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So if this song isn't a confession of actual deeds done, what is it? A fantasy?
Maybe. But whether or not Fiona Apple was ever truly "careless with a delicate man," one thing is clear: she feels conflicted about it.
The track begins with a provocative and direct statement – "I've been a bad, bad girl" – that sets the tone for the rest of the song. Rather than narrate her own heartbreak, Apple casts herself as the villain, the "criminal" in the relationship. She is strong, powerful, and assertive, the kind of girl who does what she wants without considering the consequences. Although she professes to be "bad," there's a hint of irony in her voice – a tacit implication that being bad might actually feel a little bit good.
This empowered stance likely has its roots in Apple's personal life. After being raped as a young girl, the singer told Interview, she became stronger, more confident: "rape is the most humiliating thing that can be done to you; it's the most vulnerable that you can be…Now I feel like whatever I do, no one can hurt me. I cannot be violated, I cannot be humiliated, I cannot be disregarded, I cannot be disrespected. If I respect myself and believe in what I'm doing, no one can touch me." In "Criminal," it is the man, and not the narrator, who is capable of being violated and humiliated. Apple alludes to the fact that she is compelled by some inner force to commit "evil deeds" against her lover – a power dynamic that reverses traditional gender roles and draws into question our assumptions about how men and women are supposed to treat one another.
However, "Criminal" isn't just about doing bad things and getting away with it. The narrator feels a persistent sense of guilt for her actions and repeatedly asks for forgiveness, to be guided toward the path of righteousness. Apple sings, "I'm begging you, before it ends just tell me where to begin." There is an urgency, a visceral pain in her voice. As listeners (or more accurately, as voyeurs) we can practically feel the ache of her moral dilemma. Propelled toward sin but aware of the repercussions, the narrator struggles throughout the song to find solid ground. In the chorus, she insists that what she needs is a "good defense." But why? And for whom? It's never quite clear exactly who needs to be persuaded or convinced of the narrator's underlying goodness.
Like Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's tragic hero in Crime and Punishment, Apple's protagonist is trapped inside her own head, wrestling with conceptions of right and wrong. More than anything, the song is a manifestation of an inner conflict, a dialogue between competing parts of the narrator's psyche. 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," a line that captures both her desperation to keep her lover and her feelings of almost irreversible compunction. The lyrics to "Criminal," rich with torment, probably wouldn't seem out of place alongside one of Shakespeare's legendary soliloquies (there are actually some striking similarities between the song's narrator and the famously remorseful Lady Macbeth). Sadly though, we never find out if the narrator successfully atones for her misdeeds, changes her ways, or at the very least, gets the chance to apologize to her wronged lover. The song ends almost exactly where it begins: with a conflicted, remorseful woman searching for answers.
But the answer may be that there are no answers. Fiona Apple refers to many absolutes in her lyrics – hell, heaven, criminal, sins, law, angels, devils – but it seems that the truth ultimately lies somewhere in between. In an interview with Tribeca, Apple intimated that "Tidal is the name of the album because it's about extremes. People try to reach summits while avoiding torments. They don't realize that's it's by touching the deep end that you reach the top." We might think of "Criminal" as addressing the "torments" of a relationship: the feelings of strength and vulnerability, power and powerlessness, self-righteousness and remorse. These feelings inevitably co-exist but also remain at odds with one another. In some ways, Apple's lyrics seem to contradict themselves – the narrator relishes her power and independence while also admitting to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Ultimately the song begs the question: is it possible to feel strong and weak at the same time? According to Fiona Apple, it certainly is.
On the surface, "Criminal" appears to be about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. But the song's implications extend further. Following the release of the music video (which depicts a gaunt, scantily-clad Apple seductively listing off her "evil deeds"), Apple caught a great deal of flak from the media. Critics argued that the video's blatant sexuality contradicted the singer's message of female empowerment. In response, Apple noted that the song is not merely about a relationship with a man, but also about her relationship with the world. She told Rolling Stone, "When I say, 'I've been a bad, bad girl, I've been careless with a delicate man' -- well, in a way I've been careless with a delicate audience, and I've gotten success that way, and I've lived in my ego that way, and I feel bad about it. And that's what the song's about, and therefore, that's what the video looks like."
Only nineteen years old when she released her first album, Fiona Apple matured – quite literally – in the spotlight. Bombarded with a wealth of demands, expectations, and opinions before her own identity was fully formed, the singer made her share of bad career decisions (she later admitted to regrets about the "Criminal" music video, noting that "it wasn't artistically relevant for me to be in my underwear." If we think about the song in a broader context, it's really an examination of big, timeless concepts: responsibility and guilt, failing to do what's right, and letting people (including yourself) down. In a 1997 letter to fans posted on her website, Apple expressed fears of sacrificing her individuality and "selling out": "I'd saved myself from misfit status, but I'd betrayed my own kind by becoming a paper doll in order to be accepted."
Whether in personal relationships or professional situations, it seems that mixed – and often contradictory – feelings extended to many aspects of the singer's life. In a revealing interview with the New York Daily News, Apple summarized her position nicely: "If I'm going to end up a role model, then I'd rather not end up being the kind of role model that pretends to be perfect, and pretends that she always has the right thing to say."