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The Harvard Crimson (US)
October 26, 2001
The True Confessions of a Toriphile
by Irin Carmon
Crimson Staff Writer
I was filing when it happened: Ears plugged with the Finnish teen pop sensation I had to write a blurb about that week; mind occupied with little other than filing Lil' Kim's press photo between Lil' Bow Wow's and Lil' Troy's. My editor at my summer internship at the Village Voice was on the phone nearby, his voice muffled by my Walkman warbles.
He cupped his hand over the phone. "Hey, Irin," he called, "Do you want to talk to her?"
"Who?" I asked distractedly, pulling a headphone an inch off my ear.
"Tori Amos. They're offering us interview time." It dawned on me that he was on the phone with the publicist at Atlantic Records, whom I'd asked him to call. I needed an advance copy in order to review Tori Amos' latest album.
Five years ago, I probably would have wept at the very thought of conversing with that goddess of the teenage girl's pantheon.
"Sure," I replied. "Why not?"
Young women (and even some men) of a certain cultural predilection might remember what it was like having fearless singers like Amos form the soundtrack of their adolescence.
"Once upon a decade, a girl had her pick of impassioned and inventive women who were safely subversive yet still spoke to her experience," I would recall in my Voice review a couple of weeks later.
I remembered well. Seven years ago, my sister, two years of teenage territorial exploration ahead of me, stuck a pair of headphones in my ear and told me to listen. She wanted me to tell her what I thought the song was about; I was 11 and couldn't say the word "rape." The album was Amos's Little Earthquakes, and the song was "Me and a Gun," an a capella recollection of Amos' rape at gunpoint. When I was in seventh grade, my sister and I counted the days until our first Tori Amos concert--which we attended with our mother, no less--and were introduced to a fervent fan base, whom Amos had dubbed "Ears With Feet." Most prominent were the young, white women aping Amos' flaming hair sporting fairy wings and glitter who lingered in the aisles and whispered along with every word. Toriphiles came in all forms, but I wanted to be that kind.
By high school's wane, though, I'd gained sufficient distance to be granted a review of Strange Little Girls, Amos' 2001 effort, for the Village Voice. The writing I'd done for them up until that point was a cache of femaleness, stemming largely from my avowed interest in feminism. By some accident of good luck, I'd already been assigned to write about Amos when Atlantic Records announced that the album would be a collection of covers written by men like Eminem and Tom Waits and bands like Slayer and Depeche Mode, intended to explore the hidden female voice within them.
A month later, just before shopping period and a mere day before terrorist tragedy hit the tail end of New York, I was getting antsy in a conference room at Atlantic's New York headquarters. I'd been waiting for half an hour, grimly anticipating the moment when the publicist would appear, frowning, and tell me that there had been some kind of mistake, that I wouldn't be allotted my hour after all.
No such thing took place. Instead, Amos, tiny and red-haired, entered the room, smiled and shook my hand. Miraculously, I forgot that I'd never interviewed anyone I didn't know before, least of all anyone famous, and settled right into interviewer mode.
She peered at me with wide green eyes. "Can I ask you a question first?" she asked. I nodded hesitantly, wondering where this was going. "So you work for the Village Voice. Are you a student?" Clearly, she wanted to know how some teenager had landed on that couch with her, tape recorder in hand. I dutifully told her that I had just begun my first year at Harvard after spending the spring of my senior year and the summer thereafter writing about music for the Voice. She erupted with excitement.
"You're just like that Elizabeth Wurlitzer," she exclaimed, blithely butchering the surname of Elizabeth L. Wurtzel '89, precocious journalist and author of Prozac Nation. After she'd grilled me to her satisfaction, Amos grinned and said, "Okay, now I'm ready. I've got the whole wonderful picture. Ask away."
I had carefully typed questions to fire at her, but a grueling train ride and a copious wait had permanently burned them in my mind, so I didn't even take out my notebook. I began asking her about the album, about connections I thought I saw between her works, about becoming a mother, about her fans.
The popular media portrayal of Amos as a frivolous, hyper-feminine mystic with a proclivity for gleefully impenetrable sound bites had always made me suspicious: It smelled of media spin. As it turned out, the latter part of that stereotype wasn't far from reality. Posed with the most straightforward of questions, Amos would deliver dreamy musings, rife with metaphor and personification of her songs.
"These women are serious traitors, they can play chess with the big boys," she declared, referring not to actual people, but to her versions of the men's songs. "They infiltrate. They're tired. But are they mercenaries? I guess, in a way. But no blood is drawn."
The 20 years that lay between us served more as a bridge than a gulf. Becoming a mother had soothed her and given her new perspective; much of the conversation lingered on ideas of aging and womanhood.
"[If] I wanted to be 18 again," she said earnestly, "that would really scare me, if I were 18 and I was hearing a woman of 38 not wanting to be in [sic] 38. Because what do I have to look forward to? I mean, is it that bleak? Is that what it is?"
Patti, the publicist who had ushered me in, stuck her head in and begged a moment. When Amos reappeared, she settled on the couch and said, "Where were we? Because we were in a place where most interviews don't arrive to."
Women and aging, I reminded her. She nodded meditatively. "Wisdom is something that you just don't have in your teens and your twenties," she said. "That's not what that's about. You have things that we don't have, that we carry somewhere maybe, as a memory. But you just have things that we don't have, and we have to value that. And we have things you don't have. And how great is that?"
After an hour, Patti discreetly slipped in and sat down nearby to nudge us into completion. I turned off my tape recorder. Amos turned to her and said, "Patti, do you know about this girl? She's only 18 and writing for the Village Voice, and she's a freshman at Harvard. See to it, will you, that Irin comes backstage to see me after the Boston show."
I blinked. How had my seventh-grade daydreams been catapulted into reality? Amos wasn't finished.
"Bring your friends too. Oh, and if you can, please bring me books that have touched you, so that I can read them and, you know, see where you are."
She stood up. "I want to read what you're writing in 10 years. I want to read what you're writing now! You must be so excited, just starting out and starting college at the same time." She leaned in, daintily planting a kiss on each of my cheeks. "Good luck with everything. It's going to be fantastic. There'll be down days--believe me, I've had them--but they're just--they're just salt!"
The stage at the Wang Center on Oct. 15 was shrouded in black, hung with a curtain that was jaggedly pierced with holes and lit from behind. From offstage, Amos duskily murmured Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde." After frequently commenting in interviews that the drowned woman was invisible in the original version of the song, Amos's implication was clear: She herself was nowhere to be found. Tension knotted the audience at each interval as they waited for her to appear, but the song ended without Amos' presence.
The piano appeared amid flashing beams, and Amos, clad in shoulder-padded white, hurtled onstage, straddled the piano and laid her fingers on the keys. Recent tours had seen her experimenting with a full band, whose bluster was in sharp contrast to the fiery solo piano that had been Amos' trademark. The "Strange Little Tour," as it was called, marked a return to the girl-with-a-piano paradigm. In that vein, only three of the songs Amos played that night were from Strange Little Girls, opting instead to grant a grateful audience their early album favorites and several obscure, much-loved b-sides.
Each song began amorphously, with Amos cooing over the first few unrecognizable bars and eliciting joyful cheers when, at its own pace, the song fell into place. Amos was in top form: Sans band, her particular magic--crafting intimacy even in the vastest arenas, melding public and private space--was shown at last to fruition.
After the second encore, Amos left the stage awash in applause and cheers. Armed with two backstage passes, my chosen accomplice, Alicia Menendez '05 and I headed to the stage door, where the chosen few lined up to have their passes examined by Joel, Amos' bleached-blond bodyguard.
"Where's your pass?" Joel demanded of the young man in front of us. He shrugged helplessly, clearly hoping to slip through. Joel shook his head.
"Bye," he said curtly. "I've been around way too long to fall for that."
After the lawfully backstage crowd had been assembled, we were led down a series of staircases and hallways into a room, barren but for some tables and chairs. Another security official checked our names on the list and then informed us that we would be called.
Most of our companions appeared to have obtained their passes through an Internet auction, the proceeds of which went directly to RAINN, the national hotline Amos founded for survivors of rape, abuse and incest. I asked the fan sitting closest to me, a middle-aged man, how much he'd paid in the highest bid.
He thought for a moment. "About a thousand dollars," he said. I asked him how long he'd been listening to Tori Amos. "Since 'Bliss,'" he said, referring to a single released in 1999. "You?"
"Since Under the Pink," I replied, placing me at 1994. My eyes fixed nervously on the security guard with a clipboard who was heading in our direction. Were we next?
"Irin Carmon?" he queried. Alicia and I rose slowly and, with scattered other press representatives, lined up outside a room down the hall.
Amos was waiting inside, looking worn out, but smiling valiantly. She recognized me after a cloudy moment, her face clearing to exclaim, "Well! It's been awhile! And how have you been?" After I introduced Alicia, we briefly discussed the show and then gave her the books she'd asked for. In addition to the latest album by Marianne Nowottny, a young independent artist inspired by Amos, we'd brought Inga Muscio's Cunt (my choice), Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (Alicia's), and a book on the mythology and archaeology of motherhood, which combined her interest in archetypes with her own new motherhood. Amos accepted all gratefully, posed for a photograph, and gave me a warm hug.
I'd been anxious to retain impartiality in writing my review, and then realized that perceived objectivity wasn't as important as being able to both see clearly and speak candidly, fortified rather than hampered by my history of listening to Amos. In truth, the fan experience had come full circle--from girl with the drugstore fairy wings to girl with the tape recorder and back.
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the World of Tori Amos