. A 1997 Spin cover story, arch but not unsympathetic, traumatized Apple for years. “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl,” it explained, as if, then as now, being both those things at once wasn’t mandatory. Apple told the writer she planned to release another album and then die, a quote that would trail her for years. Terry Richardson took the accompanying photos.
For Apple, fame seemed — seems — baffling and mortifying. “I’m impressed with myself for getting here,” she told the Spin writer, “but I’m not so impressed with here.” At a party celebrating the story that humiliated her, Apple, a trapped animal, tried to hide from guests behind a curtain. “I am making all of my mistakes in public,” she told a notably unsympathetic New York Times reporter. “I’m just hoping that if I can be raw about my emotions and not hide anything, I can show people my age and younger it’s O.K.”
The partygoers seemed to be waiting in anticipation for Apple to break down and appeared pleased when she did: “She crumpled into a chair, tears streaming down her mascara-smeared face, an MTV Ophelia,” Phoebe Hoban wrote in the New York Times. “ ‘We’re in crisis mode now,’ ” a satisfied guest said, because people could say things like this back then, and it was fine. The way we now talk about almost everything — mental illness, sexual assault, the male gaze — is so seismically different, even if it’s still not different enough. In the ’90s, nobody had to endure the peculiar combination of condescension, contempt and she-looks-so-thin-I-just-hope-she’s-okay concern trolling that Apple did. Not even Courtney Love.
“Tidal,” rocket-boosted by these controversies, went triple platinum. Its follow-up, “When the Pawn . . .” was incrementally happier, but that wasn’t saying a lot. Apple retreated to her Venice, Calif., home and rarely emerged. She has released only two albums since the mid-period “Extraordinary Machine,” giving her five in 25 years. The latest, the spartan, percussion-centric “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” was released during the early days of the pandemic, to near universal acclaim. The Times called her “the patron saint of not leaving the house.” Apple was finally made for these times. Apple has gotten better as her work has grown less accessible; she now appears to have settled into her Latent Tom Waits phase.
She recently told an interviewer she didn’t want to be nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy alongside Taylor Swift because she was afraid Swifties would bully her. She wasn’t being awards show-averse, just reasonable. She didn’t get an Album of the Year nomination, but she won two Grammys anyway — and slept through the ceremony.