Just quietly, Fiona Apple had a very successful 2021 Grammy Awards – though you wouldn't know it from watching the ceremony. The singer-songwriter's 2020 opus Fetch The Bolt Cutters won Best Alternative Album and its highlight "Shameika" notched Best Rock Performance; her first Grammy since 1998 for "Criminal" in the regressive (and since abolished) gender-separated category of Best Female Vocal Rock Performance.
Before Apple's 2021 awards were dispensed in the unbroadcasted pre-premiere ceremony, she issued a video via her friend Zelda Hallman explaining why she would not attend the socially-distanced ceremony. "It's not because I'm trying to protest, even though I have problems with the Grammys, it's not because of that," Apple said. "It's really because I don't want to be on national television – I'm just not made for that kind of stuff anymore. I want to stay sober and I can't do that sober – it doesn't feel safe to me to be under exposure, scrutiny, comparison to people. I can't."
Apple acknowledged complaints about the "transparency" of The Grammys' process – a preoccupation of The Weeknd, who felt snubbed by the awards this year – but used her momentous platform to point out an issue of transparency in criminal courts. She asked many to sign a petition to keep courtrooms open, particularly those in Prince George's County in Maryland where Apple herself is a court watcher.
Artists of all kinds reject awards shows for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they are political protests on issues of systemic discrimination, personal ones on being overlooked or even philosophical disagreements on the corporate structures of the mainstream arts industry. But Apple's decision, on the grounds of the agonies of exposing the self for the machine while real injustice occurs, is one of the sharpest boycotts of entertainment awards ever articulated.
Apple made a vital political argument – that a lack of transparency in a self-congratulatory industry ceremony is slight compared to a lack of transparency in the judiciary, which dooms the oppressed to a perpetual cycle of subordination. She also made it from her own home, choosing not to centre herself by hijacking the broadcast like many award rejectors of time past.
Apple would have every right to criticise awards shows like The Grammys, or even the industry more bluntly, and to do it on their stages. In fact, famously, she's done it before – at the 1997 MTV VMAs, Apple went off script in her acceptance speech for Best New Artist, declaring "This world is bullshit".
"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," she said.
The response from the media – particularly a near-exclusively male rock press – was disparaging in the extreme, placing Apple immediately in their favourite sexist archetype of the moment, "the difficult woman". Or, as Apple said herself in 1998, she went "from being 'tragic waif ethereal victim' to being 'brat bitch loose cannon.'" It was a characterisation she had to fight for years, though as a profile in The New Yorker pointed out last year, it faded in the last decade and a half as attitudes changed, and her music began to be canonised as classic works of songwriting.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters, arriving 8 years after her last record, felt like Apple's ultimate reclamation of her own narrative. Its driving, DIY percussion grind was downright avante-garde; her lyrics radical in their insight on self and gender. Despite being released into the despair of April 2020, it received universal acclaim from across the music press and legacy news organisation art pages. No record since Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly had felt so instantly important.
Apple did all of this without consulting the machinations of the music industry – only participating in four interviews with carefully selected publications, and avoiding the endless Zoom promo other musicians did last year to extend the relevance of their records. It still topped 21 different music publications' album of the year lists for 2020.
And yet the Grammys had the gall to shunt Fetch The Bolt Cutters to the Alternative and Rock categories, snubbing it as an obvious choice for Album of the Year. It was another insult from a system that refuses to recognise Apple as anything but a crease in their ironed-flat view of music. But instead of using the platform to articulate grievance – as she did in the late 1990s – Apple took a step back and showed this time she wouldn't take the industry's invitation to be "difficult". Instead, Apple won on her own.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.
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