If you were even a slightly sentient being in the ’90s, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you can sing along with most or maybe even all of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal”– it’s the kind of song that sticks with you forever, with its piano bang-bangs, a sing-along ready chorus that swings from shrill highs to lowest lows. The song even shares its opening line (“I’ve been a bad, bad girl”) with an old prison blues song. We’re a long way from 1996, when “Criminal,” Apple’s hit single and award-winning music video dropped (20 years ago, almost to the date), but it still vibrates with the same fiery angst, tight-fisted rebellion and, yes, youthful sexual energy the day that it premiered.
Lane Moore, the Greenpoint-based musician and standup, admits that, “I’m one of those ’90s kids who wasn’t really alive in the ’90s,” still, she says that the song has always resonated with her. So when the front person and songwriter for It Was Romance, came up with the idea to do a “shot-for-shot” remake of the moody music video for “Criminal” (she co-produced the homage with Mo Fathelbab, the founder of The Experiment Comedy Gallery ), she was determined to do it right.
“When I first heard ‘Criminal’ I don’t think I really understood the lyrics necessarily. I was so young,” Moore explained. “I don’t think that it really hit me until recently how intense they are.” Apple was signed to Sony Music at the tender age of 17– in the music video, she’s only 18 (!). She reportedly wrote the song in reaction to the record label’s request that she pen a more traditional pop song– in other words, a safe bet for a hit. According to Vulture, she banged out the song in just 45 minutes. It’s not hard to believe– “Criminal” seethes with urgency and contempt, and it’s clear they were penned by a smart girl who knows she’s smarter than a boardroom full of dum dum boys.
The song opens with the famous words: “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” It’s a very convincing sentiment, and one doesn’t necessarily need to see a scandalous video to sense Apple’s impudent tone and feigned regret, but the video imbues the song with another super complex layer. A tiny, teenaged Apple spends much of the video biting her lip, sucking her hands, and writhing on the carpet, surrounded by faceless bodies and almost retching at the thought of her recently committed sins, but also thoroughly enjoying her badness. She’s mocking some silly boy (or men in general, arguably) as she begs for forgiveness for having hurt “a delicate man.” Anyone who’s paying attention can easily pick up on her ironic tone. And yet, most critics seemed to have missed the point back in 1996, interpreting Fiona’s recalcitrance as a desperate attempt to exploit her sexuality for fame.
The music media throng criticized Apple for her brazen, unapologetic sexuality and, not surprisingly, her weight. “I really did my homework with this video– down to everything, the props, I tried to match the outfits as much as I could, and tried to match the house, but I also went back and listened to interviews with Fiona Apple,” Moore explained. She took the “backlash” to heart. “I’m not somebody you’d look at and be terrified by how thin I am, and I thought there was something really interesting about not only adding a queer element to the video, but having an adult who looks like an adult.”
Apple later came out and said that she’d intentionally tried to look strikingly thin for the video, and that she’d struggled with an eating disorder during the video’s making. Nevertheless, Moore said there was “something weird” about the fact that critics had focused so much of their energy on analyzing Apple’s body. “I feel bad that she got so much shit for it,” Moore said. “I feel very protective of her and I love her, even though I don’t even know her.”
The original video is deceptively simple. Moore moaned with exasperation when I asked her to recall the challenges of doing a shot-for-shot homage. “Oh god,” she said.
Lit mostly by a harsh, direct spotlight, it takes place inside what appears to be a fancy suburban home decked out in the trappings of ’80s affluent suburbia– there’s green shag carpeting, but also a recessed television that emerges out of nowhere with the click of a button, and shots of outdated wood paneling are cut with lingering closeups under the hood of a fancy car. The camera moves gracefully, like a jungle cat laying in wait before the pounce. Apple’s eyes flicker like a furtive feline’s, as she appears to be caught in the act, the first one awake after a long night of debauchery, her face twisted with a strange mix of guilty and depraved self-satisfaction. It’s the video equivalent to heavy flash and poorly lit webcam videos, but it’s beautifully done.
“The house was the most difficult thing,” Moore recalled. To stay true to the original, she had to find and secure a location in Brooklyn that looked like “a huge house in Malibu” with ’70s furniture, not to mention an owner who was willing to let her borrow the place. “In the original video, I can only assume they had millions of dollars for their budget,” she said. “Mo was able to find the cinematographer, but other than that, I was like crap– I’ve got to find the locations, and do all this stuff myself because it’s not like I had a team of people helping me do this stuff.”
Like most young Brooklyn artists, Moore tapped her network of friends and did her best to be resourceful (see: essentially $0 budget). So she kept an eye out and ended up borrowing most of the props from her pals, and amazingly, secured a location that passed the test. “I went over to my friend’s house one day and she’d just moved to a new place, and it was eerie how similar it was,” Moore recalled. It doesn’t matter so much that the set wasn’t an exact replica, because it’s the unique lighting in “Criminal” that truly defines it visually. And lucky for Moore, her crew nailed it.
Just as Moore had set out to put her own spin on “Criminal” (swapping out the good looking boys for “hot women,” and turning Fiona’s earnest sexiness into exaggerated angst), she applied the video to her band’s own synth-driven crooner, “Hooking Up With Girls.” She felt that the two were a “natural, exciting match.” Just like “Criminal,” It Was Romance’s “Hooking Up With Girls” doesn’t shy away from complexities, angst, and raw sexuality. Moore speaks frankly about, well, hooking up with girls, and having mixed feelings about her promiscuous lifestyle.
Moore directed the video herself, which made for some slightly awkward moments. “It felt a little bit like you’re directing your own sex scene or something. It’s a weird thing,” she laughed. “And what I found was that everyone else felt totally comfortable on set, it was just me who felt weird.” But it’s that weirdness that makes Moore so charming, and maybe the best homage to “Criminal” is one where the artist is unapologetically herself.