Criminal

Album: Tidal (1996)
Charted: 21
  • This song is about Apple making a mistake in a relationship (cheating, perhaps?) and therefore making her a "criminal." Depression and self-loathing were a common theme in Fiona's songwriting at the time. She told Interview magazine: "It's psychologically and chemically impossible for me to be happy."
  • The video, showing an 18-year-old Fiona Apple stripping down to her underwear and wandering around a basement filled with lots of young bodies, is one of the most controversial ever to hit MTV. Apple has a dissociated look throughout, and the setting is rather seedy, implying it's where immoral acts take place and are sometimes recorded - at one point we see Apple on a TV screen, as if someone is making a video for the "barely legal" market.

    It was directed by Mark Romanek, whose credits include "Closer" by Nine Inch Nails and "Rain" by Madonna. "We wanted something blatantly erotic," he told Entertainment Weekly. His plan was to have Apple play the part more lively, with some booty shaking, but she did it in her natural melancholy way instead - nobody has asked her to shake booty since.

    Apple was on board with the concept and remained on good terms with Romanek, but sometimes got uneasy discussing it over and over in interviews. "I decided if I was going to be exploited, then I would do the exploiting myself," became her sound bite.

    Her most lucid and nuanced explanation came in an interview with MTV shortly after it was released in the summer of 1997, when she said:

    "I'm treating the audience that is watching this video the same way the character in the song treats a man: Look at me, look how pretty I am. I don't have to give you anything else because look how pretty I am. And look how successful I am, look how much power I can get just by letting this light shine on me in a certain way."
  • Apple typically works by writing songs that are extensions of her journals, baring her soul for all to hear in a process that can be years in the making. "Criminal" is an outlier: she claims she wrote the song in just 45 minutes to prove she could, and to give her record label (Work, a division of Sony) the hit song they were after.

    She sprung into action after one of her friends was giving her grief about how she wasn't writing more songs. "The next time you see me, I'm gonna have a new song," she told her. "I can force myself to do the work, but only if someone is right up behind me," Apple explained.
  • This song has an attention-grabbing open:

    I've been a bad, bad girl
    I've been careless with a delicate man


    By singing about exploiting a man for her own benefit, Apple was turing the tables on a childhood trauma: she was raped when she was just 12 years old. It was a terrifying and defining moment in her life, and one she openly recounted in interviews after Tidal was released. For years after the rape, she was very uncomfortable around older men, and paranoid that someone could be hiding in a closet, hallway or elevator. She worked hard to regain her courage, taking self-defense classes and confronting it in her music: her song "Sullen Girl" deals with the incident.
  • This is Apple's best-known song, but it didn't gain traction until well over a year after Tidal was released. When the album was issued in July 1996, "Shadowboxer" was the first single. Apple got some publicity and appeared on Saturday Night Live that November, but the next singles, "Sleep To Dream" and "Never Is A Promise," didn't get much attention. "Criminal" made a splash with the video, and in August 1997 it earned enough radio play to show up on the Modern Rock chart, where it eventually rose to #4.

    Then, on September 4, Apple won Best New Artist in a Video (for "Sleep to Dream," not "Criminal") at the MTV Video Music Awards, an award expected to go to Hansen, whose "MMMbop" was inescapable. "I'm not going to do this like everybody else does it," she said at the beginning of her speech. Then she tried to make a cogent argument to an audience that was there for pure entertainment. "This world is bulls--t and you shouldn't model your life about what you think that we think is cool," she explained to the stunned crowd. By substituting chagrined advice for conventional platitudes, she created a viral moment, one that followed her around the rest of her career.

    Sony responded by releasing "Criminal" as a single, taking advantage of the wave of publicity. The song debuted at #28 on October 4, and peaked at #21 on November 29. The Tidal album went on to sell over 3 million copies.
  • Remarkably, this is the only Fiona Apple song ever to hit the Hot 100. She has a devoted following, is adored by critics, and has earned widespread acclaim throughout the music industry (Kanye West said he wanted to be the "hip-hop Fiona Apple"), but she has steadfastly refused to follow trends or create songs with hit potential, which has kept her off the pop charts. She also does little in the way of promotion, which limits her reach.
  • Apple doesn't have the kind of personal connection to this song that she does to her others, so she doesn't mind licensing it for certain movies and TV shows, using it as a funding source to maintain her artistic freedom. In 2019, she was thrilled to have it included in the film Hustlers, where Jennifer Lopez plays a stripper who dances to the song on stage (Apple is a big fan). TV shows to use the song include:

    Daria ("The Misery Chick" - 1997)
    Family Guy ("Grumpy Old Man" - 2011)
    Mr. Robot ("shutdown -r" - 2017)
  • Apple did a lot of promotion for this song, performing it on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Late Show with David Letterman, and several other shows. Before releasing Tidal, she had never performed to a paid audience, so this was all new to her. The album was a slow build, so Apple ended up spending about two years supporting it. She finally burned out in March 1998 when she canceled a scheduled tour. For the rest of her career, she kept a much lighter schedule and dialed back the promotion.
  • Apple performed this at the Grammy Awards in 1998, where she won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance for the song. She was nominated for Best New Artist, but lost to her Lilith Fair tourmate Paula Cole. Her "Criminal" award is the only Grammy win of her career.
  • This won for Best Cinematography In A Video at the 1998 MTV Video Music Awards. The unusual lighting look was achieved by attaching a regular light bulb to the camera, which gave it the look of a flash that had just gone off.
  • Here's a sentence we didn't think we'd ever write: This song was sung by a set of conjoined twins on a 2014 episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show. The show was set in 1952, but featured music from a later era (David Bowie's "Life On Mars?" appeared in the previous episode).

    "Criminal" served the storyline, since the twins character had killed their mother and were being investigated by the police. The scene set up a conflict between the two twins, as the more laconic one ended up having the great voice capable of singing the tune.

    The show's creator Ryan Murphy says that the only modern music used on the show was by artists who identified themselves as freaks; Fiona Apple approved this characterization and allowed the song to be used.
  • Apple donated movie and TV royalties from this song for the years 2019 and 2020 to the While They Wait fund, which provides aid and legal help to refugees. Apple was disheartened when families of Mexican refugees were separated when they reached the United States border. Instead of writing a song about it, she though she could do more good by donating royalties from one she had already written. "Criminal" is significant because she feels these refugees were wrongly criminalized.
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Comments: 14

  • Scott from BryanHey Kelli and Miranda, have you ever met a heroin addict?
    Not sure of your age but Google "heroin chic". At that time that term was used a lot. I think it stemmed from a number of Calvin Klein ads in which the models were very thin and the background and lighting had a 70s vibe like the use of wood panel walls. Apple famously was told after recording the tracks from Tidal that it was missing the "hit single". To that Apple said 'I can write a hit. I know how this shit works". 45 minutes later she had criminal. Obviously the song came before the video. So she was writing about a woman feeling bad for using her sex appeal to get things from men. But I think the argument can be made that you can look at it from the angle of her being disingenuous about it " I've been careless with a delicate man' so its sarcastic.
    The video was made to be sexy and probably to generate chatter thus generating sales. Fiona didn't speak to the director for quite a few years after the video. She was 18 years old had just gotten into the business and kind of felt taken advantage of because she didn't really know any better. Her weight at that time just looked like they were trying to emulate the heroin chic look that was being talked about so much of course after that is when Fiona talked about her eating disorder from the age of 12 after being raped she felt like any curves or wait on her body would be bait for men.
  • Jeff from OregonThe man she refers to could easily be her father. "He's all I ever knew of love" ... daddy's love. She feels guilt because she willingly did something she knows her father would (extremely) disapprove of.
  • Miranda from Bellingham, WaKelli is right. The video is definitely presenting her as a heroin addict. I've noticed that a lot of fans tend to interpret her lyrics to be about sex or love. But stop for a moment and consider that she's been a bad, bad girl because she's used heroin again after promising her man she wouldn't.

    Heaven help me for the way I am. (The way she is is a heroin addict)
    Save me from these evil deeds. (The evil deeds are lying and stealing to get her fix)
    Before I get them done.
    I know tomorrow brings the consequence
    At hand. (She knows how bad she'll feel the next day after using)
    But I keep livin this day like
    The next will never come. (Now if that isn't the mantra of a heroin addict, nothing is.)
    Oh, help me, but dont tell me
    To deny it.
    Ive got to cleanse myself. (She's got to cleanse herself...that is she's got to get CLEAN.)
    Of all these lies till Im good
    Enough for him.
    Ive got a lot to lose and I'm
    Bettin high (She knows she's about to lose all that matters to her, but she is instead betting high...getting high)
    So Im beggin you before it ends
    Just tell me where to begin. (She has no idea hot to stop, even though she wants.)

    These lyrics make so much more sense when her "evil deeds" are about heroin and not sexual cheating.
  • Marlee from Bordentown, Njwhy couldn't it be about her rape? the lyrics aren't supposed to be taken literally. she isn't a criminal, she hasn't done anything wrong. it isn't about her cheating or anything. those who have been raped usually feel it is their fault, or are told that it is. it is supposed to be ironic.
  • Theresa from Murfreesboro, TnThe song is ok but it's the video that I love. Fiona sure knows how to play the victim, her music is fantastic.
  • Morbidious from Deerlodge, TnI'm glad (in this case) that I'm not the guy she is singing about....because it would absolutely DESTROY ME if I'd had a relationship with her only to find out she cheated on me....but looking at the bright side, atleast I would be able to say that I knew her. :]
  • Mike from Santa Barbara, CaThe video to this song was squalid-looking, as if it were a porn set after filming had ended.
  • Christine from Belmont, NhI think this song is about a girl (Fiona) who has lied maybe cheated on a man hshe finally realizes she loves... Obvious insecurities about her past choices make her feel as though she isn't good enough for him... So she has to change and redeem her self from her "sins"... LOVE IT
  • Kelli from Cedar Rapids, IaShe kind of has that heroin-chic thing going...
  • Ash from Charleston, WvBest song of 1996.
  • Amy from Fort Worth, TxI love this song! For some reason it gets me really hot!
  • Kurt from Downers Grove, IlGood god she looks hot in this video!
  • Amanda from Ipswich, EnglandI agree Leah. I think this is about punishing a good man for all the things a bad man has done. Been there!
  • Leah from Huntsville, AlI don't think the first comment is correct. If you listen to the lyrics of the song, it doesn't make sense that it would be about her rape.
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