October 96

Fiona Apple's Criminal: Video Voyeurism for the 90's. by Mark Zeltner

When her debut album was released in 1996, Fiona Apple seemed an unlikely candidate for musical stardom. But Apple happened to time things just right. Riding on a wave of interest created by other female singer-songwriters, Apple has managed to defy the odds against success. Apple's first video "Shadowboxer" received heavy air play on MTV and VH-1 and the album received a large number of positive reviews. Sales of the album have been re-energized and seem to be peaking with the heavy airplay of Apple's video for the single "Criminal" on both MTV and VH-1. But with this video, Apple takes a deliberate step away from her female peers. The difference between Apple and her contemporaries is that she is not pursuing the tough independent image that is now dominant among other female singer-songwriters. Apple seems to be using her gawky adolescent sexuality to promote a sexually compliant persona that is more in keeping with the sexually exploitative early years of music video.

"I've been a bad bad girl ..."
For the last few years several dynamic woman rockers have dominated the charts and altered the primarily masculine viewpoint of popular music. Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette, and Joan Osbourne have all been successful by presenting gritty, sometimes almost masculine, music. Morrissette in particular has become popular because of her caustic songs about poisonous relationships and duplicitious men. As a necessary part of the rock and roll promotion package all of these women have participated in making videos for consumption by MTV and VH-1, the current arbiters of what is hot and what is not in popular music. All have created interesting visual accompaniments to their songs, which promoted the tough independent image they desired. Morrissette was particularly successful in combining idiosyncratic but nonetheless fascinating images with her searing lyrics.

The independent and essentially non-exploitative style of these videos can be traced back to female musical artists of the early eighties. Prior to the early eighties MTV was dominated by videos in which women were depicted as back-up singers, dancers or in other minor roles, but their major purpose was to be beautiful objects to be looked at and desired by adolescent males (Jhally, 1990). Jhally also claims that women in the early days of music video defined themselves by their relationship to the male gaze. The women in these videos seemed to pose for the camera and wanted to be objects of voyeurism.

But in the early eighties a number of female artists attempted to reframe the discourse of music videos (Lewis, 1990). Lewis says that these female artists were creating female-address videos that challenged assumptions about boundaries that gender, as a social construct, draws around men and women. Male-address videos, in contrast, position girls and women as objects of male voyeurism. Lewis used videos primarily by Cyndi Lauper and Madonna to illustrate her point. Madonna in particular was identified as someone who used her image and her videos to "tap into and disturb established hierarchies of gender and sexuality" (Schulze, White, Brown, 1993). Other critics noted how Madonna made meanings and pleasures available to her fans instead of her critics. They positioned Madonna as a positive role model for young adolescent girls (Fiske 1987; Lewis 1987). Now that Lauper has sunken into semi-obscurity and Madonna spends her time starring in overproduced film versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, women such as Morrissette and Apple are left to take up the fight. But Apple in particular is not following the lead of her predecessors in her use of the music video format. In contrast to Fiske and Lewis' critical reaction to Madonna's videos, it would be difficult to make a case for Apple's sexually-charged child abuse fantasies (as seen in her "Criminal" video) as a depiction of a positive role model for adolescent girls.

Before the video itself is analyzed for content, it is worthwhile to document a little of Apple's short life. In 1989, Apple, then 12 years old, was raped by an intruder in the apartment building she shared with her mother and sister on Manhattan's Upper West Side (Helligar, 1996). This incident has been alluded to by Apple in a number of interviews and is said to be the inspiration for a number of the songs on her latest album, Tidal. In 1994 Apple gave a demo tape of three songs to a friend who was the babysitter for music publicist Kathryn Schenker. Schenker passed the tape along to producer and manager Andrew Slater who helped Apple land a recording contract with Sony Music. These details are important because they have become well known to Apple fans and are a vital part of her image, much like the story of Elvis' discovery while recording a birthday song to his mother has become an indelible part of his legend. In other words, from the beginning, Apple has presented herself as a sexually abused child--a disturbing concept when combined with the impact of the visual images of Apple's "Criminal" video.

"I've been careless with a delicate man" "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.

The first image seen in the video is a medium shot of Apple holding a small camera and taking a snapshot of ... US. From the first seconds, the video pushes the audience into the position of sexual voyeur. With that one simple act, Apple lets us know that she knows she is being watched and that she has the evidence. The opening image of the video is eerily striking in that it is a direct rebuke of some critics' notions of women taking control of the direct address of the gaze in music videos of the early eighties (Lewis, 1990; Stockbridge, 1990). In other words, Madonna was looking directly at the audience and declaring control over her sexuality--which meant that she was nullifying the power of the male gaze. Apple welcomes the gaze from the first seconds of "Criminal," but she also lets us know that there might be a price to pay for our pleasure.

The second shot of the video is of a rather tattered looking stuffed animal. Another foreshadowing of the criminal acts to follow and a reference to Apple's age (or her apparent age in the video, which is a good four or five years less than her 19 years). The next fifteen seconds of shots set the stage for the rest of the video. We see the front fender of a sports car, a few discarded beer bottles on the floor, and a number of images of what appears to be someone's barely remodeled basement rec room. The decor is seventies tacky with cheap wood paneling and a hideous pea-green carpet covered with unidentified stains. These images are interspersed with another camera shot by Apple and a second shot of her looking directly at the camera with a knowing expression.

Twenty seconds into the video we see the first shot that indicates who is in the basement with Apple. It is an overhead shot of Apple sprawled out on the floor with her head resting on the legs of another woman. A man's feet are visible under a glass coffee table in the upper left portion of the frame and a second man's head is visible in the bottom of the frame. Several slices of half-eaten pizza and an ashtray rest on the coffee table. The faces of none of the other people in this shot are visible. This facelessness is maintained throughout the video.

Apple begins the lyrics of the song twenty-three seconds into the video. "I've been a bad, bad girl, I've been careless with a delicate man," sings Apple as she stares into the camera and gives the audience a little half-smile. In this shot, as in several others in the video, the pupils of Apple's eyes are bright red in an obvious imitation of bad flash photography. This little camera trick is quite effective in increasing the low-rent, creepy feeling of the video. Immediately after singing this line we see a medium shot of Apple zipping up her pants. The implication of what she did that was "bad" is fairly obvious at this point.

For the next fourteen seconds, we see a collage of images of Apple and her companions on the floor of the basement. She appears to be the only person conscious at this point. "When a girl will break a boy just because she can," Apple sings through this sequence. What boy is she singing about? The initial implication is that she is singing about one of the men surrounding her on the floor, but at this time, the image and the lyrics do not make this relationship clear.

Forty-four seconds into the video the scene shifts to a bathroom. A shower-head spurts a brief blast of water, and then we see Apple sitting on the toilet and singing while a man takes a bath in the background. Once again, we see only the feet of this person. "I've done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins," sings Apple at the beginning of this sequence, still implying that she wronged one of the video's male participants. But the succeeding lyrics drastically change the focus of the song and the video.

In the closing moments of the bathroom sequence, Apple sings, "I've come to you 'cause I need guidance to be true and I just don't know where I can begin." Only at this point do the lyrics and the visual images synchronize their meaning. Apple is not only visually addressing the audience but she is verbally addressing us. The focus of the song now moves away from her relationship with the men in the video (who are only faceless creatures anyway) and shifts toward her relationship with us.

The bathroom scenario is used for approximately another twenty seconds before it is interspersed with a new situation. At one minute and five seconds into the video, a man (again faceless) opens a closet door to reveal Apple, her hair in pigtails, sitting amongst the shoes on the floor of the closet. The sequence cuts back and forth between the bathroom and the closet interspersed with several shots of two crumpled pillows on the floor. This entire montage of shots portrays Apple as something less than a possession. She is someone who is reduced to hiding in the closet or the bathroom. The early thrill of voyeurism that was encouraged in the opening seconds of the video now begins to sour.

The song hits its chorus and Apple sings, "What I need is a good defense 'cause I'm feelin' like a criminal. And I need to be redeemed to the one I've sinned against because he's all I ever knew of love." At this point it becomes apparent that the man she has wronged is someone other than the men that perpetually surround her in the video, and she is asking us, the audience, for a type of redemption. Of course her actions betray her words because it is apparent that she is inviting us, as voyeurs, to join her in her sins.

At a minute and thirty seconds into the video the scene shifts to the kitchen. Apple, dressed like a little girl in knee socks and a slip, begins to strip off her clothing. Her strip is not of a sexual design but more in keeping with the awkward adolescent that Apple is, or at least is portraying. Of course, in reality, this type of strip has much greater sexual power than any mere Madonna-like bump and grind that could be performed at this point. The lyrics during the strip sequence reinforce the direct address to the audience. She asks us to "save her from these evil deeds" while she admits that "tomorrow brings the consequence at hand."

At a minute and forty seconds, this scenario is intercut with shots of Apple now in the bathtub with a man. While Apple leers suggestively at us, we see only her face and the man's feet. The difference here is that Apple has regained the come-hither facial expressions of the early seconds of the video. When these shots are interspersed with the almost frightening vulnerability of the strip scene in the kitchen (made more harrowing by Apple's extremely thin and fragile physical appearance), we are thrust directly into the dichotomy of the situation. Apple is a woman AND a child and we are as guilty, as criminal, as the man sharing her bathtub.

Approximately two minutes into the video, the kitchen scenario is dropped and we see Apple singing in front of what appears to be a glass window that looks into a swimming pool. Several men and women swim past the window. These shots are intercut with shots of Apple apparently in the same pool and shots of Apple resting prone on the lap of a man with his pants unzipped. At this point a variety of scenarios begin occurring with occasional flashbacks to the first few seconds of the video. The two most interesting sequences are a series of shots of a man's (?) pair of jeans flung on a chair. The shots eventually pan to the left until we see a small stuffed animal carefully placed in the corner of the room. The other sequence again features Apple taking snapshots, but this time she is photographing a woman who is facing her but has her back to us. Once again, these sequences brilliantly play up the themes of voyeurism and forbidden sex that dominate the video.

During these sequences, Apple asks us to help her "cleanse myself of all these lies till I'm good enough for him." The images shift between Apple as the adolescent child and Apple as the sexually promiscuous woman who asks us for help while inviting us to ogle her at the same time.

The themes of voyeurism and forbidden sex are again emphasized when at two minutes and thirty-seven seconds into the video two new scenarios are introduced. First we see a television, its screen filled with static, rising ominously out of the floor (a pretty nice accessory for such a tacky apartment). Then we see a shot of the engine of the previously introduced sports car. These shots seem to have little to do with the rest of the video until we later see that Apple is apparently trapped in the backseat of the sports car and that someone is videotaping and printing photographs of her in the sports car and subsequently in a sauna. Again the twin images of youthful, forbidden sexuality (the backseat of a sports car) are combined with voyeurism. The bridge of the song occurs during this sequence and the lyrics are the most revealing yet of Apple's position as a narrator. She sings, "I've got to make a play to make my lover stay so what would an angel say. The devil wants to know." Apple moves beyond admitting guilt for a mistake and for the first time in the video admits to her own duplicity.

The video hits the final chorus of the song at three minutes and eleven seconds and the scene shifts to Apple in bed with an apparently sleeping man. As she sings to the camera, it becomes apparent that a number of people in the video are sitting around and watching her, much as we are.

The final play-out of the song, after the end of the lyrics, revisits all the scenarios of the video already presented. There is one interesting additional scenario added during this sequence: as the music of a snake-charmer creeps into the mix, Apple holds a bottle of dish detergent. She squeezes the bottle and a blob of pink liquid floats into the air. The final two images of the video show Apple looking guiltily at us and then the bathtub filling up while six or seven oranges float in the water.

The sexual connotations of the dish detergent sequence are too obvious to require much discussion. Like the earlier spurting shower shot, the camera shot is uncharacteristically blunt and graphic and amusingly obvious in its implications. The final two shots are more puzzling. Is there going to be a cleansing or redemption at the end of this evening? Exactly who is looking for redemption--Apple or the perpetrators of the crime (in other words us)?

In comparing the sexual connotations of the video to some of Apple's feminine predecessors, specifically the ubiquitous Madonna, some might see a connection. Wasn't the point of Madonna's videos that even though they were bathed in sexual imagery they presented a feminine viewpoint that was controlled by the artist? The lyrics of "Criminal" blatantly suggest that Apple has control over the sexual situations presented (including our own complicity). But the images provide a separate message from the lyrics. This is a video about a sexual situation which Apple, as the gawky adolescent she portrays, has no control over despite what the lyrics of the song might imply. The video actually plays into the male rape fantasy--that women entice or "come on" to men and in that way are actually at fault for the man's abuse.

If Apple and director Romanek are aiming for some kind of ironic message about the dangers of teenage sexuality than they are using a blunt weapon. The Madonna comparison is once again appropriate here because her entire career has been built on her ironic presentations of male conceptions of female sexuality. "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl" are both videos that lampoon and denigrate men's attempts to sexually control women while simultaneously encouraging them to try again. The images in "Criminal" are too disturbing and simply too enticing to be taken as ironic. Apple is not lampooning the sexual attention of men. She is reveling in that attention.

"What I need is a good defense"
The recent sales surge in Apple's year old album (Dance Fever, 1997) indicates that "Criminal" has hit a nerve with the record buying public. The question is--what nerve did it hit and in whom? If Madonna is declared a positive role model for adolescent girls because of her defiant, take-charge stance in her videos, then what can be said about Apple's influence on her fans and her peers? The images in "Criminal" represent a step back to the early "women-as-sexual-backdrop" origins of music video. Apple presents herself as a sexual victim and then invites the audience to take part in the assault. This video come-on is even more shocking when the viewer knows something of Apple's actual sexual history, which by now, thanks to MTV, has become a vital part of Apple's press package.

Of course all of this would be moot if "Criminal" wasn't effectively shot and edited. Romanek creates a dream-like, almost hypnotic effect in his video interpretation of a not particularly memorable song. And of course, Apple's gawky, adolescent sex appeal is a vital part of the equation. The question now is whether Apple will mature and use the career momentum supplied by "Criminal" to push for more positive images of herself and women in general in her future videos. If Apple continues to play on her video sex appeal to sell her music then she is likely doomed to a short and turbulent career.


email me