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Words are weapons - and men know that very well
On her new album Strange Little Girls, US singer Tori Amos covers famous songs of men about women. A conversation about the war of sexes and men's dominance - in rock'n'roll and elsewhere.
kulturSPIEGEL: Ms Amos, did you ever want to be a man?
Tori Amos: When I was younger, yes. First Jimi Hendrix, then Jimmy Page. Both played guitar and for me they were the absolute symbols of coolness. But then I got a guitar on my own. And after that I never wanted to be somebody else again.
kulturSPIEGEL: Is rock'n'roll a male art-form?
Tori Amos: That's out of question, isn't it? It's the man that dominates rock'n'roll.
kulturSPIEGEL: For your new album "Strange Little Girls" you rerecorded 12 well known songs that men like Neil Young, Tom Waits or Eminem wrote about women. Why?
Tori Amos: I wanted to find out how men see women and how they think about their relationships with women. I have tried to get into the characters of these women and to look at the lyrics from their perspective. But get this right - I didn't do it because I was frustrated or angry. I don't want to accuse anybody; that would be too simple. It was the fascination that drove me.
kulturSPIEGEL: How does one approach a fictional character?
Tori Amos: I have thought a lot about these women... Where do they come from? What do they like? What do they think? In the end, the image of these women was very concrete. I could even imagine how they look, and for the booklet I had myself photographed in those different roles.
kulturSPIEGEL: Do you sing the original lyrics?
Tori Amos: I just left out a few words here and there. The originals do quite stand for themselves.
kulturSPIEGEL: How did you choose the songs?
Tori Amos: I wanted songs that tell you a story about women. And when I got a feeling for those women, then I put myself on the tracks of this person.
kulturSPIEGEL: Can a woman understand what men sing about women?
Tori Amos: I had a male control team that often had to tell me what some certain songs or lines meant to them.
kulturSPIEGEL: You didn't talk to women?
Tori Amos: I did but don't believe that there is anything like a female unity. The sentence that I heard most often was, "Do you think so? I think you completely misunderstood this..." Whatever. In the end I had songs that in a way represented modern myths.
kulturSPIEGEL: Is there a chance you overestimated the power of song lyrics?
Tori Amos: No. Words can always hurt and they can heal. Their power is underestimated. I always hear, "Well, they are just words, this all is probably not meant that way." But words are weapons. And men know that very well. But they rarely take the responsibility.
kulturSPIEGEL: Which lyrics make you angry?
Tori Amos: I don't like it when somebody tries to make some fast money with rude or confrontational lyrics and then says, "Hey, it wasn't meant that way." That's very untruthful, it's weak and cheap and I really do have a problem with that.
kulturSPIEGEL: Why did you choose the song "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" by Eminem in which the storyteller drowns his wife, whom he has just killed, in a lake?
Tori Amos: I didn't do it at all to please some journalists who'd like to condemn Eminem. The song impressed me as a phenomenon. I found it more frightening than the lyrics themselves that all over the world people dance to such words.
kulturSPIEGEL: Your explanation?
Tori Amos: I have often heard men saying, "Eminem is a freak but he's funny - that bitch really dragged the shit out of him, small wonder that he freaks out over that."
kulturSPIEGEL: And that's typical of men?
Tori Amos: That's not what I just said. Actually some male musicians didn't want to play on the track. I just said, "Boys, no problem, calm down, I'll call you again when we're doing Neil Young."
kulturSPIEGEL: And why did you have to record this song then?
Tori Amos: It's a good example of how violence is tolerated in families. My father, a priest, just took part in a conference in which a UNO-report was presented. And this report says that every minute a woman is abused. That's terrible. What I was interested in in the Eminem song was the figure of this abused woman. What kind of person was she? Who were her girlfriends? How did she feel?
kulturSPIEGEL: Was it painful to take over those characters?
Tori Amos: In the case of Eminem it was, yes. But when I searched for all these figures I found out a lot about myself as well.
kulturSPIEGEL: Is there a war between men and women?
Tori Amos: I see it more as a big ping-pong game between the sexes. But get this straight, you can play ping-pong very brutally. You could also consider the relationships between men and women as a chess game in which single figures always take new positions and meanings. And that's what women have to deal with these days - again and again they have to question certain positions of power. If there is anything that holds this record together it's those many constellations of power. Only in Hollywood it always stays the same. There is a law that makes old boys like Sean Connery shag young women like Catherine Zeta-Jones. But nobody wants to see a young guy like Billy Crudup having sex with Meryl Streep.
kulturSPIEGEL: But all that Hollywood does is produce fairy-tales...
Tori Amos: ...that terribly many people take as the real life. Men are only sure about themselves when they have power - may it be as the man that feeds the family and brings the money home. Only very few men can stand living with a woman who forces her career. I have seen many relationships breaking up because the woman had more success than the man.
kulturSPIEGEL: Do you think there has been a backlash recently? Young rock and hip-hop groups present themselves in sexist video clips, the porn industry is booming.
Tori Amos: Of course it does. But to be honest, good pornography and erotica don't bother me at all.
kulturSPIEGEL: What is good pornography?
Tori Amos: When I find some sensitivity and passion in there. It's a sign of the times that brutality gets more and more popular in this genre. But to glorify rape - isn't that horrible? You should have an empty stomach when you watch this shit. I know what I'm talking about.
kulturSPIEGEL: But people have always found delight in those stranger things. Isn't it just today's media that makes things more transparent?
Tori Amos: I do believe that the urge for hard pornography has risen in recent years. Brutality is just another product that's en vogue at the moment. And the wider public consumes it like a very normal thing, like your daily dinner.
kulturSPIEGEL: But the hard times have also brought hard women to the front. A global entertainer like Madonna with seemingly unrestricted power and endless self-esteem couldn't be imagined 20 years ago.
Tori Amos: No, I don't believe that as well. But there have always been exceptional women, but nothing really has changed. Did you know that radio stations in the US do almost only play music by men? Generally women are on the black list there.
kulturSPIEGEL: Excuse us but that sounds a bit like a suspicion theory.
Tori Amos: I can easily give you the names of some radio editors who will confirm this.
kulturSPIEGEL: But why should radio stations do that?
Tori Amos: Because women are to be kept out of that male rock'n'roll business. That's why. Madonna as the leader of pop music is fine, but what is going on with boycotts and discrimination further down is incredible.
kulturSPIEGEL: Has your career suffered from this?
Tori Amos: I can't complain. I've been doing this for such a long time that I have a very faithful fan base. I am fine because I'm independent from radio and other media.
kulturSPIEGEL: Will some of the characters you have discovered in those songs by strangers live on in your own songs?
Tori Amos: I have discovered these women but I don't control them. I'm really curious myself if they will resurface on my next records.
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