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George (US)
April/May 1996

"Where the Girls Are"

On the eve 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 devastating 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 performance, 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 receives 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 responsibility?"

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 manager] 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 harpsichord 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 while person. It's about the feminine principle. Men have that just as much as women."

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 feel."

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 knees."

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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