Fiona Apple, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and Complex, Messy, Feminist Rage

Fiona Apple, "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" and Complex, Messy, Feminist Rage

Released April 17, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters is her first new album in eight years.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters was released into a world isolating and socially distancing, facing confinement or finding themselves unable to distance, without the means or freedom to be safe. The album is the kind you listen to from start to finish—then listen to again.  (I’ve started telling my family that I am “taking a walk with Fiona,” and leave wearing my headphones, not to be disturbed for fifty-one minutes.)

When I was five years old, my mom told me that my dog was going to die. She says that she watched me go through the five stages of grief—as if in an example from a textbook—in no longer than ten minutes. The stages came in a row, one right after another, until I entered the ‘acceptance’ stage and pet my dog. 

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is fifty-one minutes. In that time, I experienced something akin to my five-year-old stages of grief, prompted by the loss of a beloved black lab. 

But now, I think about abuse and heartbreak and trauma and violence and sex—and it takes more time.

After eighteen days of listening, I finally felt like I could write something. 

The album has both feminist under- and overtones. The most feminist aspect of the album, to me, is that it includes no ‘Girl Power’ anthems. It is complex and messy and it rages. It echoes the Apple who, in 1997, during her MTV Music Video Awards speech both quoted Maya Angelou and announced that “the world [is] bullshit.”

Apple reminds us that feminism doesn’t necessarily mean pretty slogans or palatable lyrics that can be tied in a bow and infiltrated into the public, like a trojan horse that will teach us to acknowledge her experience and the experience of women in a subtle, acceptable way.

Instead, she reminds us that we are allowed to be angry.

In Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she writes about personal experience and relationships and losses—which is what makes it so widely applicable. She doesn’t claim to speak for a singularized, universal women’s experience. Instead, from inside her home, she voices her truth in a way that is raw and seems to burst out and into each of us, allowing for an inner combustion of our own.

Not all of our emotions are pretty or in line with purported ‘feminist values.’ We are people, we do not live in a way that makes continued sense, we are complicated and contradictory and messy and our healing and experience is not always consistent or clear-cut. In fact, they rarely are. 

For many years now, and recently more than ever, I see catchy, concise feminist slogans and images—and I can appreciate them from a distance, yet feel little. My closest connection with and resonance to feminism comes when my insides feel raw, like they’ve been worn down with sandpaper, when I find myself beginning or wanting to scream, like some sort of feline who wants to run and to startle and to get so far away from any sort of normalcy that she can freely leap.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the perfect album for our current moment. It was made in solitude and with limited influence from the outside world, because this is simply how Apple chooses to live and create her art. She made the album in her home, using her home. She utilizes pots and kitchen appliances for percussion. She plays her walls, dogs bark in the background. Apple incorporates the domain that is so often distanced from supposed ‘great art;’ where women were taught that they were needed as justification for them not engaging in public, artistic discourse: the home. Apple uses the home as a place for quiet introspection, as well as growls and screams. 

Fetch the Bolt Cutters demonstrates the power, chaos and wisdom that are present within a home. Within a matter of walls, she brings an entire record and story and life to the world.

Incidentally, her album allowed me to process the pain and the hurt I acquired from a relationship that took place fully between four walls—which I had decided that, in response, must be insignificant. Rather than performing a sort of commercialized feminism to the outside world, Apple invites listeners into her own private sphere and inner life and experience—signifying that this quiet pain is enough to warrant screaming vocals and public revolution.

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Track 1: I Want You to Love Me

“Every print I’ve left upon the track has led me here.”

Her voice grows rapidly louder and begins to crack within the first chorus. The album starts as an outburst that every step and hurt and love and abuse has led to, like when you finally go to therapy and things begin to pour out and you build upon the past and suddenly are, for the first time, actually seated there in the small,  lime green office.

Radically vulnerable, Apple sings that she “wants you to love me.”  She is brave and she is herself—which does not mean she is immune to caring, to wanting to be loved, to craving softness. So often women and gender non-conforming people are taught that they must either be one thing or the other.

Apple challenges this idea, admits that she wants to be loved, wants to be loved for her movement and her body, that “in this body I want some body and I want what I want.”

By this point, she is nearly growling, her longing bursting through her—and through me as I listen. After being hurt, it is easy to become cold. Apple is aware of her own multiple subjectivities, and loudly announces that she wants others to crave and love her body, while knowing that this does not  mean that people have inherent access to it, or to hurting it.   

Track 2: Shameika 

One of the most important themes that Apple explores is her relationships to other girls and women. Apple is candid and thorough in this exploration in a way that, particularly in music, felt special and rare.

Shameika is the name of a girl in Apple’s middle school who told her that she had potential, while everyone else was bullying her.

“She got through to me and I’ll never see her again” Apple, who is now 42, sings.

On one of my quarantine-walks-with-Fiona, I listened to Shameika and thought about my high school English teacher, who I think about roughly once every four months. Probably everything I do on any given day is at least partially because of this teacher—a kind woman who rode horses, who laughed when I mocked the boys who passed my nudes between each other, rather than send me to the principal’s office to be reprimanded. I thought about the tiny cropped tops I wore, about how I smoked in bathroom stalls before and during most classes, how I didn’t do a smidge of work and instead walked back and forth past boys who had hurt me, with my chest stuck out.

During my first years of high school, I didn’t know the words for trauma or assault and didn’t know how deeply I was hurting. My English teacher seemed to see that I was, seemed to notice that maybe I wasn’t fully terrible but instead deeply hurting. She probably doesn’t remember telling me that I had potential—but she was the first person who got through to me, who I’ll likely never see again, who has affected nearly each part of my current reality.

Shameika wasn’t even Fiona Apple’s friend, yet she warranted an entire track on this album. This fact alone serves enormous testimony to the importance of recognition among girls and women. 

Track 3: Fetch the Bolt Cutters

The titular track—the turning point of the album.

According to the New Yorker, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a reference to the scene from “The Fall” in which a sex crimes investigator finds a locked door to a room in which a girl has been tortured. She calls for her bolt cutters to break the door open. Bolt cutters are violent, but only in a practical way. They’re less about inflicting violence and more about breaking free from it.

Apple sings about being too smart for something that her heart wasn’t attuned to. She allots the nuanced attention to the parts of herself that continue to hurt, regardless of the necessary time for healing that our society has prescribed for them.

She sings about the ways in which other girls and women have hurt her, how these hurts can stay with her longer and sharper than those inflicted by men—how these wounds often mean more.

“A girl can roll her eyes at me and kill.”

I am now a year out of a relationship with a man that hurt me and ground me down to a stub of a person. I hurt the most when I think about the women who don’t believe he was hurting me, the women who denied or belittled the times I was assaulted or sided with my assailant. It is enough to make me want to charge up a hill.

In Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple is breaking out because she decides that she has finally been “in here too long.” Here could mean many things. I thought of here as my body, home, relationships, gendered behaviors and expectations.

I’ve been running during quarantine. I’ve never been a runner—nor have I ever wanted to become one. I don’t like the unnatural in-through-the-nose-out-through-the-mouth puffing it requires. I don’t like running for no reason other than to keep my body a size that people seem to like. I know there are other reasons to run; I just haven’t found them. I think of my fat on my bones and the skin on each joint while I jog. I feel like a racehorse, looping round and round on an unscenic track without purpose.  

Apple says that she “grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill,” that she was in them, that she was still, until she realized she needed to “run up that hill.” This is the only way that I’d like to run: charging up a hill with a tear-stained face, Fiona Apple in my ears.

“I need to run up that hill” she repeats. “I will, I will, I will, I will.” The song is like a-later-in-life-refresher-course on The Little Engine that Could, catered to someone whose body continues to hurt from the physical and emotional ways it’s been kicked down and around.

The song ends with barking and anxious dogs, dogs sensing that maybe everything in their home isn’t safe or “okay.” 

Track 4: Kick me Under the Table 

Apple has fetched her bolt cutters and began kicking people under tables. She sings about a dinner party that she didn’t want to go to. She sings that no matter the amount of fancy wine or quiet looks, she won’t shut up. The song repeats in rounds, at increasing volumes, that Apple won’t shut up.

The song acknowledges that we are silenced often by literal kicking and hurting, in addition to the silence we learn through social cues and ostracism and glares across a table with strangers or people who we know intimately. 

For years, I’ve sat at Thanksgiving tables with people who continue to hurt me. I sit there quietly while I hurt from their silence. I listened to this song and thought about the absolute power in my potential to not be quiet at this dinner table—or beer pong table, or meeting, or hallway.  The power in not showing up to these dreaded Thanksgivings, the freedom of choosing not to sit in a room with people who do not believe you, who make your skin itch and crawl over itself.

Apple reminds her listeners that for at least nine more songs, she will not shut up. 

Track 5: Relay

Relay, for me, is one of the most powerful songs on the album. Apple sings about the vicious cycles of trauma and abuse in which so many of us remain trapped. She is justifiably, relentlessly angry.

“Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch.”

Apple wrote this song partially in response to the 2018 Supreme Court hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, a time when it seemed so much blood collectively boiled, while survivors across the country seemed to be inching towards bolt cutters of their own.

Apple sings and growls:

“I resent you for being raised right/

I resent you for being tall/

I resent you for never getting any opposition at all/

I resent you for having each other/

I resent you for being so sure/

I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure”

I think of the Instagram and Facebook posts that feature my smiling abuser hanging across a woman who I care about, their captions nearly screaming, “SEE, HE ISN’T AN ABUSER, LOOK HOW HAPPY WE ARE ON THIS CAMPING TRIP!”

Instead of participating in an endless and violent and destructive relay, Apple turns away from the course and instead charges up a hill of her own. Relay is a song you want to move to, that you want to sing outside one or many very specific windows while the smile of a Cheshire cat creeps across your face. As you leave the cycle with the person who pulled you into it.

There aren’t any anthems (at least that I can think of) about the active stance of removing yourself from cycles of abuse and trauma. There are songs about fucking and money and dumping people and being powerful for it. It felt unfamiliarly cathartic to feel that I was powerful by simply not perpetuating the process of hurting.

This song, as well as the entire album, is a purging. It is concerned with leaving it all there, so you can continue to move forward.

Track 6: Rack of His

Apple sings about the pain of loving someone, of following them from room to room as they continue to hurt you.

Apple doesn’t shy away from the fact that you can love the people who cause you immense pain. She is comfortable sitting with, by singing about, the inconsistencies that are inherent to human nature and lived experience. She reminds us that you are allowed to need to run up that hill and not always act like it.

Apple reminds us that it isn’t antithetical to feminism to not feel powerful. She sings about the people I’ve been with who I knew were hurting me, who I know I am acting small for, who I love and care for and so continue to shrink anyways.

Track 7: Newspaper

I cried, and continued to cry, all the way through Newspaper. For me, this was one of those specific songs that you decide must have been written for you. They are just that close to what you needed. This is the beauty of an album that sings about collective pain and experience.

Apple sings to the woman who is now with the man who abused her, about their shared experience and the specific and complicated relationship this forms between them. I can’t even know how many women I share this relationship with. There are a few that I know of and this is the song I would have sung them had I been a gifted lyricist.

Apple sings to her and to us:

“It’s a shame we didn’t get a witness/

we’re the only ones who know. We were cursed the moment that he kissed us/

From then on it was his big show”

She sings about wanting to impress that very man, how she worries about this woman, how she feels close to her, how she falls in love with her, how they share this specific bond that is defined in its very nature by silence and distance.

“I too used to want him to be proud of me/

and then I just wanted him to make amends/

I wonder what lies he’s told you about me/

to make sure that we’ll never be friends.”

The song addresses the unattained power of unity among women and survivors of abuse. There is no one who understands what you’ve been through better than the person who comes after you. This is the very person we are taught to despise, taught not to talk to.

Apple vocalizes the profound experience of knowing someone so intimately from a distance through their perceived, shared pain. She loves this woman, wants to protect her, tries not to hate her, is taught to resent her. Feels endlessly close to her. Apple’s voice rasps as she sings that she is alone on the summit now. 

Track 8: Ladies 

“Ladies Ladies Ladies Ladies” Apple begins, as if addressing her congregation, a congregation of ladies who are listening to this album and crying and healing and hurting.

She repeats Ladies with varied inflection and intonation, indoctrinating us all in our varied shapes and forms to this choir of lived and shared experience. She sings about the gifts she’d like to give the woman who moves into her ex’s home once she has left. She’s left these new women dresses and toiletries in the home and bed and relationship that was once hers.

I often find myself wanting to mother the women who will come after me. She sings about solidarity and collective care among ladies. She sings about this without being falsely enthusiastic. Apple recognizes that we don’t live in a world run by slogans.

“Revolving door that keeps turning out more and more good women like you/

yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.”

We’ve been taught to be enemies for most of our lives. Saying that we are all in something together will not make it so. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t cry listening to this song, thinking about the people who are hurting, thinking about the woman who came after me, sleeping where I used to sleep, using my fleece blanket.

The repetition throughout the song mimics the repetitive nature of these cycles of painful relationships—and the way women are treated as disposable and interchangeable, replaced through each beat of the song. We might be an endless stream of ladies and bodies to this particular man, but this song reinforces the idea of another woman thinking of you, who hasn’t forgotten.

Her call to ‘ladies’ is resigned—she’s tired of repeating herself, of yelling into a response-less void. She knows there are women to whom she won’t get through. This doesn’t mean that she’ll stop calling on her congregation, that she’ll stop trying.

If she’s learned anything from Shameika, if I’ve learned anything from my high school English teacher,  it’s just how much that single effort can mean.

Track 9: Heavy Balloon 

Apple is bursting at the seams. She utilizes inanimate objects—most of which can be found in her kitchen and her home—to describe the combustion of depression.

Heavy Balloon, a song about the experiences of depression and mental illness, is addressed to ‘people like us.’ Fetch the Bolt Cutters is entirely aware of connection and cycles and the fact that experiences of pain and oppression don’t stand apart from each other. A song does not need to be called ‘ladies’ to serve as an important, feminist address. 

Heavy Balloons seemed to go round in circles that felt familiar. I later learned that Apple, like myself, was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at a young age. She mirrors the obsessive compulsive experience of  repetitive thoughts and mantras through her music, bringing us into this messy and sometimes terrifying experience of looping thoughts.

Apple’s music reminds us that depression and experiences of mental health do not fall outside the reach of “women’ issues,” in the same way that women’s issues are not outside the influence of mental health. 

Track 10: Cosmonauts

Every song on the album is carefully placed and used to support the album’s overarching narrative. Listeners move from a heavy balloon, to a Cosmonaut, or relationship, whose very presence allows them to defy the rules of gravity.

“When you resist me, I cease to exist/

I only like the way I look when looking through your eyes”

The song discusses the ways in which we grow with, and change through, relationships. They can be explosive and not necessarily healthy or good. That doesn’t mean we do not crave them.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Cosmonauts comes directly after Heavy Balloon—and that their titles seem to be in direct opposition to each other. I know that for me personally, my mental health directly affects the reliance I feel on romantic relationships, like utilizing a space suit as a crutch to (temporarily) counteract the weight of a consistently heavy balloon. 

Track 11: For Her 

I am someone who sighs a lot. I am a huge proponent of the kind of deep and long sigh that starts in your pelvis and trickles out through your mouth in a swoosh so dramatic that it is easily mistaken as an infiltration of theater into usual patterns of breathing. I sigh often, without apparent cause and without meaning to.

In my most recent relationship that hurt me—the one that I couldn’t help but think of during each song throughout the album—the man hated it when I would sigh. He said it was like nails on a chalkboard, and I learned to hold my breath.

When it ended and I left the house that we’d shared, I felt myself exhale for three months straight. I didn’t know why I felt the need to sigh, why when I woke up each morning and retreated to my bed I felt the need to breath out as if I’d been sucking in all day. The experience of listening to Fetch the Bolt Cutters is something akin to a collective sigh, an expulsion, a re-opening of the airways you’ve taught yourself to close so others cannot hurt you. 

Apple begins For Her with deep exhale. She then begins a tune that sounds like a song you would sing in rounds on the bus ride to a summer camp. The tone is light and chipper, the percussion is playful. You then notice Apple is singing:

“Maybe she spent her formative years/

dealing with his contentious fears/

and endless tears.”

The tone is ironic, yet genuine. This is likely the camp song girls would be singing if we were allowed to be honest.

Apple’s tone shifts with a growl, there is nothing soft or chipper in it as she says:

“Good morning, good morning/

you raped me in the same bed/

your daughter was born in.”

Her chorus is cheery again as it interjects to remind us that the man who raped her was “sooooo high.” Just as I did to myself for months, as I did until I’d moved out and away and allowed myself to sigh again. 

Track 12: Drum Set

“And I wanted to try/

Why did you not want to try/

Why did you take it all away/

Why did you not want to try”

The album’s penultimate track is my personal favorite from the album. She sings about the potential to miss someone who has hurt you deeply. She sings about the cognitive dissonance of knowing how wrong something or someone was and how we still feel that absence. She acknowledges the contradiction and the pain that is the very nature of loss.

At the same time, the song is positive. It is upbeat, it acknowledges loss in the multidimensional way that is necessary for any sort of healing. I listened to this song on one of my quarantine walks with Fiona, and suddenly felt like running.

Track 13: On I Go

The final song of Fetch the Bolt Cutters is focused on motion; the persistence of movements, as well as individual movement.

Apple speaks, rather than sing:

“Up until now when I rushed to prove/

but now/

I only move to move”

This chant is like a quiet war cry, like the mantra set to solve my quarantine-jogging-dilemma. I can’t say that I fully move with the sole purpose of movement. I am tirelessly aware of my body and where it is and who can touch and how much any single person might like it.

I hope that by the time I’m forty-two, like Apple, I’ll learn to move to move. (I’d be happy achieving this even by the time I am eighty.)

On I Go is an anthem for people who aren’t quite ready to celebrate. Fetch the Bolt Cutters, as an album, is aware there has not been enough change or disruption of harmful cycles for us to deserve some complete and satisfying song of victory or celebration.

Instead, the album is full of personal movement and pain and growth and healing and loss. This is what makes it so feminist, and so useful. The album is a purging of feeling that is aware that healing, and nothing, is linear.

You can return to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, at any entry point, whenever you may need it. Apple writes and sings of an experience that is distinct and personal to her.

This is precisely why I could see myself and my own relationships so clearly. She is not telling me, or anyone for that matter, what their experience may be, or what they need. Because of this, we can take what we like and what we need from the album. 

We can identify our own hill before attempting to run up it. 

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Maeve is a recent graduate from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she studied English Literature; Creative Writing; and Gender, Women and Sexuality. She is a former Ms. editorial intern and editor of multiple Lit mags and feminist zines and is currently working on a book of essays and making a documentary film.