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Fort Lauderdale Herald (US)
Friday, April 12, 1996

What is Tori Amos Talking About?

Feminist rocker's words and music weave a strange spell Tori-speak makes sense, if you listen awhile

By Howard Cohen, Herald Staff Writer

Tori Amos is not of this Earth.

She thanks "the Faeries" in the liner notes of her albums, the latest of which, Boys for Pele, is named for the Hawaiian goddess for whom men were sacrificed by being thrown into her volcano. Inside the CD booklet, a picture shows a piglet suckling Amos' bared left breast.

She attributes human qualities to her piano. She uses food as a vehicle for discussing anything but food. She randomly mixes talk about her self and characters in her songs so that you're never sure what she's referring to.

The task of deciphering Tori-speak might best be left to linguists with equal measures of patience and smarts. Yet it's comforting to learn that in a world of manufactured artists playing a role, the Tori you hear on the phone is the Tori you hear on CD. No contrivances here.

And no contrivance here: This is one of today's top pop stars. Amos, a prodigy who started playing piano at two and entered Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory at five, only to be expelled for "nonconformity" when she was eleven ("I couldn't live with the piano in a regimented way"), sold out tonight's concert at Sunrise Musical Theatre in less than an hour. Boys for Pele is gold, as are her previous two albums, Under the Pink and Little Earthquakes. (Only the late-80s Y Kant Tori Read?, a heavy metal group album, bombed). In concert, fans greet her with a fervor reminiscent of Beatlemania or at least Alanis-mania.

Some crazy lyrics

All this for a woman and her piano - and some crazy lyrics. As Amos speaks from her New York office, her words cast a strange spell.

So even as you're thinking "this woman is OUT THERE," some perverse curiosity compels you to follow her thought processes to what has become a logical conclusion. And it does - after awhile, even the cryptic, obtuse Boys for Pele, a feminist song cycle chronicling a woman's self-discovery in a male-dominated world, begins to make sense.

Boys was recorded following Amos' amicable dissolution of a seven-year relationship with former co-producer Eric Rosse. Amos says her songs reflect her life, and she can be painfully honest. On her debut solo album Little Earthquakes, the autobiographical song Me and a Gun detailed her feelings as a rape victim years earlier. Boys, inspired by her tumultuous experiences with men, offers an angry sequel in Blood Roses.

Liberation in song

In songwriting she finds liberation.

"The record really talks about the thoughts I was hiding while I'd be sitting there eating my salmon with dill," she says. "I think that I was a little surprised at my views."

Those views include Amos' discovery of self - and a streak of rebellion against tradition.

The daughter of a Methodist minister, the North Carolina-born Amos had previously questioned theology (God, from 1994's Under the Pink, suggested: "God sometimes you just don't come through / Do you need a woman to look after you"). That viewpoint takes a decidedly feminist slant on Boys: "The feminist part of God has been circumcised out of all religions," she says. "God [is] a patriarchal force, a very masculine energy, with the feminine having been subservient; either being the mother, the lover, the virgin, but never the equal, never to have the whole."

Women get their due

Women get their due on Boys. From the cover shot of Amos as a rifle-toting, swampy Southern belle and the inside shot of her Earth-mother pose with the pig, to the goddesses, brides, and mythological femmes population its songs, there are many more girls on Boys than men. Aside from the lusty, boy-crazy first single, Caught a Lite Sneeze, its lines like these from Muhammad my Friend that best represent the body of work: "It's time to tell the world / We both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem."

"When we hit Muhammad you realize we've just taken a bend in the road," Amos says. "The first half of the record is about her descent in to the horror; she's got to find another way of looking at herself. On [the next song] Hey Jupiter, she knows the way she has looked at relationships with men and put them on a pedestal is over. There's a sense of incredible loss because I knew that I would never be able to see the same way again. It's freeing, and [yet] there's a sense of grieving with that."

So do you get all this meaning from her baffling lyrics? Stuff like:

"Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona / And I'm quite sure I'm the wrong song / 2 girls 65 got a piece tied up in the backseat / 'honey we're recovering Christians.'"

Her success says fans do.

"I think they get things that I don't get," Amos says. "I see it the way I do because of an experience I've had, and yet I'll listen back to what they are saying and say, 'Fair enough. Maybe that old piano was saying something.' I don't know all that she gets up to in a day."

Say What? Here is an attempt to translate Tori-speak:

What Tori said: "Once you write a song like Blood Roses [on her album Boys for Pele], which is really about me finally being aware that I'm choosing to be defecated on, this sort of [other] person [comes] out the black widow who would systematically drag somebody's balls to Antarctica."

What we think she meant: She is tired of being mistreated and isn't going to take it anymore.

What Tori said: "I see things better when I'm hanging out with her. When I take it to her, I'll have very different views I wasn't even exposed to before I sort of took out my little shovel and started digging."

What we think she meant: 'Her,' Tori's piano, is the vehicle that allows her to express herself and focus her thoughts.

What Tori said: "You've been down under for awhile and it's kind of cold. The wind hits you in the face, the little lifeboat comes by, they've got some Snickers bars."

What we think she meant: There's a point on Boys at which Amos, through the women in her songs, finds herself and declares independence. That realization arrives like a welcome, bracing shock.


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