“This World Is Bullshit”: On the 20th Anniversary of Fiona Apple’s Memorable VMA Moment

Twenty years ago this week, Fiona Apple accepted an MTV VMA and did what precious few others have done on that stage: she told the truth.

In their current forms, MTV and Fiona Apple occupy such distant spheres of the pop culture landscape that it’s hard to imagine a time when they ever intersected—it’s difficult to picture, in 2017, a Fiona Apple video even appearing on MTV (hell, in its current state, it stretches credulity to envision anyone squeezing in a video between the channel’s endless cycle of terrible reality programming and celebrity fawning). But in 1996 and 1997, the moody, evocative clips from her debut album Tidal made her a fixture on the music network. First came “Shadowboxer,” a lilting mid-tempo piano number, followed by “Sleep to Dream,” a stark and aggressive bit of accusatory proclamation.

But the hit video from that first album, without question, was “Criminal.” The song was a searching, confessional slab of bass-heavy soul-fused pop with an irresistible hook and slyly suggestive lyrics like “I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins.” The song’s accompanying clip, directed by Mark Romanek, transformed the song’s sexuality from subtext to text, photographing (via the automated pans of voyeuristic surveillance video and the scorched, single-source lighting of amateur porn) the barely clad performer luxuriating in what appears to be the aftermath of a days-long orgy in a particularly skeezy basement. The video was sultry, skillful, and provocative; it was also borderline pedophiliac and inarguably exploitative, reconfiguring the gifted singer/songwriter into, Sasha Frere-Jones later wrote in The New Yorker, “an underfed Calvin Klein model.” It was, predictably enough, a giant MTV hit.

Though not released in time to qualify for the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, the video was in heavy rotation on the channel when the awards were handed out on September 4th. Apple was nominated for Best New Artist in a Video, for “Sleep to Dream,” alongside Hanson, The Wallflowers, Jamiroquai, and Meredith Brooks—another beneficiary of that brief, post-Alanis moment when young, forceful female artists seemed to gain a toehold in the male-driven pop world. When Elton John opened the envelope at Radio City Music Hall on September 4, 1997, and announced her name, Fiona Apple was nine days shy of her twentieth birthday.

This is what she said:

Oh man… I didn’t prepare a speech and I’m sorry but I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m not gonna do this like everybody else does it. ‘Cause everybody that I should be thanking, I’m really sorry, but I have to use this time. See, Maya Angelou said that we, as human beings, at our best, can only create opportunities. And I’m gonna use this opportunity the way that I want to use it. So, what I want to say is, um, everybody out there that’s watching, everybody that’s watching this world? This world is bullshit. And you shouldn’t model your life — wait a second — 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 and everything. Go with yourself. Go with yourself. And there’s just a few people that I want to say something to. I want to say, Mama, I love you I’m so glad that we’re becoming friends. Amber, you’re my sister, you’re my best friend. Andrew Slater, no one else could have produced this album, and no one else did. Um… And it’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me so thank you very much. And I’m sorry for all the people that I didn’t thank, but man… it’s good. Bye.

The audience at Radio City received her warmly, cheering at the “way I want to use it” line, applauding her profanity and her directive to “go with yourself,” chuckling at her pointed statement that “no one else did” produce the album. Her stern tone prompted host Chris Rock to crack, “Let’s hear it for Fiona X!”

Outside Radio City, the response was harsher. Critics called her a humorless scold, a self-important twit, even a hypocrite (for calling out the corruption of the business on one hand and rolling around in her underwear for the “Criminal” video on the other). In a November 1997 op-ed, NY Rock writer Otto Luck called it “one of the most ridiculous soliloquies ever to be witnessed at an MTV Awards event (which is pretty amazing in light of the competition she has).” The comedian Janeane Garafalo recorded a scathing parody of it for Denis Leary’s Lock and Load album. (“You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool . . . Even though I have an eating disorder and I have somehow sold out to the patriarchy in this culture that says that lean is better. Even though I have done that, and have done a video wherein I wear underwear so that you young girls out there can covet, and feel bad about what you have and how thin you’re not.”) Cracked called her “oh-so-lame ‘be yourself’ speech, complete with a vague Maya Angelou quote” one of the most absurd moments in VMA history.

That night, she spoke for barely more than a minute, but the backlash to what she said, and how she said it, seemed to reverberate for months—years, even, up to the present day, for those who took that as their permanent impression of Fiona Apple and held onto it. Even before her VMA speech (or, as it was commonly yet rather inaccurately characterized, her “meltdown”), the same adjectives were popping up in articles about her: they said she was angry, they said she was fragile, they called her damaged, difficult, moody, crazy. A typical Spin profile that fall compared her onstage demeanor to that of “a sexy, temperamental teenager, the kind of arty, ravished girl you knew in junior high who wrote poems in all lower-case letters.”

The characterization was infantilizing—and inaccurate. Unlike other face-saving celebrities whose verbal “gaffes” became PR nightmares, Apple refused to apologize for what she said. “When I have something to say, I’ll say it,” she told Rolling Stone shortly thereafter. In the same interview, she is played a tape of Garafalo’s parody. It provokes three responses: first, she grants the overall point. Then, she cries (“Big tears dollop down her face”). Finally, she hardens. “Of course I have an eating disorder. Every girl in fucking America has an eating disorder. Janeane Garofalo has an eating disorder and that’s why she’s upset. Every girl has an eating disorder because of videos like that. Exactly. Yes. But that’s exactly what the video is about.”

Watching the VMA clip today, it’s easy to see how it got everyone got so worked up (one can only imagine how the Twitterverse and the Mic/Jezebel/HuffPo Think Piece Industrial Complex would’ve exploded, had they been knocking around in 1997); it’s just as easy to dismiss it as a tempest in a teapot. It is, after all, merely a VMA acceptance speech from a 19-year-old, and there’s something charmingly 19-years-old-y about it, for better or worse. For worse: the self-conscious seriousness, the simplicity masquerading as profundity, the clumsy Maya Angelou name-drop. For better: the directness and simplicity of its most oft-quoted line.

“This world is bullshit.” Elsewhere that evening, Martha Stewart and Busta Rhymes co-presented an award (she complimented his pigtails). Performances by the Spice Girls, Marilyn Manson, and Jewel were cheered enthusiastically. Sting was relegated to singing back-up for Puff Daddy. The Video of the Year award went to Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” a clip noteworthy solely for its innovative use of an airport-style moving walkway. Of course that world is bullshit, but only a cynical 19-year-old would say to hell with it, and call it out as such on national television.

Such proclamations are more frequently couched in the joviality of humor, gentle ribbing of the “We’re all friends here but seriously folks” school; even when they’re made seriously, they’re mere words. But looking back at that night, from a distance of twenty years, Fiona Apple’s “This world is bullshit” speech feels more and more like her “goodbye to all that” moment—the point at which she got her first, clear picture of pop superstardom, looked it straight in the eye, announced “Fuck this,” and ran quickly in the opposite direction.

In the years that followed, as MTV shifted its airtime from fiercely opinionated and self-controlling female artists like Apple to Pop Tarts of the Britney/Xtina/Jessica/Mandy variety, Apple seemed singularly disinterested in chasing their audience. She would never again make as aggressively sexual a video as “Criminal”; the music she recorded was challenging, experimental, difficult, nuanced. She refused, as her subsequent producer Jon Brion noted, to make “Criminal 2.” Her music would be more demanding than that, for both creator and audience.

The only trouble was, “this world” didn’t just include the empty-headed stars and starlets of MTV; it also included the number-crunching suits of the music industry, who were only interested in Fiona Apple “going with herself” when that self was something they could easily package and sell. And when that became more difficult for them to do, they were increasingly disinterested in underwriting her growth.

In other words, if Fiona Apple thought that world was bullshit in 1997, she couldn’t have imagined what it would be like in the years and months to come, when she was no longer sitting on top of it. The perception of her persona, if anything, continued to toxify and calcify, never quite shaking adjectives like “temperamental” and “difficult,” even as her music became deeper, more thoughtful and introspective. But as MTV and the music industry it services continue their descent into obsolescence and vapidity, it becomes ever clearer that on that September evening oh those many years ago, Fiona Apple was right.