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I've been a bad, bad girl
Fiona Apple, along with contemporaries like Alanis Morissette, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and Tori Amos, represented a new class of "bad girls" in music: women who were complex, rebellious, independent, and not afraid to show it.
The mid to late-1990s gave birth to a wave of post-grunge, alt-rock, no-holds-barred female artists. 1997 was epochal. It was the year that Fiona Apple burst onto the scene and it was the same year another female rocker, Meredith Brooks, scored a #2 hit with the anthemic song "B****."
Throughout her career, Apple has never shied away from speaking her mind. In "Sleep to Dream," the second single off her debut album, she declares:
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
She might be talking to a lover, an adversary, or...the world at large.
In an off-the-cuff acceptance speech after winning "Best New Artist" at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, Apple bluntly declared, "This world is bulls---," and went on to tell viewers, "You shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we're wearing and what we're saying." (Source)
That's not exactly the kind of thing a "good" girl would say.
I've been careless with a delicate man
And it's a sad, sad world
When a girl will break a boy just because she can
In popular media, women are often portrayed as passive, docile, and delicate. Men, on the other hand, are usually seen as active, independent, and strong.
In "Criminal," Apple pulls a gender-role 180 and casts herself, the woman, as the power-player in the relationship.
It's interesting to analyze the music video for "Criminal," criticized by some for presenting an over-sexualized and "underfed" Apple, in terms of its depiction of men.
Though the camera captures myriad male body parts, including torsos, legs, arms, and fingers, the faces to which these appendages belong are never shown. The men, in a very fundamental sense, are being objectified. So, much like the scantily clad women who appear in contemporary rap videos, the men serve merely as accessories and visual playthings.
In this way, the video represents another form of gender role reversal: it's the men who are nameless, faceless, and utterly replaceable.
Don't you tell me to deny it
With the mention of "you," Apple announces that she's speaking to somebody, although it's unclear just who that person is.
Ultimately, the song begs the question, who is the judge?
If you asked Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis and the man who coined the term "penis envy," he would probably say that Apple's dilemma stems from a conflict between her id, the part of her brain responsible for basic, primal urges, and her superego, the internalization of society's morals and norms.
Viewed from a psychoanalytic perspective, "Criminal" encapsulates the most basic of all human struggles, the internal battle between what we want to do and what we ought to do.
I've done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins
Fiona Apple, notorious for engaging in destructive behaviors in her personal life, appears to possess a very real desire to want to "suffer for her sins."
In a 1997 Rolling Stone cover story, Apple told her interviewer that she often bites her lip as hard as she can. On purpose:
"And it'll be bleeding, and I can't stop, because it almost feels so good when I bite my lip," she said. "It was never, like, 'I am going to hurt myself and put myself in the hospital.' It is that I am going to give myself the pain that I need to feel to put the punctuation on this s--- that's going on inside." (Source)
For Fiona Apple, it appears that art imitates life.
I've come to you 'cause I need guidance to be true
And I just don't know where I can begin
What I need is a good defense
'Cause I'm feeling 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 first blush, you might think that if you loved someone, you wouldn't break him "just because you can." Dysfunctional relationship alert.
Fiona Apple's complicated, conflicted relationship with her lover in this song likely has its roots in the singer's traumatic personal life.
First, Apple's parents divorced when she was a young child. Her father then moved from New York—where Apple would spend the majority of her youth—to California. Then, at the age of twelve, Apple was raped by a stranger outside of her mother's apartment (an experience with which she grapples in the song "Sullen Girl").
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the singer acknowledged the ways in which this violent assault has profoundly shaped and complicated her relationships with men. She states that she "had really bad boyfriends for a lot of times that had slight physical resemblances to the man that raped me" (source).
Heaven help me for the way I am
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
Fiona Apple, whose surname evokes the sinful fruit, alludes here to her immutable, depraved nature. Also implied is the uncontrollable and predestined nature underlying the commitment of certain "evil deeds."
According to the book of Genesis, Eve, under the persuasion of a manipulative serpent and against the direct orders of God, takes fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and feeds it to herself and Adam. Immediately afterward, both Adam and Eve become self-aware and ashamed of their nakedness. God subsequently banishes them from the Garden of Eden.
Some Christians refer to this incident as the Fall of Man and believe that all descendants of Adam, a.k.a. all people, are born into sin. Apple's lyrics in "Criminal" dovetail nicely with a conception of humanity that assumes an innate predilection for sinful behavior.
I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand
But I keep living this day like the next will never come
Apple, who wrote "Criminal" as a teenager, exhibits the recklessness of a young lover.
Psychological research has shown that the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, the prefrontal cortex, is the last part of the brain to fully develop. The prefrontal cortex continues to grow and change through an individual's early '20s.
Which explains why we're more likely to make bad decisions as teenagers than as young adults.
Damage to a person's prefrontal cortex can lead to an inability to inhibit impulses, plan ahead, and make good decisions.
Damage to this part of the brain was starkly evident in the 1848 case of Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who, in a freak on-the-job accident, got a metal pole lodged in his prefrontal cortex. Following the injury, Gage was a completely different man. Before, he'd been deliberative and responsible, and then he was reckless and impulsive.
Gage's doctor said of his patient, "He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires... A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man... His mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was 'no longer Gage.'" (Source)
Oh help me but don't tell me to deny it
I've got to cleanse myself of all these lies 'till I'm good enough for him
Although early in the song Apple projects an image of strength and power ("I've been careless with a delicate man"), she's clearly conflicted about her own self-worth.
One of the ways that Fiona Apple dealt with feelings of inadequacy in her personal life was by not eating. When the music video for "Criminal" came out, viewers and critics alike were quick to decry Apple's waifish, emaciated figure. The singer initially refuted claims of anorexia.
She later admitted that she did, in fact, have an eating disorder and weighed as little as 95 pounds at certain points in her career. In "Paper Bag," a track from her second album, she concisely sums up her troubled relationship with food, saying, "Hunger hurts, but starving works."