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The Washington Post (US)
Friday October 5, 2001

Tori Amos Flips the Perspective

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer

FOR HER NEW album, "Strange Little Girls," Tori Amos reclaimed Eminem's controversial "97 Bonnie & Clyde" by crawling into a small box built to replicate a car trunk. In Eminem's song, that trunk serves as temporary casket to the wife just stabbed to death by the song's narrator. With their young daughter in tow, he's driving to the river to dump her body, cockily justifying his crime and turning horror into playtime ("Mama wants to show you how she can float").

In Amos's chilling reading, the wife is not quite dead and the lyrics -- now weakly whispered, supported by ghostly piano and strings -- are transformed into dying declaration. Eminem's lyrics drip pure poison, Amos's rereading of them pure pain. That flipping of the script is at the heart of "Strange Little Girls," in which Amos "re-births" a dozen songs by male songwriters from a woman's point of view, without changing their lyrics. The album is about how when men say things, men can hear one thing and women often can hear another. Amos being Amos, she ended up crawling inside some heads, not of the writers themselves but their creations, to look at the world through their eyes. The view changes significantly, Amos says, depending on where you are standing, or, in the case of "97 Bonnie & Clyde," lying.

"We're hearing it through her filter," says Amos of the victim. "She's hearing her daughter being told these terrible things, being made an accomplice. She can't move and she knows she's dying, there's seconds left. And she knows her daughter will grow up and be divided, troubled," inevitably turning into the next song's "Strange Little Girl" (a 1982 song by the Stranglers).

Amos, the Richard Montgomery High School homecoming queen who grew up in Maryland and began her career on Georgetown's hotel and cabaret circuit, also reimagines songs by, among others, Lou Reed ("New Age"), Neil Young ("Heart of Gold"), Tom Waits ("Time"), Slayer ("Raining Blood") and John Lennon ("Happiness Is a Warm Gun"). According to Amos, all were suggested by "a laboratory of men" she mined for songs that meant something to them.

The project came together after the 38-year-old singer gave birth to Natashya Lorein in Washington in September 2000 and then returned with husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley to her 300-year-old cottage in Cornwall, England. There, she found that such meanings were elusive and evolving.

"The intent wasn't just to take the opposite viewpoint," Amos explains. "But when I started crawling underneath the song-mothers' thoughts and into the shadows, then it started to become, 'Mmm, okay: This is how men say things and what a woman hears.' I realized that in order for me to really expand on that thought, and achieve it, I needed to get together a brain trust where we understand how men say things and what a man hears, as well."

Which is why she felt compelled to do "97 Bonnie & Clyde." "In the control group, some didn't want to have anything to do with it; some did, gay and straight. One man who you'd consider very intelligent said, 'You know, I have empathy for this guy because the [expletive] did this, did that and he just had enough and snapped.' The one thing that struck me was that not one of them asked about the wife. Nobody ever talked about her!

"So her hand reached out of the trunk of that car and just pulled me in, and she said, 'I want you to hear how I was hearing that song as I lay dying.'"

This shouldn't be surprising from someone who unveiled her own attempted rape in 1992's harrowing "Me and a Gun," and subsequently founded the Washington-based RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network). Songs about sexual violence and emotional abuse inhabit the new album, whether the uncaring dismissiveness of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" or Neil Young's patronizing "Heart of Gold," whose original languid grace gives way to Crazy Horse-style sonic fury. But, Amos insists, "all songs aren't just the shocking 'can you see the darkness' type." For instance, she found a haunting melancholy in Waits's "Time."

"Someone had lost one of their best friends, and the character of death started to just step forward and I started to see and feel her presence," Amos says. "And because of what this song meant to this man, I heard it in a very different way and it had this compassion, this knowing that, as a songwriter, I was taken aback by it for a minute. So it works both ways on the record."

There's also Reed's "New Age," which now feels more about need and loneliness than the Velvet Underground's 1970 anthem of tawdry sex and faded glamour, Joe Jackson's sensitive "Real Men" and Lloyd Cole's uplifting "Rattlesnakes." Of the Cole song, Amos gushes, "He's able to go inside the mind of a woman like I haven't been able to go inside the mind of a woman."

Amos didn't seek any of the writers' approval or comments and only one of them has offered any feedback: Slayer sent a batch of "God Hates Everyone" T-shirts, "which is always a big hit with the crew," she reports. "They sent a small one for me to make sure that there is no excuse."

The women Amos conjured on "Strange Little Girls" eventually took corporal form, pretty much a necessity for her radical interpretations, she says. The songwriters "were the mothers. I had a relationship with their song-children, but each song was written by a completely different guy. They're different entities and their world has a different anima. I needed to put on a different face to make them distinctive. I didn't know that with every different male song, there would be different female [characters], that the anima would have access to me. That was sort of the trade-off in etheric land."

So Amos created 13 distinct personalities and fashion sensibilities for the album's 12 songs -- one features twins -- and they were photographed by Thomas Schenk (the full lineup appears in the CD booklet). Graphic novelist Neil Gaiman of "Sandman" fame -- a longtime Amos pal -- then created little vignettes for each persona.

Those creations, says Amos, offered her an entry point to the songs. For instance, her reading of Bob Geldof's "I Don't Like Mondays" replaces the cynicism of the Boomtown Rats' original with weary compassion. Amos tells it not from the point of view of Brenda Spencer, the bored San Diego teenager who presaged the age of schoolyard shootings way back in 1979, but of the female police officer who must shoot her (in reality, Spencer surrendered at home and is serving 25 years to life on two murder charges).

"She went to school and she also had to shoot someone that day -- she shot the kid that shot everybody," Amos says of her creation. "In our myth, she sings it from a place of having killed as opposed to the original, which was commentary."

Gun violence is also addressed on the longest track on "Strange Little Girls," the 10-minute "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and Amos remembers wondering "Where is the woman in this?

"I tried many different women but couldn't put it into form, and then the guys started giving me information about John Lennon's shooting. . . . In the wee hours of that morning, Mark David Chapman says he called a woman from an escort service and asked her to perform a service, in his words . . . to be silent. And that was my entry point because of [her breakthrough single] 'Silent All These Years.' I had an understanding of silence, and that word resonated with me. And Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence' had already been brought to the table, so the thread goes back in the tapestry to that. Songs started to interconnect as I got to know them, not necessarily when I chose them."

"Happiness" features Second Amendment soundbite support from former president George Bush and the current occupant of the White House, as well as Edison M. Amos, the retired Methodist minister who is, of course, Tori's dad. Long a reference point and often-invoked source of Amos's convoluted thoughts about religion and sex, her father is making his first appearance on one of his daughter's album. He asked only "that I not edit him to get my point across," she says, chuckling. Should "Strange Little Girls" follow Amos's previous six albums to platinum status, she promises he'll get his own award.

TORI AMOS -- Appearing in solo performance Saturday and Sunday at Constitution Hall. To hear a free Sound Bite from Tori Amos, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8131. (Prince William residents, call 703/690-4110.)


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