10 Life Lessons Learned From Fiona Apple's 'Idler Wheel...'


The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple came out at the end of June 2012. These are ten things it's helped teach me over the last year:  

i. Anxiety-free sleeplessness is the province of the adolescent and/or extraordinary. There's a good chance you've read all the interviews where Fiona Apple talks about how she doesn't sleep. Why doesn't she get a prescription for some goddamn sleeping pills, I wondered after like the third article, but I mostly get it: I'm weird about sleeping pills too. I have insomnia and my brain just bashes right through that Tylenol PM shit but I'm scared of the real stuff, Ambien or whatever. I'm a big baby about pills, medications, drugs in general.
        I think Fiona Apple's insomnia sounds pretty romantic, though. I like how she gets up and walks around in the night, I like that thing about her walking around Manhattan at five in the morning in the New York feature. I have sleep-maintenance insomnia (the kind where you fall asleep fairly easily but have a hard time staying asleep), and when I wake up I usually just lie there and wait for sleep to come back. And unless there's something exceptionally cool and wonderful going on in my life at the moment, that waiting is usually taken up by the worst and most anxiety-producing thoughts I can dredge up, which I understand to be typical of insomniacs. There is really nothing romantic about it for me.
       When I was a teenager I loved waking up in the middle of the night. I'd listen to CDs and make up stories in my head and never had much to worry about, since I was a child. It doesn't seem likely that insomnia will ever be lovely like that again, but I'm hopeful that it could become something a lot less lousy than what it is now. I have some idea that the more extraordinary your life is, the less awful your insomnia feels, because there's more freedom to how you live your days and thus less pressure to find your way back to sleep. That might be total nonsense, but two nights ago I had insomnia and after an hour of watching the ceiling I decided to get up out of bed, hang out on the porch for a bit, read a little, write some things down. It wasn't ideal but it wasn't terrible, and after another hour I fell back asleep, and slept for hours and hours, and woke up feeling good.
       At the moment my only other solution is to feel smug about my insomnia, and take some weird pride in the fact that sometimes I sleep like hell. Most of my favorite people are insomniacs and I'm happy to align myself with them. And I'm curious as to whether there are people who actually enjoy their insomnia, who feel like they get something good out of it. I want to start collecting people's "beneficent insomnia" stories and put them together in a tiny book, like a storybook, to keep beside your bed and read in the middle of the night.

ii. Jack White sings the song of my stupid/amazing heart. Before The Idler Wheel and Blunderbuss came out, I was thinking of writing something about whom I'd rather claim as the voice of my generation: Jack White, or Fiona Apple. I never wrote that post, partly due to the fact that "voices of generations" aren't things I actually believe to exist, and mostly because Blunderbuss didn't connect with me on too deep a level. But I do love the song "Love Interruption," and relate much more to it than I do to "Daredevil" from The Idler Wheel. I lean more toward the "Love Interruption" side of things, of going back and forth between wanting love to ruin me and deeply, compulsively, prohibitively fearing being ruined by love: 

        When Fiona sings "Don't let me ruin me" in "Daredevil," it worries me about as much as that halfway decent Pink song from the early 2000s - which is to say: it doesn't worry me very much at all. I'm pretty aces at self-preservation, and lines like "I don't feel anything until I smash it up" don't hit me too hard. I always catch a thrill from the bridge, though - the "GIMME, GIMME, GIMME what you got in your mind in the middle of the night" part, the way she shouts it like some endearingly psychotic kindergartener. It's such a good line to turn up loud and let smack against your chest and shake your heart, to really feel it and think how that's your truest self singing, even if it freaks you out a little bit. There's a bravery to that sentiment that's missing in Jack White's song, and I like to siphon off Fiona's courage there, for just those eight perfect seconds.

iii. "Gross" and "tender" can happen together. I think "Valentine" might belong to Adam from Girls forever for me. Adam is my favorite Girl, or at least he's tied with Jessa. The only time I ever "talk to the TV" is when something bad happens to him: like when Ray called him stupid when they went to Staten Island, I yelled at Adam to punch Ray in the face. And in the scene when Hannah's watching from outside the bar and Adam starts drinking again I went "Nooooooooo..." in a dumb weepy voice that was completely real, and the fact that "Valentine" was playing intensified my heartbreak in the best way.
       The whole thing of Adam dating that hot boring girl last season killed me a little. He was trying so hard to be a normal guy - but he can't be normal, because "you can't function as someone besides you are." Adam is right to self-identify as a creep, and even though I'm never quite sure whether or not I'm glad that Girls exists, I do appreciate the uniqueness of being repeatedly grossed out by a character but then rooting for him anyway. 
        My favorite Adam moment is his AA rant about Hannah not knowing how to use soap. I love that he calls Hannah "kid"; in some ways I feel like "kid" is the ideal pet name, although of course it depends on the source. Adam listens to No Age. He stole a dog. He doesn't like wearing shirts, and he's maybe dangerous. Adam is the tulip in the cup, the idea of which grosses me out all over again, but there's a tenderness to that gross-out. Sometimes "gross" and "tender" can happen together, like with little kids and real-life love. I admire and am in awe of people who aren't afraid of coming off ugly.

*That's a line from a sweet song by another person whose lyrics I often like to appropriate

iv. Tragic beauty is totally sustainable. "Jonathan" is my favorite song on The Idler Wheel right now. The line I love most is "You're like the captain of a capsized ship/But I like watching you live." That line excites me because there's so much possibility in it, whereas much of the rest of the album speaks to what's impossible. I also love how Fiona growls the italicized part of that lyric, and I wholly relate to her growling. There are certain men I like watching live too.
       Sometime last year my writing teacher asked me why I don't kill off this boy in my book - he's all hot and reckless and a little bit crazy, and killing him wouldn't be all that out of line. But I would never kill Jack: I want to watch him get older and older and fuck up more and more - but to also not fuck up sometimes, to sometimes be okay and sometimes be more wonderful than anyone else in the world, to have these tiny moments where he's beautiful as ever. I think it's interesting when sweetness and beauty and maybe even purity sustain or re-emerge when you think they've been beaten out of the person a long, long time ago. And maybe they were beaten out, but maybe they can come back? Shit just comes back to life sometimes, I really do think that. I mean, of course I'm fascinated by Kurt Cobain and bunches of other beautiful geniuses who self-destructed, but I'm one thousand percent more interested in the ones who stayed alive. I will always be a crazy believer in those kinds of boys. I used to worry it was juvenile, but now I think it's divine.

v. Sometimes your own hair is the best dance partner. A few months ago I was at a big party with a bunch of my friends; we were dancing and dancing for hours and hours. I have a thing of playing with my hair as I dance, of shaking my hair into my face, then pushing it out of my face, and grabbing onto my own hair and letting it go again - it's about shyness, but it's also about the fact that I love my hair and really enjoy touching it. At one point at the party this handsome guy-pal of mine leaned in and told me, "Stop dancing with your hair and dance with me instead." Which of course was adorable, and maybe kind of exciting, but I shook my head and pushed him away. I just wanted to keep on dancing with my hair a little while longer, and that's totally fine. It's nothing to get all worked up about: sometimes it's okay and even pretty fun to be left alone. And it would be crude to ask Fiona Apple not to take everything so serious all the time, but I can absolutely go ahead and ask that of myself.

vi. It's good to get high off romantic death. Last fall there were two weekends in a row when I ran into the man who's probably the most brutal heartbreaker of my life, after having gone more than six years without seeing him at all. Running into him, and also his wife, was both awful and wonderful, overwhelming but strangely comforting. The first time it happened, I had to wander away from the party for a few minutes and go outside and breathe some nice autumn-y air. I sat on a curb and listened to a beautifully self-aggrandizing song on my earbuds/phone, leaning against a big tree and feeling shook-up and dreamy. In the morning when I took a shower I washed a few dead leaves from my hair, and it made me feel like such a writer.
      Anyway, the lyric "Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key" from "Werewolf" is perfect and true and absolutely how I feel about romantic death, the death of a romance that's changed your head in a permanent way, as romances tend to do. There's a quote from Simone Weil's Gravity and Grace* that reads:

"It is impossible to forgive whoever has done us harm if that harm has lowered us. We have to think that it has not lowered us but revealed to us our true level"

- and it took me years to get to that point with the man I'm talking about here, to genuinely feel that I hadn't been "lowered" by him. But seeing him last fall made me know that I'd forgiven him, that we were okay in our own weird way. That forgiveness shit never happens as fast as you want it to, but when it does it's heaven; there is so much relief and even power in knowing you mostly do wish the best for the one who hurt you the hardest.

*I feel obliged to tell you I learned this from Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus, not from actually reading Gravity and Grace. Also: FIONA'S FACE IN THIS VIDEO. Please don't take your eyes off her face, for even one half-second.

vii. Self-identifying nice guys are dangerous, dangerous creatures. Did you ever date a guy who thinks he's really nice? It's kind of stupid, or at least it's frustrating when shit goes astray and you've got to call the dude out on some bad behavior and it wrecks his worldview and he gets all resentful and sulks like a giant baby about what a vicious beast you are. Just like "Every Single Night" makes me smug about my insomnia, "Periphery" makes me smug about my distaste for self-identifying nice guys, about their lack of ability to come up with a more imaginative way of defining themselves. I like to sing along with "I don't appreciate people who don't appreciate" in my head and think how good it is to be an appreciator, to be conscious of and thankful for stuff beyond the mildness of your own disposition. Getting off on your own mildness precludes you from being an appreciator, because appreciating requires valuing both the good and the bad, the sweet and the rough.       
        Mildness is toxic, I think. It's possible that's the greater lesson of The Idler Wheel as a whole.

viii. "Sickness cynics" can all go die. I hardly ever listen to "Regret": it's a such a downer of a song, downer-y in a way that does next to nothing for me. Obviously I love depressing music, but I want it to be depressing-slash-fortifying; I want it to be something that undoes me and then puts me back together and turns me into something different and sharper and stronger. For me "Regret" mostly feels like floating around some sad black puddle with nowhere else to go, and that's really not my scene. I just don't see the point.
       There's one line in "Regret" that always gets me though, the one where Fiona sings "Remember when I was so sick and you didn't believe me?" People who don't believe you when you're sick are the worst - so deeply ungenerous, the nastiest sort of self-indulgent - and I'm happy for Fiona for calling them out.
       On New Year's Eve 2001, one of my best friends and I went out to a tacky bar in Boston, and she got a migraine like an hour before midnight and needed to go home right away. So we got a cab and my friend felt so bad and sick and started crying and kept saying "I know people don't believe migraines are real unless they've had one - but it's real, it's real!" And I was like "Oh my god - I know it's real! Please don't think I don't think it's real!", and it was all very cute and heartbreaking. Whenever I hear that line in "Regret" I feel so protective of Elaine and retroactively sad about her New Year's-ruining migraine, even though I seriously could not give a fuck about any New Year's being ruined ever. I was 24-years-old and when the clock struck midnight I was sitting on my bedroom floor, drinking a beer and playing my guitar and listening to the then-new first Strokes album, and that was all more than good enough for me.

ix. Blissed-out/possessed is a good way to be. In my memory of Fiona singing "Anything We Want" on the Jimmy Fallon Show, she does this adorable shoulder-shimmy thing on the "shaking rain off her stripes" line. I just rewatched the video and it's not quite how I remember, but I'm newly charmed by her presentation, how it's this wild mix of blissed-out and possessed. Blissed-out/possessed isn't always a good look, but it's a good emotional state to shoot for - or to at least try to cultivate, in a relatively organic sort of way, which I think is entirely possible.

x. Summer is for hot love and hot knives. At the beginning of last summer I had a night of kissing a really good-looking boy, this green-eyed babe who's so classically dreamy; the whole night was just a dream. Our first kiss was on the Hollywood Freeway, which is such a gorgeous first-kiss location. It was all gorgeous and uncalculated and so obviously a one-time thing, and the whole night I had "Hot Knife" in my head. The next morning I walked down to the Starbucks at the laundromat and bought a big iced coffee and a bottle of coconut water, "Hot Knife" and the hot boy still stuck in my head, and I knew that summer had officially started.
         You get through this album, all the sleeplessness and smugness and heartbreak and the pretending to rise above the heartbreak - and then finally it's summer, it's hot, there's a hot boy/a hot knife. I don't completely believe the metaphor of that but I like it anyway, and I think it's sweet of Fiona to make us think that's how the world could work. Fiona Apple is many things, and a sweethearted romantic fool is absolutely one of them.


  1. I love all of this, Liz! Strangely enough, I've been listening to this record for the last couple days. I listened to it way too much last summer & got burned out, but now it sounds good again. Also, I have insomnia & migraines--they are very real & I hate them more than anything.

    1. thank you! yeah, i gave up on it for a while too but now it's BACK