“Criminal” by Fiona Apple (1996)

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, the video. Truthfully, I don’t remember seeing “Criminal”’s clip all too often. By the time it emerged in the summer of 1997, I was cable-deficient. And YouTube hadn’t been invented yet. So my memories of “Criminal” don’t have much tie-in with the unforgettable image of a borderline-emaciated looking Fiona cavorting around in her underthings, mouthing the line “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.”

“Criminal” is an astoundingly self-aware and mature song, especially when you consider a teenager wrote it. Britney Spears this ain’t. Fiona’s singing about pussy control, but in a significantly more regretful way than the heroine Prince wrote about in 1995. She’s well aware that she can use her sexuality to get whatever she wants, but feels a bit of guilt for doing so. Some complicated emotions to unpack there, Fiona.

That beyond-her-years maturity was also reflected in Fiona’s piano playing (shades of her hero Nina Simone) and her husky, dusky vocal. True to the lyrics, Fiona alternately sings defiantly, coquettishly, and regretfully. My favorite part has to be the bridge, in which she’s singing with unbridled fury and passion. You can write a full screenplay about the feelings on display here. And I can’t imagine that this is something you can say about most songs written by folks not even old enough to rent a car.

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