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Valentine For Fiona Apple

    On a recent episode of "The OC," an hour-long drama about high school students trying to cope with the pressure of being rich and good-looking and living close to the beach in Southern California, Seth, the funny one, offered "sexual favors" to a foxy friend. She demurred, but said that such an offer would usually culminate in a night involving "candle wax, tube socks and the new Fiona Apple CD."

    I turned to my daughters, lined up on the couch -- young, younger and youngest. I thought: tube socks? We're almost at the sickening toggle point in which the universe will invert and the kids will have to explain to me all the sex references. They'll be saying stuff like: "Dad, don't be a dope. It's, like, you know, the hills are alive with the sound of bondage."

   But they offered no help. I had to figure it out on my own. Obviously the foxy student is saying that she likes to put on tube socks and athletic sneakers and then run round and round a burning candle while listening to Fiona Apple.

   The key element of this is, of course, Fiona. She's a very talented and rather terrifying singer. Her music is a nervous breakdown set to piano. You wouldn't dance to her music, but you might sort of agonize to it. She's a torch singer, and she wants to burn someone.

   In the music videos she's a big-eyed, plump-lipped waif who makes Kate Moss look like an NFL linebacker. She slinks and slumps, a creature persecuted by gravity, her presence so liquid she threatens to turn into a puddle. She wears her lack of self-esteem like a badge.

   Let's sample some lyrics:

   Wait till I get him back. He won't have a back to scratch. Yeah, keep turning that chin. And you will see my face as I figure how to kill what I cannot catch.

    As you can see, Fiona is a bit of a wolverine. If you were in a relationship with her, you'd want to keep a first-aid kit handy. In her world, love is a very dramatic enterprise. In a sense she's speaking for the very young and very romantic, who can ingest enormous quantities of love without becoming completely disabled the next day. Young romantics can fall in love on Tuesday and break up on Thursday and get back together on Friday and sever all relations permanently on Saturday, during which interval your basic married couple will have had precisely one conversation, about the need to buy cat food.

  Oh what a cold and common old way to go. I was feeding on the need for you to know me. Devastated at the rate you fell below me.

    The highs are fabulously high, the lows hideously low. Love is a toxin, driving the victim to delirium, ecstasy and eventual disappointment. Guys are objects of desire and loathing, and it's not clear if there's a difference. This kind of love is a form of combat. It's trench warfare. Fiona is always fixing her bayonet, getting ready to go over the top.

    We tend to lump love, lust, romance and commitment together, but these things are as distinct as racquetball and poker, triggered by different hormones. Too much dopamine and norepinephrine will plunge you into an impenetrable romantic fog. It's better to stick to the safe hormones, the commitment chemicals, like oxytocin and vasopressin. But that's not Fiona's way. Dopamine and norepinephrine are basically her rhythm section -- dopamine on bass, norepinephrine on drums.

   Everything good, I deem too good to be true. Everything else is just a bore.

   Professional romantics understand that stability is the ultimate horror. You're not going to hear Fiona sing songs about how her guy isn't any good at loading the dishwasher. If you are not about to go insane with infatuation, you need to start breaking up. You can never say to your lover, "Let's stay in tonight and order pizza and watch that iguana documentary on Animal Planet." But you are permitted to say, "This would be a terrific night for a suicide pact."

    And it's dangerous work trying to get to you, too. And I think if I didn't have to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill myself doing it, maybe I wouldn't think so much of you.

    It's all good stuff, if you enjoy the soundtrack of longing and despair, sung beautifully. I'm a fan. In fact it's possible that I like her just a little too much. Maybe our relationship isn't entirely, you know, healthy. And I know she'd relate to that.

   [This is the Rough Draft column from Sunday's Post magazine.]

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 11, 2006; 8:10 AM ET
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