Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Fiona Apple cuts herself free

Abigail Howe

CN: Mentions of rape.

There’s an image of Fiona Apple, taken by Joe McNally, where she stands in a packed New York subway carriage in a full suit of armour. Referencing Joan of Arc, she stands tall and stares into the camera – unapologetic and powerful. In Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s vulnerable. Rather than a suit of armour, the album cover features an uneven title and a zoomed in shot of Apple’s face – it’s reminiscent of opening your phone on the front camera! The music has a similar sense of freedom; it features dogs barking, Cara Delevingne chanting, and Maude (Apple’s sister) breastfeeding. This liberation allows Apple to fetch her own bolt cutters and cut herself free from her past.

Apple was twelve when she was raped by a stranger in the apartment building where she lived. While discussing her song ‘Relay’ with Vulture, she says that “I wrote the line, “Evil is a relay sport, when the one you burn turns to pass the torch” when I was 15. I just always liked it. [If] you get burned by somebody, when the person who burns you doesn’t acknowledge it — which rarely happens to people, acknowledging when they’ve burned you — it turns into you not knowing what to do with it. Then you just put it on somebody else”. She refers to the Kavanaugh hearings, proclaiming “thank you, fucking Brett Kavanaugh, for letting my anger see the light of day: Thank you for being so horrible”. On ‘Relay’, she sings about her resentment – in a culture where the anger of women is policed, it is a political act to voice your rage. Through repetition, Apple embraces this fury but does not allow it to consume her. Instead, she responds: “don’t want to hurt you, but I don’t want to hurt myself, even more”. By rejecting her role in a cycle of abuse and manipulation, she finds freedom but remembers the need to hold abusers responsible.

‘For Her’ describes the sexual abuse of an intern in Hollywood who watches her boss “sniff white off a starlet’s breast / treating his wife like less than a guest / getting his girl to clean up his mess” before concluding with the shocking “good mornin’, good mornin’, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”. Describing this line, Apple said “my hope is that maybe some women and men will be able to sing along with that line and allow it to tell the truth for them. Because sometimes it’s just really hard to say, especially if you don’t want to hurt the person who did it to you. It’s hard to say something that harsh about it. So even though I felt like, Wow, it’s just a clunky thing to put in the middle of a song, I also feel it’ll be important to the people it matters to”. In ‘For Her’, she sings in unison with other women while telling an anonymous woman’s story. When complicated hierarchies (intensified by the increasing numbers of NDAs) can silence survivors, it’s important that others speak up for them. Just like in Apple’s song ‘Ladies’, women need to stand together – particularly when there’s a risk of others splitting them apart. However, Apple is far too intelligent to reduce abuse to one hierarchy. In ‘Shameika’, she sings about her damaged relationships with women after bullying during her time at school. Cycles of manipulation and abuse begin young, it seems. But Apple highlights the importance of speaking up – she begins ‘Under the Table’ with “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me” before insisting that “I won’t shut up”.

After exploring these songs, it would be easy to label Apple as angry and cynical – even if she is healing. In ‘Left Alone’, from her last album The Idler Wheel…, she asked “how can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” Isolation as a solution to previous suffering is understandable but limits healing. Vulnerability is essential to love. Apple begins Fetch the Bolt Cutters with a track titled ‘I Want You to Love Me’. This isn’t a desperate plea or a bold demand. Instead, she’s embracing future possibility without sacrificing self-growth. When describing the process of writing ‘I Want You to Love Me’ with Vulture, Apple explained how “I exist whether or not you see me. These things about me are true whether or not you acknowledge them”. She is independent and free. Similarly, TIME describes her response to a previous comment she’d made that “there’s no hope for women” – “Apple patiently explained that she was a scared kid back then and that the music industry in particular had changed for the better in recent years. “We’re gonna be fine!” she exclaimed, shifting into encouraging-big-sister mode. “There’s always hope for women. We are hope”.

When asked who should be fetching the bolt cutters in an interview with NPR, Apple responded “I am, you are, the listener is. Everybody is. It’s sort of “Fetch your tool of liberation. Set yourself free”. This call to arms is emphasised through the music itself – what The New Yorker refers to as “an invigorating document of energy, innovation, spontaneity, catharsis”. Ultimately, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about taking up space and making yourself heard – even if others don’t want to listen to you.

Image credit: Joe McNally.