I teeter on the edge of think piece cliché here as I think about the third track on Fiona Apple’s latest album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, “Shameika.” I have a lot of questions about Shameika, just as it seems the artist does—in a track-by-track album explainer she did with Vulture, Apple says she wasn’t sure if she “created this person.” Apple remembers Shameika as a school bully who extended grace to her in a pivotal moment, “But Shameika said I had potential” goes the song’s chorus. Later, her middle school teacher informed her that, no, in fact, Shameika was indeed a real girl. “Then I got sent this picture of her, and she’s so cute—she doesn’t look like a bully at all. She’s just got this big smile on her face.”
Shameika is probably black, though Apple does not specify. Apple admits that she fears the real Shameika ever hearing the song, because it may offend or hurt her. It’s likely a toss-up—the real woman may find the song amusing, even gratifying, or it may bring up her own middle school pain, separate from Apple’s. Shameika, as far as we know, does not release albums to great media and online fervor, and so that gratification and/or pain will probably never be known to us. I think about this, because I suspect that the reason I became a writer in the first place was to not give the various white girls I went to school with, of widely varying social stature, the last word on me.
Apple operates with a similar resounding "fuck you" to the people who mistreated her throughout her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, yet over years of bombastic and lyrical songwriting and singing, she’s found her own beloved rambling cadence with which to express every edge of her feelings. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is cathartic, and enjoyable, because it refuses gentility while bounding into beauty. This orientation depends on an extensive optimism, and is complemented by how Apple has managed to re-enter the zeitgeist as a matured and much-loved trickster. Where her debut album, Tidal, spoke to testy youthful sensuality, her later albums have crescendoed into anthems of refusal.
The album’s first track, “I Want You to Love Me” sets the precedent for the mix of human neediness and hard-earned self-sufficiency that sweeps through the rest of the tracks. In “Under the Table” and “For Her” Apple deftly employs her musical inventiveness (the album is self-produced) against male chauvinism and abuse—she holds nothing back compositionally or lyrically, declining to swaddle her darkest observations or most shattering accusations in soft melodies.
And it’s with “For Her” that Apple assumes a position that is not exactly her own. She wrote the song for a woman who had been a film-production intern and was raped by a man that she was working for and in a relationship with. “It’s really a song for her,” she told Vulture. “To, in a roundabout way, tell her story that she’s not able to tell.” The song deals in both harmony and cacophony, joining women’s voices together, to refuse together. It’s this wrangling of the shared experience that provides a needed demarcation in the album between the internal (here’s what happened to me) and expansive (here’s what’s happening).
In “Ladies,” Apple encourages further harmony between women—evoking the old adage that we not compare ourselves to each other, or meaninglessly compete, allowing men to rule the day through the domino effect of their transgressions. It’s a nice sentiment but one that does not make room for the way that women can also be the authors of their own discord with other women, and for good reason. When women are grouped together in this way I always wonder, which women? And it’s this “which women” question that makes me think again about Shameika. I’ve always seen argument as a potential pathway to having honest relationships with other women, not destructive ones. When Shameika told Apple she “had potential,” suggesting Apple didn’t need to try to saddle up with the popular girls at lunch who rejected her anyway, was it Shameika’s way of signaling that her own brusqueness wasn’t a rejection, but a challenge?