Criminal - Fiona Apple
Influences, Controversy and Analysis
by Adriano Gomes da Silva
Fiona Apple – a short biography
Fiona Apple is an alternative singer-songwriter, born in 1977 in New York City. Her debut album, Tidal, was released to great success in 1996, selling almost three million copies in the United States.
Apple was classically trained on piano as a child, having started writing her own compositions at the age of eight. Although her music can be categorized as pop/rock, it also has a strong influence of jazz.
By the time the song “Criminal” was released as the fifth single from Tidal (more than one year after the release of the album – in September of 1997), Apple had already gained notoriety because of her brutal honesty and unstable behavior in interviews. She had openly talked about the rape she suffered when she was 12, and also about an eating disorder she developed. It was also not unusual for her to cry during interviews and say things like, “I’m going to cut another album, and I’m going to do good things, help people, and then I’m going to die”.
This was the public image of Fiona Apple when the “Criminal” video was aired on MTV: a troubled, fragile, and talented girl with a traumatic past.
Mark Romanek – a short biography
Born in Chicago in 1959, Mark Romanek started his career as a movie director. He made the film Static in 1986, with his longtime friend Keith Gordon (the son in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill) in the lead role. His first job as a music video director was in 1986, when he directed the video of the song “Sweet Bird of Truth”, the band The The.
His big breakthrough in the music video world came in 1992, when he directed the videos of k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” and En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind”. Since then, Romanek established himself as one of the world’s most sought-after music video directors, having worked with Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie, Madonna, R.E.M., Michael Jackson and Nine Inch Nails in the following years. Two of Romanek’s videos, “Bedtime Story” (Madonna) and “Closer” (Nine Inch Nails), have been made part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Influences on the “Criminal” video
In the audio commentary of “Criminal” (included in the DVD “The Work of Director Mark Romanek”), the director cites the photographers Nobuyoshi Araki (1940-), Wolfgang Tillmans (1968-) and Jürgen Teller (1964-) as influences on the visuals of the video. The three are known for their provocative and groundbreaking photos (which, in Araki’s case, include suggestions of bondage and other sexual fetishes). Romanek also cites the “snapshot quality” of the three artists – and this influence can be clearly seen on the cinematography of the video, with a main, sharp and direct light on the singer (instead of the more diffuse lights commonly used in videos).
Another major influence in the look of the video is the “heroin chic look”, quite popular in the middle of the 90s. Featuring waif-like models and allusions of drug use, especially heroin, this fashion aesthetic started with the Calvin Klein ads featuring a young and thin Kate Moss. In contrast to the supermodels of the time – Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell –, who were fully-formed, and had the aura of impossible-to-reach women, Moss had the look of a “girl next door”, with the body of a teenager (she was 19 years old when she made the campaign, so technically a teenager). And while the aforementioned supermodels looked positively healthy, the heroin chic look had models looking stressed, tired – the look of an after-party, much like the “Criminal” video.
Controversy caused by the video
The biggest controversy around the video was around the fact that, for many journalists, Fiona looked underage – giving the video “overtones of child porn”. The singer was described as being “slinking around miserably in her underwear” and looking like “an underfed Calvin Klein model”, a “malnourished post-grunge Lolita”. Enough controversy to secure the video a spot in Time Magazine’s list of “Top 10 Controversial Music Videos”.
In an article entitled “Why Does Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ Video Still Feels Shocking After All These Years?”, published in April 2014, Giana Ciapponi mentions the heroin chic look controversy and the singer’s appearance (she’s described as having “teensy anorexic limbs”). At the same time, Ciapponi argues that, compared to current videos of female pop artists, “Criminal” is much less explicit: “it's way more subtle than today's straight-up nudity bandieed about like so much popcorn”, citing Rihanna and Beyoncé’s videos as examples of too-explicit current pop music videos.
The “Criminal” video takes place entirely inside a posh house, decorated with a 1970s vibe. Because of the lack of natural light (among other aspects), it’s impossible to tell if the video takes place during the day or during the night.
At first glance, the video seems to depict the morning after a big house party. But this can be also tricky to tell: do all the actions really happen after the party? Wouldn’t some moments – like the home video shooting, for instance –be more likely to happen during the party? Romanek blurs the timeline, leaving to the viewer the power of creating an order for the events.
(One can try to divide the actions in two groups: one, when Fiona is actively interacting with other people – taking photos of a girl, having her neck caressed by a guy’s foot while in the bathtub; and two, when she’s alone in the room or when the other people seem to be sleeping or unconscious – for example, when she’s lying in bed with a man. The first group of scenes, with other moving characters, can be interpreted as events happening during the party. The second can be interpreted as the day after, Fiona being the only awake person at the house, thinking about the night before and what she did)
Fiona’s first words seem to work as a template for the entire video: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl” (the media certainly seems to have agreed with that, since several articles on the singer called her “a bad, bad girl”). Fiona’s smile when she says the line – guilty and mischievous at the same time – forecast the singer’s persona during the rest of the video. Is she having fun being “careless with a delicate man”, as she sings on the following line? Does she regret it? She certainly doesn’t provide easy answers for the viewer, looking alternately sad, playful, scared and alluring.
The title of the song comes from the chorus, where Fiona sings: “What I need is a good defense, cause I’m feeling like a criminal”. But Romanek puts the viewer in a similar, uncomfortable position: the viewer is a voyeur, checking the sexy bodies of the young people at the party. The first thing we see is Fiona holding a camera in the direction of the viewer; she takes a photo using the camera flash (and the flash emulates the first beat of the cymbal), making the viewer a guest of the party – whether the viewer wants it or not. The viewer may as well be a criminal, cause he’s a witness to acts that may or may not be legal. In her book Experiencing Music Video, Carol Vernallis notes: “Connections might be established between the title and the activities of the characters”. In this case, the video extends this connection to the viewer also.
The strange camera movements add to the impression that the viewer is watching something that belongs to someone else’s private sphere. The camera turns left and right, in a slow but steady movement, and whenever it reaches far left or far right, it stops for a millisecond. It’s the standard movement of surveillance cameras.
Fiona’s eyes enhance this idea: they turn red when she looks directly at the camera, alluding to the effect caused by photos with flashes but also nocturnal vision. It also gives her a predatory look, as if she’s an animal – or a vampire.
During the entire video, the only face we see is Fiona’s. All the other guests at the party are either shown from their waist down, or from their back. This gives them an almost inhuman quality: they can be seen as “props”, as much as the teddy bears in the corners. This can also add to the idea that the singer is using them for her own pleasure. As Vernallis points out, these figures “help to define what the star is not”: Fiona has a face, she can express her feelings; everyone else appears to be there to serve her.
The most striking sequence in the video – and the most notorious one – shows Fiona stripping in the house kitchen. The iris-quality of the images (a slight dark border that forms a circle around the main image), already present in the beginning of the video, becomes more accentuated during this sequence. It enhances the feeling of witnessing something forbidden, sexy but at the same time disturbing. The viewer may feel even more like a criminal. Fiona’s facial expressions (and her apparent struggle to remove one piece of clothing) take away most of the sexual allure of the sequence.
Again, the ambiguity of the sequence is the most intriguing aspect of it. During the strip, she sings the lines:
Heaven help me for the way I am
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand
But I keep living this day like the next will never come
Her defiant way of singing “like the next will never come” adds even more complexity to the persona we see in the video. She refuses to be categorized as a victim; and even if she’s a villain (or a criminal) and pleads guilt, she’s not saying she’s going to change and become a better, more responsible person. She surely looks fragile in the images, but the message is blurred.
As Vernallis points out, Fiona’s persona in the video share a common theme with protagonists from other Mark Romanek videos:
His characters possess special powers and often partake in illicit behavior. Yet, although viewers may be curious about the characters, they do not know enough about them to form more than the beginnings of a story.
During the song’s bridge, two sequences intertwine: the singer is shown in the back of a car, half-naked, and also being filmed with a cheap VHS camera. Images of Fiona in the car appear on a TV that emerge from the floor, as part of the VHS tape; she’s also filmed in bed, before turning the camera away. Right after this moment, we see a VHS tape next to a clock. Vernallis notes that “many videos for women artists cut in their most provocative images during the bridge”. In a way, this sequence may indeed be more provocative than the striptease in the kitchen: could it be that one of the house guests made a sex tape of the singer (this theory can be enhanced by the presence of a figure who sits in a chair directly facing the bed)? Through this prism, the video looks like a sad prescient of the “slut-shaming” cases that abound in the 2010s: girls who go to parties, drink too much, then are filmed or photographed in sexual acts, and have to carry the “guilt” while the authors of the images are left scot-free.
As the song approaches its end, a different musical motive can be heard: an oriental-sounding passage, brief, repeated twice. For this moment, Romanek creates a unique image: a bottle of detergent, pressed by Fiona, with the liquid floating in the air. The bottle and the way the liquid spreads in the air can be seen as a reference to a genie coming out of a lamp – a nod to the oriental sound of the passage.
It can also be seen through a less candid light: given the fact that the entire video deals with sexuality, the liquid would represent the orgasm. Romanek himself talks about it on his DVD commentary; the association is almost obvious. It would also explain the very last image of the video, a strange one: oranges floating in a bathtub. In French, the orgasm is also called “le petit mort”, or “the small death”. One of the most known appropriations of oranges as symbols occurs in the Godfather films: whenever the fruit appears, it means that a character will get killed (or an attempt to murder someone will occur). The oranges in the bathtub can represent this “death” caused by the orgasm – and, fittingly, they also signal the end of the song and the video.
Ciapponi, Giana. “Why Does Fiona Apple’s ‘Criminal’ Video Still Feels Shocking After All These Years?” Ravishly.com. Ravishly.com, 25 April 2014. Web. 06 August 2014.
Frere-Jones, Sasha. “Extraordinary Measures.” NewYorker.com. Condé Nast, 10 October 2005. Web. 06 August 2014.
“Mark Romanek.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc., 2014. Web. 05 August 2014.
Murphy, Tim. “Strange Fruit: Fiona Apple.” WMagazine.com. Condé Nast, June 2012. Web. 06 August 2014.
Steinmetz, Katy. “Top 10 Controversial Music Videos.” Time.com. Time Inc., 06 June 2011. Web. 06 August 2014.
Vernallis, Carol. Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.
Weir, John. “Girl Trouble.” Spin. 13.8 (1997): 84-91. Web. 07 August 2014.
The Work of Director Mark Romanek. Dir. Mark Romanek. Perf. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Fiona Apple, Nine Inch Nails. Palm Pictures, 2005. DVD.