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San Diego's Music Magazine
October 31, 2001
People Are Strange...
Tori Amos Rewrites Songs and Sex on Her New Album
by Troy Johnson
"Ginger and honey -- you know the drill," insists a maternal Tori Amos upon hearing my pronounced sniffle.
"Along, of course, with some good pharmaceuticals."
Sixteen months after becoming a mother, Amos' caretaking instincts have become alarmingly automatic. After all, isn't this the psychosexual pixie whose confrontation of taboos has made her the fuckable Dr. Ruth for the mystical set? Wouldn't motherhood's natural cautiousness tend to dilute that appeal somewhat?
But Amos isn't your average mom, as shown by her advice on getting good drugs as Plan B.
"Before I became a mom, I might have thought different things overly sensual about a man," Amos says, analyzing how both marriage and giving birth to her daughter, Tasha, has changed her outlook on sexuality. "Now that I've become a mom, things that make me feel sensual as a woman and towards a man is, 'Is he safe? Is he a safe place where I could leave my daughter and turn my back?'
"I didn't used to think about it like this," she admits. "Before, sometimes it was this power-sexual-domination dance, which I explore a little bit in 'I'm Not in Love.'"
10CC's "I'm Not in Love" is one of twelve songs by male artists that Amos covers on her gender-warping new concept album, Strange Little Girls. Twelve Tori-fied adaptations that storm into the psychic men's room and swing open the stalls; each striking an emasculating blow at a sacred cow -- er, bull -- of male pop culture.
In the 'power-sexual-domination dance' of 10CC's infamous anti-love song, it's painfully clear who is leading. When, over a sterile bed of sober drums and spooky electronic moans, Amos despondently murmurs, "I keep your picture up on the wall/It hides a nasty stain still lying there/So don't you ask me to give it back/I know you know it doesn't mean that much to me," she reconfigures the power paradigm, like running her fingernails down the song's chalkboard.
"I just had an interview with a male journalist who said, 'Some of my male journalist friends have had a real issue with you doing this.' And I said, 'Why? You have your versions you can go listen to.' He was saying, 'It's almost like you did this to hurt...'
"I said, 'No. You feel invaded a little bit 'cuz I walked into some sacred ground. But you need to understand something -- perception is something that you cannot control."
Some of the songs Amos picked are less obviously reproachable, including Neil Young's classic hit, "Heart of Gold." In her version, Amos suggests that Young's endless searching for a 'heart of gold' isn't due to a lack of supply -- it might just be the searcher's shallow definition.
"I adore Neil Young's music, and adore what he is as an essence. However, how this song affected a lot of guys in my group was pretty consistent. And I was going, 'No, a definition of a heart of gold is not a doormat, guys, somebody who is just going to take you back every time you hurt her because she loves you.'
"A heart of gold is somebody who's going to say, 'Love you. Go fuck yourself!'" she playfully shrieks.
Strange Little Girls isn't the first time Amos has drastically altered other artists' songs; for a b-side to the 1992 "Crucify" single, she famously meditated on Kurt Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Back then, Amos was a fairy-like singer/songwriter who'd ditched a promising classical piano career for a more decadent path in L.A. She survived her first bad band, Y Kant Tori Read, then went solo. The cover art for her 1991 debut, Little Earthquakes, gave a pretty good idea of the singer/songwriter's modus operandi: It showed Amos, crammed into a box, pushing to get out, yet smiling.
Whether her strict religious upbringing (her father was a Methodist preacher), or her sexual victimization (she was once held at knifepoint and escaped by singing to the attacker -- but was not, as is commonly reported, raped), Amos has had her share of suffocating experiences to push against. In her lyrics, she unflinchingly confronts sexual aggression and taboo, often right alongside religious repression and taboo. From early on, audiences answered the call -- legions of women whose sexuality had too long been dictated by God and/or Man flocked to her.
Surprisingly, so did the boys -- though much of her work cast men in a less-than-flattering light. The not-so-subtle album art for 1996's Boys for Pele, for example, which shows Amos breast feeding a pig.
But Amos says she's not surprised that dudes dig her Womanese. Referring back to"Heart of Gold," she explains, "Instead of you becoming the eternal pariah with this concept in your brain that it's okay to ask [a woman] to wait around for you because she loves you while you just plant your seed from here to Japan, I'm your good female buddy friend who's gonna fucking tell you [differently].
"I'm persnickety sometimes. And that should make you feel safe. You know that I've got your back. If the vikings are coming and raiding us -- and I don't mean the football team -- if you feel that blade hit the back of your neck, you know that I'm down.
"That, to me, is a heart of gold," she concludes. "That's a friend: ferocious."
Never one to dodge controversy, Amos' new album also takes on pop music's current favorite whipping boy: Eminem. (No one ever said Tori didn't have a good marketer's sense of timing.) Of all the public condemnations of Eminem's hateful songs, perhaps it has never been cast in such an appropo light as on Amos' interpretation of "'97 Bonnie & Clyde." In the rapper's infamous song, a deranged father kills his ex-wife, puts her in the trunk, and drives to a lake with their child to dispose of the body.
"No matter what people's comments were about [that song], there was one thing that was missing," she says. "And that was people wanting to know about her -- how she felt.
"What was her name?" Amos questions, dreamily. "Did she have friends? Did she like coffee? How is she gonna feel if she never saw her daughter again? And did she hear her daughter's father tell her daughter these things and she couldn't protect her?
"Some men would argue with me and say, 'Well, she was already dead,'" she admits. "And I say to you gentlemen, 'Check the pulse of your wife before you think you've killed her and you move the girlfriend's lingerie into the drawers.
"Check the pulse first," she reiterates in a suggestive whisper.
In the past, Amos has been content to bring dormant emotions back to life. But in her take on "Bonnie & Clyde" she actually raises the dead. When Amos speaks Eminem's lyrics over ominous strings and a processed drum that mimics a heartbeat, the murdered wife is resuscitated.
"Where's Mama? She's takin' a little nap in the trunk. Oh that smell, Da-da must've runned over a skunk... Mama says she wants to show you how far she can float. Don't worry about that little boo-boo on her throat..." All the while the drum-as-heartbeat gets faster, fibrillating with snare drums and cymbal shakes.
To record the song, she had her sound crew build a "confining space" for her to sing in, because "sonically it would change everything, and it would change just how loud I could speak." As a result, every twitch of the singer's lips is audible. The song slices its pretty fingernails through Eminem's dangling sexual prowess and squeezes out the dominance. The negation is remarkable.
"Whether you like this record or not, people are talking about it because it has power. And there's a reason it has power," she insists. "Whether you like it or not, my answer to you is, 'Weigh it.' There's been so many articles written on this, just putting it on a scale -- it's turned into a weight-lifting competition. And that's what I wanted to achieve -- discussion, talk about perception. Talk about how the view changes depending on where you're standing. If you're the one losing your temper, throwing shit, it's going to look different to you than it does to the person getting hit over the head with your shit."
Amos recalls one of the "discussion points" that inspired a lot of the subtext underlying Strange Little Girl. During the recording process, she read an article on the porn industry that led her to question the psychological chasm between how adult films reenact sexual assault and real sexual assault. Perception, control, and choice -- three ingredients separating legal "entertainment" from heinous crime.
"If you're the woman in the porn industry who's able to choose how the seventeen cocks enter, it's [different than] when you're being held down and have no choice and can't dictate where the light's going to hit your ass," she explains. "It's not like, 'Oh yeah, I'd like a margarita with Patrone in between takes.' These women don't get the choice."
Amos takes a deep breath, cutting off this emotionally escalating soliloquy. "And that's it -- time for me to get soup," she says, chuckling at how mundane the statement sounds.
Before saying goodbye, she makes a playful request: "Make me look funny." That's when I grasp the power of Strange Little Girls. The moment we hang up, I will simultaneously have the honor and burden of interpreting Tori, as she interpreted the males on Strange Little Girls. The power paradigm has shifted, this time, in my direction. So Amos knows both sides.
So, I guess the question is: Did she sound funny?
And who or what is interpreting you right now?
Tori Amos performs with Rufus Wainwright, Nov. 20 at Copley Symphony Hall. Call 619-220-TIXS.
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