Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fiona Apple's Breakdown and Let Me Break It Down

It has been reported, regarding the Fiona Apple & Blake Mills Portland performance of October 3: Fiona Apple Breaks Down After Being Heckled Over Her Appearance
 For those who don't know, about ninety minutes into Fiona Apple's performance an audience member shouted loudly enough for Apple to hear, "Fiona! Get healthy! We want to see you in 10 years!” Ms. Apple was understandably upset by the remark and replied “I am healthy! Who the fuck do you think you are? I want you to get the fuck out of here. I want the house lights on so I watch you leave!” As per her direction, up came the house lights, but the "fan" shouted while departing, "I saw you 20 years ago and you were beautiful!” Following that exchange Apple soldiered on and performed “Waltz (Better Than Fine)" although Stereogum reports she did so through "sobs." Fiona Apple is no stranger to controversy. The beginning of her career saw her "Criminal" video criticized for appearing like skeevy '70s child porn. Many bloggers, fans, and reporters have mocked her on stage behavior and patter calling it bizarre and implying she appeared close to a "breakdown." She was arrested for possession of hash (and a small amount of marijuana) in Sierra Blanca, Texas in 2012. After the incident Apple allegedly made claims of inappropriate treatment, about which Hudspeth County Sheriffs Information officer Rusty Fleming advised Apple, after some condescending remarks, that she "Shut up and sing." How it is possible to do both simultaneously he did not say.

 Controversy abounded while fans awaited the release of Apple's Extraordinary Machine and assumed Sony was, for some reason, holding back the release. There were also multiple negative reports that Ms. Apple exited the stage prior to the end of a Tokyo performance. Apple spoke out via a post on Questlove's OkayPlayer website: "if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, if you could tweet to the twits who call themselves journalists (example Chris Martins of sit-and-Spin Magazine) that I FINISHED MY SET!!! I did my job, and they should do theirs too–They all miss the fact that there is a difference between the back-of-the-room-chatter that is simply annoying,–and the operatic drunken blather, or the heckling that is really just INTERRUPTING that makes it impossible for us to do our jobs. I hope your readers are already hip to the fact that they are consistently lied to… no apologies. -Fiona." And if one cares to peruse youtube they can see a smattering of video clips that allege Fiona Apple gives bizarre speeches, and other commentaries of similar ilk. The interesting part of this is neither the arrest nor alleged bizarre behavior by someone who writes some of the most honest and heart wrenching music currently being produced. The interesting part is darker and less sexy (read salable). It is about what society deems acceptable commentary, even by professional writers.

Why is it that people find it perfectly acceptable to dissect the appearance of females ruthlessly and relentlessly while -for the most part- males remain unscathed. Save for the obese about whom jokes are still considered socially acceptable, men are allowed to express sexuality or manage their physical appearance almost entirely without reproach. They are allowed to keep their bodies as they like without fear their record company will drop them, or film them from angles that partially obscure whatever offense is currently deemed unacceptable. What is unacceptable is society's focus on a woman's sexuality and validation of whether she is or is not worthy of our collective sexual attention. Whether a celebrity puts her body on display like Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears or Madonna; if she dares gain or lose weight like Gaga and Christina Aguilera, or has their appearance indirectly mocked at an awards show (Seth Mcfarland and Adele anyone?) it seems that ruthless dissection of alleged physical deficits is not only accepted without question, but encouraged by society at large. Even possible attempts to escape dissection by dressing more conservatively, such as Florence Welch (Florence & the Machine), the male gaze and increasing critical eye of women is pervasive and inescapable. And women seem content to join in the chorus and scoff at the idea there is anything wrong with it. Men can prance about on stage like spastic chickens with more wrinkles than a Shar Pei regularly, but everyone knows the same isn't true for women.  

There is a female weight limit and expiration date. It follows some mysterious code. For example, a Lane Bryant bra commercial was pulled for being "too sexy," but Victorias Secret commercials complete with pouting lips and arched backs still air, as do Carls Jr. ads wherein women squirm with delight as they perform oral copulation with hamburgers. It seems that women must be skinny, but not too skinny, (even though those running the fashion industry demand as much). The popular opinion is that women be curvy, but not too curvy, and only curvy in precisely the proper places. It's well known that magazines use tricks to make cover models seem perfect and cellulite free, but no one stops buying the magazines, nor do women stop comparing themselves to those images and adjusting their self worth based upon them. And we certainly don't discuss it in mainstream media in a serious manner.  

The proliferation of social media appears to have caused people to criticize others as if it's a new sport. Perhaps the trend of constant commentary via social media gave the audience member at Fiona Apple's concert the idea that shouting out their opinion about her weight (under the guise of concern for health) during a live performance was perfectly acceptable behavior. Can you imagine someone shouting at Aretha Franklin that she should put down the sandwiches? Perhaps if she were a current artist in today's climate it would have already happened. Critique of ones performance or artistic validity in the media is fair, but skewing facts and commenting upon weight is not, unless of course that person makes their living by exploiting their (ahem) assets.

Further unacceptable is the way in which popular culture deals with mental illness. It was casually reported that Apple suffered "a breakdown." Social media comments often include "take your meds," "Go cut yourself" or the more extreme "Go kill yourself." Comments on womens' appearance are brutal and photos shared via social media have been known to be circulated by others as a joke. It can happen to males, but it is largely a female issue. Joe Jonas posed proudly shirtless to bring awareness to diabetes and was applauded, but would the same hold true for an up and coming female promoting acceptance of mental illness? When someone, especially a female, displays erratic behavior that is ongoing and presumably not induced via illegal drugs, they become the butt of everyone's jokes. Even Oprah escaped near public stoning for admitting she recently felt as if she had a "breakdown." The stigma of mental illness and portrait of the hysterical female still proliferates within the media with very little dissension. Feminist ideals are still relegated to feminist outlets and many young women attack feminist theory with the vigor of a torch wielding mob of villagers. People love to see public "train wrecks" but not focus on the underlying issues. Mental health may be brought up for a day or two by someone like Dr. Drew, but ultimately the discussion dies before it approaches any serious examination. We collectively choose to ignore the fact that society's propensity to treat mental illness as a joke, or with a pill and assume it works, is appalling.

Eating disorders and their cause are individual in many ways and certainly not treated simply by eating, dieting, or bariatric surgery. Clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more diseases of the mind are based in physical dysfunction. They are not a weakness of the mind. Our understanding of the brain is still in its infancy. We aren't that far away from lobotomies or claims that a clitoral orgasm is proof of a woman's lack of sexual maturity. And all the naive "Just be positive" nonsense (which includes the limitations of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), is far from helpful to someone who desperately wishes they could simply be positive, as if they choose depression as a viable lifestyle. That friend of yours about whom you complain is "a downer" may be seriously suffering from a legitimate disease.

Positive thoughts and talk show makeovers can't cure chemical imbalances. Post traumatic stress disorder won't disappear merely by spouting positive affirmations. Imperfections both physical and mental abound in regular people and the "Royalty" we call Celebrities. But they are never seriously addressed by the media, and celebrities who suffer aren't exactly eager to discuss the matter. So the stigma remains. And when a public event such as Britney Spears conservatorship, Amanda Bynes current confinement, the infallible Oprah's self described breakdown, or Fiona Apple's overly exaggerated incident (where she was simply trying to execute her job) occurs, it is banter at the water cooler, 2 minute fodder for entertainment news written about in an exploitative manner. But ultimately the discussion stops shy of any public recognition that the problems discussed actually exist and need to be solved. It is now commonplace for a global audience to comment daily on appearance or sexuality albeit from behind a computer screen. That said, the escalation via incidents like Apple's is almost inevitable. Unfortunately society seems all too eager to remain ensconced in the ideology of point and laugh (or point and click) to do actually examine the issues at hand.

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