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February 19, 1996
Tori the Subversive - You love her, you hate her, you made her a star
by Jeff Giles with Katharine Chubbuck
Someday the people who worship Tori Amos are going to meet up with the
people who hate Tori Amos, and blood will shed. Amos was an instant semi-star
in 1992, emoting about sex and religion, giving loopy interviews, tossing her
red hair and bucking on her piano stool as if riding a mechanical bull. Many
found her riveting. Others found her annoying as hell - including some women
who didn't think you could topple the patriarchy with a girly voice and a tube
top. "Some women see vulnerability as weakness,"
says Amos, 32. "And I do sound like the Little
Mermaid on acid."
Now more than ever. Amos's new album, "Boys for Pele," is stark and thunderingly
weird. (The title concerns sacrifices made to a Hawaiian goddess of the
volcano.) Are you ready for a heavy-metal harpsichord? For songs about Satan
and about the female half of God? You've got to love the fact that an album as
subversive as "Pele" debuted at number two on the bland and polite Billboard
pop chart last week. And you've got to admire Amos's jazzy piano playing and
her whispery ballads, but they're hidden in an album that gets swampy with
self-indulgence. Amos recorded most of "Pele" in a church in rural Ireland,
because she wanted to feed off sacred vibes. Did she feel naughty? "No," she says. "I've
worn red leather pants to church with no underwear - that was my naughty rebellion. This was about going in after an
Amos was born in North Carolina, the daughter of a Methodist minister. (Her
new song, "Father Lucifer," apparently took some explaining at home.) At 5, she
was a classical-music prodigy; at 11, she was playing Gershwin at gay bars in
and around Washington, D.C. When she was in her early 20s Amos was raped, an
experience that inspired a shiver-inducing a capella number, "Me and a Gun." So
many letters poured in from fellow survivors - so many women and girls streamed
backstage to tell their stories - that Amos co-founded the Rape and Incest
National Helpline. She also won a Visionary Award from the D.C. Rape Crisis
Center, putting her in the company of former surgeon general Joycelyn Elders.
Amos talks about her fans with a touching dead-seriousness: suddenly, there's
no trace of the out-there young woman who effuses about Mary Magdalene and
invites interviewers to feel her biceps. But as the new album suggests, Amos's
first priority is songwriting, whether her songs go down easily or not. "There are a lot of poets and groove people, but there's not much music out there," she says. "My
own devotion is to music. Everyone told me this me-and-my-piano thing was never
going to work."
photo caption: "Famous Amos: 'The Little Mermaid on acid'"
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