The Sound of Bolt Cutters: A Feminist Snap

Agata Lisiak

A snap sounds like the start of something, a transformation of something

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life

In early April 2020, with much of the world under lockdown in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fiona Apple’s long-awaited new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, immediately struck a chord, the chorus of the title track expressing our shared need for a release:

Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long
Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long
Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long
Fetch the bolt cutters

For those “sheltering in place,” Apple’s lyrics certainly felt relatable, and even though the album was created way before the onset of the pandemic, the artist intentionally brought forward its release. I vividly remember my elation while striding through a near-deserted Berlin on an early Sunday morning with her reassuring voice in my ears: “I know a sound is still a sound around no one.”

As I walked and sang along, I kept wondering if Fiona Apple had read Sara Ahmed. The figure of the feminist killjoy haunts the album, turning several songs into solid candidates for killjoy anthems: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” stresses the importance and difficulty of speaking one’s own mind; “Under the Table” expresses the satisfaction in rejecting societal expectations; “Ladies” is a call for women’s solidarity even in antagonistic situations.

In her work, Apple delves into haunting experiences that continue to cause her embarrassment and, although she’s “ashamed of what it did to [her]” and “what [she] let get done,” she concedes that knowledge – including self-knowledge – is a process:

And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet
So all I could hear was the noise that
People make when they don’t know shit
But I didn’t know that yet

In Living a Feminist Life (2017), Ahmed explains that, for her, “the process of recognizing sexism was not smooth or automatic,” she could take it “only bit by bit,” partially because “you can feel stupid for not having seen things more clearly before.” Comparing her gradual realization of the workings of sexism and racism to putting pieces together, she describes the musical moment when two pieces click as “magical”: “what a sound it makes; how important it is that this sound is audible to others.” This sound, like the kitchen-sink instrumentation of Apple’s album, can seem out of tune, but that’s precisely where Ahmed locates its magic and subversive power: “the note heard as out of tune is not only the note that is heard most sharply but the note that ruins the whole tune.”

“We need to ruin what ruins,” Ahmed insists; “I’ve been sucking it in so long / That I’m busting at the seams,” Apple echoes.

In both women’s work, the feminist killjoy makes a particularly prominent appearance at a dinner table: after calling people out on something she considers problematic, she is blamed for spoiling the atmosphere. “Another dinner ruined. So many dinners ruined,” Ahmed writes. Apple, too, ruins a dinner party when someone says “something that makes [her] start to simmer” – not even the fancy wine she’s drinking can “put this fire out.” “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up,” Apple sings, at first sounding like she’s smirking and then, its repetition turning into an insistent, manic chant.

While Apple coolly reassures her listeners that it’s ok to be angry, Ahmed goes further: she urges us to “stay unhappy with this world.” And now that the pandemic has wreaked havoc and amplified social inequalities to outlandish proportions, there are yet more reasons to be angry.

Reflecting on anger as a response to racism, Audre Lorde famously wrote: “Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.” Anger has a bad rep, so it is important to acknowledge and embrace its uses. In her 1973 poem “For Each of You,” Lorde insisted that

everything can be used

except what is wasteful

(you will need

to remember this when you are accused of destruction.)

In the past few weeks, we have witnessed inspiring uses of anger in the streets of cities and towns in the US and across the world as, aggravated by the police murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people before him, people protest against racism en masse. Defying the accusations of destruction Lorde warned about, protesters have been dismantling both oppressive structures and their wasteful symbols. Everything can be used.

The title of Apple’s album was inspired by a throwaway line from the TV show The Fall, as a detective played by Gillian Anderson orders her male colleague to break open a door and release the young woman held captive inside. Beyond that immediate, liberatory use of the bolt cutters, however, to Apple that line is also about “not being afraid to speak” and, as she told Vulture, “the message in the whole record is just: Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation that you’re in — whatever it is that you don’t like.”

The sharp sound bolt cutters produce is a snap. And a snap, Ahmed notes, “sounds like the start of something, a transformation of something.” Incidentally, a pair of bolt cutters is prominently featured on the cover of Billy Bragg’s version of The Internationale. In his updated translation of the socialist anthem, Bragg sings:

Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all

While bolt cutters can be used to secure one’s own liberation, as Apple urges, the potential of their social imaginary is much greater than that: they are a tool to enable the liberation of everyone.

Agata Lisiak is Associate Professor of Migration Studies at Bard College Berlin. Twitter: @Agata_Lisiak

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