Monday, November 14, 2005

My Hipster Credentials (Or Lack Thereof), and Fiona Apple: A Two-Part Posting

I spent some of the weekend putting the first few CDs on to my sparkling new iBook. I’m not online yet, meaning I have to manually enter the song titles, so it was a limited sample just to test things out. The vast majority will have to wait for Thanksgiving weekend, when I very well may not emerge from my apartment. (I mean Friday to Sunday, of course. On Thursday, I’ll be on Long Island eating my body weight in corn pudding, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop that.) After that, though, the music. When I’ve been missing for a few weeks, the authorities will come and break in to find me buried underneath hundreds of jewel cases, muttering about “party play lists.”

I listened to one particular song about a dozen times yesterday, and I would recommend you do the same. But first, an anecdote:

At a friend’s birthday party three weeks ago, I was accosted in his kitchen by a group of two men and two women, the leader of whom, an aggressively nerdy type (one of the men), asked me if I considered myself a hipster. It turned out these four were observing the party’s traffic all night, on the lookout for this not-so-rare-in-Brooklyn breed. He grilled me about my glasses (OK, fine) and my footwear (Converse sneakers, which may have made me a hipster 15 years ago, when I first started wearing them, but I imagine don’t hold much sway these days). Then we discussed my rather conventional jeans and almost Bill Cosby-esque sweater, which everyone could safely agree made me quite unhip -– and that led to this exchange, along with my friend Jon, about the T-shirt the Aggressively Nerdy Type was wearing:
Me: Look at you, though. You’re wearing an MTV Video Music Awards T-shirt. That’s a hipster move.

A.N.T.: No, no. I work for the company that owns MTV. Viacom isn’t hip.

Jon: Plus, that’s a shirt from the 2005 awards show. A hipster would wear a shirt from the 1986 awards.

Me: That’s true. The 2005 version kind of makes you a square.
I relate this story for two reasons. First, it’s a window onto a certain kind of New York inanity. Sure, people in other areas of the country talk at mind-numbing length about NASCAR and church socials and sitcoms starring Charlie Sheen, but New Yorkers converse about social status, right out in the open, as if it’s interesting and unpretentious and not astoundingly self-involved. (I don’t mind implicating myself here a bit, but not entirely; I was dragged into the conversation above, after all -– literally, since I believe one of the women grabbed my sleeve and pulled me into the center of the tribunal.)

The second reason I tell it is because it leads, in a roundabout fashion, to the song you should seek out. Eventually the A.N.T. asked me, with a sly look in his eye, whether I liked Fiona Apple. Unhesitatingly, I said I did. The A.N.T., with alarming similarity to Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride when he “outsmarts” Westley in the poison-drinking contest, then lunged toward me and said, “A-ha! That was a trick question. Hipsters don’t like Fiona Apple.” Never mind that “trick question” implies I was trying to prove myself a hipster, which I wasn’t. (See above re: me being dragged.) He had lost his point, in his mind, so could no longer playfully disdain me. (I realized too long after the fact that I probably should have asked him, “Do hipsters want to campaign for the quarantining of Williamsburg and the East Village? Because I do.” That might have cleared things up a bit quicker.)

At this point in the conversation, we can jettison the A.N.T. and focus on Ms. Apple. I bought her first album, Tidal, when it came out in 1996. A couple of songs held my interest, but the rest seemed a bit overblown and way too affected (lines like “But then he rose brilliant as the moon in full / And sank in the burrows of my keep” didn’t help). When the follow-up, When the Pawn..., was released three years later, I bought it on the strength of its first single, and then I didn’t remove it from my stereo for approximately five months. It reminded me that Apple had been about 11 years old when she made her debut, and she had matured quite a bit in the years since, honing what turned out to be a preternatural gift for insanely melodic pop songs while polishing her satisfyingly bluesy voice.

Her newest, Extraordinary Machine, has gotten all kinds of press because of its back story. If you’re unfamiliar with that story, involving a variety of tensions between Apple, her producers, and her record label, go here and here and here (or a thousand other places on the web).

I haven’t listened long enough to know if it measures up to When the Pawn..., which is still one of my all-time favorites, but the song “Oh Well” has taken up permanent residence in my brain. The first time you hear it, you think, “That might be one of the catchier songs on here.” The second through four thousandth times, you’re like the mouse who hits the button to get the cheese, even if the button also triggers a massive wave of electric shock. It has the biting lovelorn lyrics she’s now close to patenting (“When I was looking with calm affection / You were searching out my imperfections / What wasted unconditional love / On somebody / Who doesn't believe in the stuff”), convulsive piano and drums that are hard not to twitch along with (in a good way), and enough orchestration swelling around the whole thing to remind you it’s a Sensitive Song. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hum it to myself again...


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