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Where the Girls Are
On the ever of her highly anticipated U.S. tour, rock diva Tori Amos
practices her evangelical, liberal, own-your-own-guilt (dare we say)
feminism for the long road ahead. The personal is political. By Joy Press
At first glance, Tori Amos seems a throwback. A hippie-dippy feminist
selling New Age platitudes. She begins and ends this interview by
talking about the two Marys- Magdalene and the Virgin Mother, of course-
and no matter what question is asked, she eventually returns to the
subject of Western religion and its devastation effect on women's
sexuality. Amos, 32, speaks fluent psychobabble, mentioning things like
her "work with a medicine man" as if it were a trip to the supermarket.
Her chart-busting new album, Boys for Pele, is named after a volcano goddess.
Then again, Amos is not exactly a textbook flower child. Her mission is
to expose the dark side of human nature in mainstream society, and she
will go up against any politician, preacher or prude who stands in her
way. Along with artists such as Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Eddie Vedder
of Pearl Jam, Amos is in the vanguard of rock stars who have made the
personal overtly political.
Sitting in a Manhattan hotel room on the eve of a much-anticipated world
tour- the American leg of which begins in April- Amos looks a little
rumpled. She has the fierce, inward focus of a true believer. An
evangelist, even. And that is, in fact, her stock: She is the youngest
daughter of a southern Methodist minister. Now she wages a constant
rebellion against the religion and politics that she feels alienated her
from her sexuality.
In 1988, she released one disappointing album with her hard-rock band Y
Kant Tori Read. But three years later, her debut solo album, Little
Earthquakes, dazzled critics with its soul-baring songs. Young women in
particular took to heart the album's girl-coming-into-her-own theme:
"Sometimes I hear my voice/and it's been here/silent all these years."
And they were won over by her unabashed sexuality: her graphic lyrics and
the physicality of her live persormance, which at moments has her
writhing in sensual abandon on her piano stool. Despite scant radio
airplay, the album went platinum in the United States, as did the
follow-up, Under the Pink.
The dark spot in Little Earthquakes is "Me and a Gun," a haunting a
cappella account of the time Amos was raped. As the media homed in on
the song, droves of women turned to her for solace and advice. Although
Amos generally talks about politics in a rather abstract way (i.e., if we
heal ourselves spiritually, the political details will fall into place),
she felt compelled to take direct action. In 1994, she helped set up a
hot line, RAINN (The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), funded by
her record company, the Atlantic Group and Warner Music Group. The hot
line recieves some 50,000 calls per year. The year the hot line was
inaugurated, Amos won the Visionary Award from the D.C. Rape Crisis
Center in recognition of her "fight to create a world free of sexual
violence and other forms of oppression."
"I was getting so many letters from young women," Amos explains. "Do you
know how many underage girls are dealing with rape? And the government
has cut its funding for the rape crisis centers in a big way. The
[National] Rifle Association, the gun dudes, are supported and powerful.
And her, I can understand a weapon or two. However, nobody says, 'Since
we're going to support weapons, we've also got to figure that there are
going to be a few incidents because of us standing up for rifles.'
There's a part of me that wants to go have a little chat with those guys
and just say, 'Nobody's saying that all men are rapists. But you have to
accept the fact that most rapes are [committed] by men.' So is there a
On one occasion while touring, Amos found herself chosen as the last
refuge for a desperate fan. "This girl showed up backstage," the singer
recounts. "She just stood there and said, 'Last night my stepfather
raped me. He's been raping me every night for seven years.' I said,
'Get her on the bus!' When we were crossing the state line that night,
[the tour managers] said, 'The FBI's going to be on your ass so fast.'
And I'm like, wait a minute, what is right and wrong here? Where has the
law failed? That this girl's only hope is an artist...."
Amos takes seriously her responsibility to her fans, especially the
girls. She employs feminist terms in describing her own epiphanies,
explaining that Little Earthquakes was about "hatching and acknowledging
things for the first time" and Under the Pink about "breaking from the
victim perspective." With Boys for Pele, Amos has focused on "women
claiming her own power."
Appropriately, Pele is her first entirely self-produces album, a
declaration of independence. It is also her most baroque album yet, full
of loopy harpsicord and piano arabesques. A secret decoder ring might
help decipher the lyrics (My sweet bean bag in the street/take it/down
out to the laundry scene"). That's just Tori exploring her Inner Garden.
"Feminism was an important shift that happened on the planet. But being
a feminist isn't enough now," she says. "It's about being a whole
person. It's about the feminine principle. Men have that just as much
Amos even offers understanding to the male power brokers of Washington,
D.C., where, in her teens, she worked the piano bars. "I don't hate
politicians," she maintains. "I loved playing "Bye, Bye Blackbird' for
[former House Speaker] Tip O'Neill. He was a human being who needed to
sing a song."
But as a fan of talk therapy and catharsis ("own that guilt!"), Amos is a
sworn enemy of the politicians who want to rein in gangsta rap and the
Internet. "Those people, like Dole, they're going to be dead in 20
years," she says, and shrugs, a hint of a grin playing at her lips. "So
my 'quest' is to get to the young ones. Make them remember who they are,
that they have access to creativity, to any kind of emotion they want to
Amos believes that performers like herself hold he key to understanding
the youth of America. "Music is the most powerful medium in the world
because of the frequencies," she says. "You're hitting places in people
that remind them that they're more than just this functional being that
makes money, eats and shits and comes."
Her raison d'etre is to make people see her version of reality, raw and
ugly as it may be. As the interview ends, Amos, in typically abrasive
terms, offers her wisdom to Washington. "If politicians want to know
where their 14-year-old daughter is and what she's really thinking, so
that when she's 18 they have access to her [vote], they should come talk
to some of the female artists," she says. "And then they should go to
some of the male bands' concerts, 'cause she's probably backstage on her
When I suggest that most parents don't want to hear that their daughters
are servicing rock stars, she says vehemently, "This isn't about what
they want to hear, this is about truth. They should come have a cup of
tea with me and I'll give them extra cream so it won't go down so harshly."
In her own decorous way, Amos is as much of a threat to conservative
politicians as gangsta rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. The politicians just
don't know it yet.
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