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Sonically, "Criminal" contains much of what has made Fiona Apple such a distinctive and successful artist. Deep, resonant piano tones combine with a hip-hop drum pattern and unconventional chord progressions to create a mood that is definitely unique, and even unsettling at times.
Three musical elements are introduced at the beginning of the song, each of which serves a different purpose: piano, drums, and flute.
The piano—Apple's primary instrument—provides the backbone of the song, initially emerging in stabbing increments but ultimately guiding the evolution of the track.
The percussive elements, which build throughout the song, follow a traditional hip-hop drum pattern, with prominent snare hits and up-tempo hi-hats.
The flute, with its lighter quality, offsets the seriousness of the song's subject matter and highlights the singer's ironic tone, particularly at the beginning of the track. Does Apple really feel bad about being a "bad, bad girl"?
All of the instruments build in intensity as Apple transitions into the song's chorus, where additional—and somewhat cacophonous—piano parts serve to mirror the singer's inner conflict. The music comes to a crescendo in the bridge, the song's lyrical climax. Apple pleads:
Let me know the way
Before there's hell to pay
Give me room to lay the law and let me go
And the chord progression shifts while the music grows louder and more layered. In this manner, Apple utilizes sonic elements to confront her audience and enhance the forcefulness of her message. This isn't a song—or a singer—that will fade easily into the background.
Though the music plays a vital role in setting the mood for the track, the quality of Fiona Apple's voice is the song's true signature. Apple has a tattoo of the letters FHW, which stand for "Fiona Has Wings," on her back. But it would probably be more accurate to say that Fiona's voice has wings.
Only a teenager when "Criminal" was recorded, Apple sounds wise beyond her years, her voice laden with a maturity and depth of experience one would expect from someone at age 39, not 19. Her vocal presence—commanding, mystical, and at times ethereal—is the force that ties together the song's different components and serves to cement an atmosphere of moral tension and inner strife.
From a lyrical standpoint, the hallmark of "Criminal" is Fiona Apple's use of extended metaphor. In this case, likening herself to a criminal on trial.
Though her sins are never enumerated, she confesses to "breaking" a boy "just because she can," and alludes to the pain that she has caused her lover. While it would make sense for an adversary—her paramour, perhaps—to occupy the position of prosecutor, it's the narrator herself—or more accurately, her conscience—who serves that role. The narrator even refers to herself as "the devil" during the song's bridge.
The judge, whose identity remains a mystery, stands as a beacon of wisdom and moral righteousness. The narrator appeals to them repeatedly throughout the song:
I've done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins
I've come to you 'cause I need guidance to be true
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
Let me know the way, before there's hell to pay
Although the narrator is eager to receive her punishment, the judge never hands down a decision, leaving the narrator in a state of moral limbo.
In numerous interviews, Fiona Apple has stated that she uses songwriting as a way to work out her personal issues. Since she was a young girl, the singer has kept extensive journals filled with lyrics and poems, many of which form the basis for future songs.
Apple discovered the cathartic power of songwriting at the age of ten, after being deemed mentally unstable and sent for psychiatric evaluation. The singer was overheard at school saying, "I am going to kill myself, and I'm going to bring my sister with me" (source).
Songwriting became an outlet for repressed emotions, a way for the young Apple to deal with the conflict and pain in her life. Ultimately, though, it became an avenue for understanding and self-knowledge.
As she told MTV in 1996, "I'm such an incredibly, stupidly sensitive person that everything that happens to me, I experience it really intensely. I feel everything very deeply. And when you feel things deeply and you think about things a lot and you think about how you feel, you learn a lot about yourself." (Source)
In her lyrics, Apple has consistently explored themes of strength, defiance, ownership, and moral righteousness. She explained to Spin in 1997, "I've spent my whole life not being listened to, or taken seriously, or respected for my opinions. That makes me need to say what I feel and have complete control over the way that it's done. And to make hundreds of people sit down and listen. That's kind of sick when you think about it, that I have to get up there and grind my hips in front of a bunch of people." (Source)
For Apple, songwriting is an empowering endeavor, one that allows the singer to express opinions and emotions on her own terms. But as a woman, she has to "grind her hips" to get the message across. It's a game of tug of war.
So, "Criminal" can be viewed as Apple's unique and deeply personal meditation on sin, guilt, and the essential conflict between desire and obligation.