Susannah Young on Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006) and Fiona Apple’sThe Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)
(Rdio, Spotify, iTunes / Rdio, Spotify, iTunes)
In 2012, I turned 30 and decided to start therapy.
Various “adults you trust” had suggested for years that it might be a good idea for me to take steps toward taming the anxiety beast, hoping that it’d make me a happier person and therefore more pleasant to be around. But for many years, I was totally not on board.
I’m obviously not alone in getting suspicious and dismissive when people start casting aspersions on a woman’s mental well-being and trying to solve what’s “wrong” with her. Calling a woman “crazy” is a weighty matter; for centuries it’s been a convenient and socially-sanctioned way to invalidate women’s opinions, dismiss their actions, punish them emotionally. As a label, it’s not only isolating—it keeps you focused on your behavior and, in doing so, prevents you from moving past any issues you might really have. Slapping the “crazy” label on a woman is an quick fix, a way to immediately immobilize a situation that was escalating beyond your control. It’s a label that sticks, and a way to ensure women stay stuck.
The problem is, no-nstop anxiety is its own immobilizing force. Your attention is constantly divided and you’re never completely out of your own head. There’s always at least one part of your brain devoted to re-living something awful, or thinking through every way a situation could go wrong, Choose Your Own Adventure-style. Nothing is ever completely fun; you’re never completely present, and it makes you feel selfish—yet another thing for you to feel awful about.
Before I began therapy, I expended too much brainpower considering whether or not I wanted to or legitimately needed to take this step—which, not all that ironically, was its own source of anxiety. Would the therapist actually listen to me? What if I could be so much happier if I did this, but I never actually did it?
This was the leitmotif that lurked in the background of just about every moment in 2012—and as a result I didn’t really care about listening to any music where the artist held you at arm’s length. I flirted with Channel Orange, but throughout the year, Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and (y’all saw this one coming) Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do were constant companions. For both, discussion of them as women frequently preempts discussion of their work (“crazy over craft,” as Sady Doyle so eloquently put it). But even though music functions as far more than a coping mechanism for each artist, both of them can turn a phrase that captures an emotion succinctly and in a thoroughly crushing way, and both use songwriting to untangle a lot of mental snarls in their own distinct way.
Time and again on Fox Confessor, Case creates a character, situates him or her at a point in time that merits rumination but requires action, then trepanates that moment, bringing its full emotional scope to life, albeit from a safe distance. I suppose you never outgrow feeling safer and more comfortable using a conduit for emotions, as if by externalizing the problem and writing someone else into the situation, you’re ultimately able to make better decisions. Isn’t that why people start writing in the first place?
For me, Fox Confessor is fraught with uncomfortable nostalgia; it was released right after I graduated from college and slayed me then, so it’s a little embarrassing that it’s still such an emotional wallop seven years later. Right after college, I found myself alone in a city that had turned from “Finally Familiar and Friendly” to “Indifferent”; most of my friends moved away and moved on yet I was still stuck there. Although I wasn’t exactly in the same situation last year, there were a lot of times I didn’t want to be who I was or where I was—a thought that was often completely overwhelming and thus a source of paralyzing anxiety.
All the protagonists on Fox Confessor are either stuck in moments where they should be taking action—the little girl on “Star Witness,” the woman chastising herself for being damaged goods on “Hold On, Hold On”—or impartial observers of something beyond their control, like the omniscient narrator of “Dirty Knife.” Ouch, man. Anxiety yields stasis. You think the world will reward you for thinking things through, but when you overthink a situation, you do nothing improve your standing or make things different for Future You. It’s preparing yourself for the worst while doing nothing to actually prepare yourself.
But sometimes anxiety provokes the opposite response. Idler Wheel is the pot boiling over, Apple’s thoughtful, mature skewering of her relationship with Jonathan Ames. Emotion might float closer to the surface on Apple’s earlier albums, but on Idler Wheel it actually feels like there’s less distance between you and her. She’s not burying her feelings under fifty-cent words as much; the shades and shadows undulating in her perception are replaced with straightforward talk: “super guys,” “great guys,” “I don’t even like you all that much anymore.”
Idler Wheel is a woman walking the line between self-loathing and self-affirmation, jumping into either pool as she sees fit. Moody, sure—but also mature. For all the blame Apple heaps onto those who jilted her, she’s equally willing to shoulder her responsibility, as she does on “Werewolf.” And for the emotional range on display, she never comes off as messy. She’s able to shove that raw emotion into the ol’ brain-grinder and exude something that’s not just personal, but also completely capable of inspiring empathy. It definitely floored me. “Left Alone” is the best, most succinct encapsulation of what it’s like to feel anxious all the time and no way to shut it out: “My ills are reticulate/ My woes are granular/ The ants weigh more than the elephants.” Here’s a person whose attention is constantly divided, who’s constantly worrying about the wrong things, compartmentalizing problems and situations until they seem like they’re getting more manageable but are instead each gathering their own magnitude.
Apple spits anxiety and cultivates melodrama, but she does so in ways that always resonate and always seem to help her move forward—in her growth as a person, and in her evolution as an artist. By giving voice to thoughts like these, you often appear emotionally obsessive and emotionally possessive to others—but in actuality, you’re freeing yourself. Crying “crazy” is a way to control women, but action and expression are means of fighting back, exerting control over your situation. There’s no “fixing” anyone—we all know the fiction of that particular fix—but in the end, I’m a sensible girl. Time to step across the line.
Susannah Young tells nonprofit organizations what to do on a full-time basis, sometimes writes about music and tweets like once every three months.