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Axcess (the Netherlands)
Music - Culture - Style
Volume 2, Issue 2
Holding Hands With Violence
by Laura Morgan
photo by Loren Haynes
"Want a piece of fruit gum?" asks Tori Amos from behind a conference table ten times her size. Amos, a copper-haired, vintage-store bundle of ragamuffin charm, immediately conveys a childlike naivete. It seems odd that this diminutive woman could be the same Tori Amos who assaults the patriarchy, organized religion, and sexual repression with such brilliant vehemence. The fairy tale references and deceptively pretty melodies of her songs often belie the rage within them. Take "Cornflake Girl" from her new Atlantic album Under the Pink. The song's whimsical mentions of "cornflake girls" and "raisin girls" may have you thinking Amos is a veritable fruitloop. But the song, based on Alice Walker's book Possessing the Secret of Joy, is anything but ingenious.
"It talks about how the mothers took their daughters to the butchers to have their genitalia removed. Even though it may be instituted by the patriarchal group in the culture, it's very telling that the monsters were the ones that took this away from the daughters. When I just started to feel what that made me feel like," Amos sighs, "I started to really have to deal with my illusion of the sisterhood. I mean, we all like to think that only guys can do something like that, but we can be very, very vicious and we have to be responsible as women for the fact that we've got a lot of blame going on. We blame each other, we blame men, we take very little responsibility for what we've created."
With Under the Pink, Amos goes head to head with deeply personal demons she first confronted on her critically acclaimed and soul-bearing Little Earthquakes. On that album, she hauntingly sang, "She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own." On Under the Pink she is defiantly her own.
"Healing for me is being able to sit next to the butcher and say, 'Yes, I'm sitting next to the butcher now,' instead of saying There is no butcher. Well, there definitely is one!" asserts Amos. "On this record, I try to hold hands with violence. I'm holding hands with him and it's like Let's go get some dresses and hang out together."'
"We're walking in a darker space than we were on Little Earthquakes. There was a little more light then," she admits. "Now I'm getting my flashlight out because I have to hurt and search for it a bit."
On Under the Pink, Amos' twisted storybook tales meld beauty and monstrosities, grace and dissonance, to create a startlingly revealing tone. Lyrically, images of daisies provide a serene backdrop to witches burning, mudpies and betrayal are whispered in the same breath, and Easter is juxtaposed with masturbation. It's a beguiling mess, sometimes fragile, sometimes brutal.
"With this record it's been helpful when I kind of put some bread crumbs down, like a mother," Amos says. "This is a very active record. It's not a passive record. So when somebody thinks it's a passive record, I need to get my bread crumbs out, because I think we're listening with a Little Earthquakes hat on. You have to take that hat off and put your own hat on."
A child prodigy who played piano from the age of three and was tossed out of Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory at only 11, it seems that Amos has always been somewhat of a hellcat. In those days, her rebellion manifested itself in a frowned-upon fascination with John Lennon and precocious questions about Jesus and Mary Magdalene's involvement - a theme that lurks in "Past the Mission."
"Of course, I believe they were together. Of course, I believe they were a couple and she understood things," Amos says, practically jumping from her chair. "She represents the goddess, the female, the feminine' the joining, the equality. Some things only she knows. And until we acknowledge there are some things only she knows - and there's some things only he knows too - and until we have that mutual respect, there's that prison tower, and there's that mission, and the hot girl got lost somewhere in between."
Give this wild-eyed curiosity her vitamins and a severe dose of Sunday prayer, and you've got today's Tori Amos. Even now an unearthly bluntness permeates her material. On Little Earthquakes, she smirkingly assaulted the collective male ego with the jaw-dropper "so you can make me come, that doesn't make you Jesus," and daringly confronted her rape in the harrowing "Me and a Gun."
Under the Pink has its share of shockers as well- whether it's "Icicle," in which Amos sings about masturbating in her pumpkin pajamas while her family is saying their Easter prayers, or "The Waitress," in which she fantasizes about killing a fellow worker with the kicker "But I believe in peace, bitch." But unlike the modern assembly-line pop star, Amos isn't playing at outrage.
"It comes pretty naturally," she laughs. "I like the way it makes me feel when I say it. It's really good for me, it's almost like words have anchors on them and they've been weighted down, like in The Piano when the rope is pulling her down. Ifs just getting out that little blade and cutting that rope, but with words... with thought."
"This record's been really empowering for me," she continues. "Instead of talking about how I've been a victim, it's asserting myself and saying 'No, I'm not going to do that anymore.' And how to do that is by making certain choices."
When speaking about her songs Amos becomes so thoughtful that it borders on the mystical. "I feel like it's really kind of nice they come and use my body to say what they want to say.
"I'm confronting the institution of God that we've, been taught through Christianity, the one that kind of rules this planet as far as the media goes."
"It's an energy force that comes and visits me." A large portion of Under the Pink's baggage stems from Amos' strict religious upbringing. Raised by her part-Cherokee mother and Methodist minister father (with added threats of impending hell from her grandmother), Amos was riddled with guilt and shame about her sexuality for years. On "God" she attacks the patriarchy which has bestowed on women a sexless role model in the Virgin Mary and has reaped negativity for the past thousand years.
"Now my idea of God is not the energy I'm confronting," Amos says emphatically. "I'm confronting the institution of God that we've been taught through Christianity, the one that kind of rules this planet as far as the media goes."
"I'm saying, 'Buddy, you need to sit down, and you need a babe, and I'm not busy this week. There's just some stuff we've got to go over here.' It's been very empowering. Instead of this 'I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy.' That's just a bit too big for me."
With lyrics that are often a direct challenge to male dominance - "God sometimes you just don't come through, do you need a woman to look after you?" ("God") and the sadly relevant female questioning, "Don't you want more than my sex?" ("Leather") - Amos comes off the arch-feminist. But "Bells for Her," "Cornflake Girl" and "The Waitress" address betrayal among women, while "Baker Baker" acknowledges the female role in emotionally cutting off a lover.
"All of us are really affected by this," Amos observes. "That doesn't take away from my patriarchal little tea party that I'm having on God, because that needs to be had. A lot of us have been victims to that, mankind and womankind. And we've projected stuff and been creators of some of this. Think of all the people killed in the name of the Lord, all the witches that were burned in the name of the Lord, and women were burning other women too."
"Yeah, it has been a 'male energy' which has turned into a controlling energy. But I don't think any of us really understand what pure male energy is. I'm trying to get to that primitive feeling, but it's turned into this, and that's what's been so divisional. It's divided me from myself. My physical body has been divided from my spiritual body, divided from my emotional and my mental, because they're all warring in there. I'm just a little warring faction when I walk around, like Waterloo is happening in my kidneys!"
"Women need to think about what's happening to the guys out there," she admits. "They're so angry, listen to the music they're making. They don't know what their role is. We say, 'Oh, be sensitive, be vulnerable,' and they do and we go, 'You know, I really want you to dominate me, actually.'"
"This needs to be about evolution, and evolution is happening very quickly now."
Despite her seemingly innate gift for wreaking havoc on convention, Amos, who's in a serious relationship, seems to have found a balance in her life. Liberated and perceptive, but hardly a poster child for the riot grrrls, she's come to terms with her past without becoming an advocate of promiscuity.
"I'm in a relationship, and I'm monogamous, and the reason I'm monogamous is because I have a lot of respect for the man that I'm with. I don't believe in saying it's how he would feel if I did and how I would feel if he did. So I ask myself, 'Is this thing that I'm attracted to, is this about a relationship?' And if it is I've go to make a life choice. Here it is. Is it this one or that one? I have to ask myself, 'Do I want a relationship with this person or is there just an energy that I want to suck? Is it that what it is? Because there's something in them that I'm trying to ignite in myself?'"
Perhaps the only safe thin to say about Tori Amos is that she consistently levels conventions and surpasses expectation. With her description of the album as a trip through the Emerald Forest where souls are "patched up," Amos seems an otherworldly waif, yet her concerns are quite common.
"I think about how I want to rear my child because we don't really know, do we, what an artist would be like coming from semi-health thinking parents. There aren't any out there. We really don't know how provocative that would be. We don't know what kind of ear sensation that would be because it hasn't happened yet."
"It might happen with the next generation coming up because I feel like this generation is standing up and raising it's hand and going,'I can either pass this down to my kids or I can change it within myself and outgrow my boundaries.' I don't feel like leaking onto someone else's life. Instead of having my kid become a ballerina because I was sitting on my ass playing piano all the time and always wanted to be a dancer, why don't I just go take some ballet classes? It's almost as if we're caretakers of these souls that come in. And so what if the people above us don't understand that? The generation before us did as much as they could, so now let's go with the evolution. This needs to be about evolution, and evolution is happening very quickly now. It's like the acceleration is quicker than it's ever been."
Whether it's the lighthearted romp "The Wrong Band," in which the characters' weaknesses duck and run beneath a playful piano, or the introspective yearning of "Yes, Anastasia" where Amos asks herself how brave she really is, Under the Pink travels to a very private place. A real place. A place where the ugly and the majestic intertwine, battle it out and end up bruised and tearful before calling it a draw.
"Under the Pink is a place, it's an internal place," she explains. "It's the inner world, the inner life. You have to listen from your stomach. To me it's there. But you've got to be willing to put your moccasins on and walk down the road."
A daunting invitation, indeed.
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