home / interviews
Denver Post (US)
November 2, 2001
Amos her own man
Singer-songwriter probes male psyche in reinterpretation of 12 tunes
By G. Brown
Denver Post Popular Music Writer
In her own music, Tori Amos has written powerful tunes that are wrenchingly real. But the always intriguing singer is particularly proficient at individualizing other artists' songs. She's recorded revelatory versions of Led Zeppelin's "Thank You" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a beautiful cover of the Rolling Stones' "Angie."
For her new album, "Strange Little Girls," Amos, who had recently given birth to a daughter, chose to examine and radically reinterpret 12 songs written by men -- or, as she puts it, "had male mothers." But they are all performed from the perspectives of female characters, all portrayed by Amos in a series of photos in the album art.
She expands Lou Reed's "New Age" with a splendid, revelatory sadness. She rocks out in a nearly unrecognizable version of Neil Young's twangy "Heart Of Gold," blending layers of unhinged vocals with fuzzed-up guitar licks. She morphs Slayer's frenetic "Raining Blood" into a sullen, slow-rolling dirge.
The album is about sexual politics and identity, in terms of how men see women and themselves -- how when men say things, they can hear one thing and women can often hear another. It all sounds like it should be filed under "women's studies," but it works as a disquieting pop experiment, recharacterizing male fears and fantasies in interesting, innovative and startling ways.
"Most of these songs were chosen by my laboratory of men," Amos told The Denver Post recently. She's on the road by herself to support the album and will perform a sold-out show at the Paramount Theatre on Monday night.
"It was a philosophy that I had seen take root back in the days of the grunge movement. In the thick of it, I saw that the male rage was not just a malice directed toward women. There was a malice towards a lot of things, men with the positioning trying to break out of certain molds -- being a provider, what makes a successful male, all that stuff that grunge blew wide open with songs like "Jeremy' and "Smells Like Teen Spirit.'
"But then in the late '90s -- and if you would have asked me 10 years ago, I would have never believed it -- you move away from good-clean-fun murder into this desire to defecate on women. Guys were getting (aroused) off this -- and some women were getting turned on, too. I'm fascinated about all this.
"So I said, "You know what? You take a man's word; you take his seed. So I'm going to take his seed and plant it in a woman's voice. I like that consummation -- that looks good to me. And I'm going to have a work that's integrated.' . . . And using their words was the best way to do it. (It) wouldn't have meant the same if I had just written a response."
Since her breakthrough album "Little Earthquakes" in 1991, Amos has built a fiercely loyal fan base and a sturdy reputation among critics for breaking the stereotypes of what a female rocker should be. like. But with "Strange Little Girls," Amos, 38, is especially brave.
She took on rapper Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," about a husband who butchers his wife, then takes his young daughter along as an unwitting accomplice while he dumps the body into a lake. In Eminem's original, the story is told from the murderer's viewpoint. In Amos' chilling reading, the wife is not quite dead, and the unchanged lyrics -- now feebly whispered, supported by spectral piano and strings -- are converted into a dying declaration.
"As I've always told the guys, "You move the mistress in, you better check your wife's pulse -- after you killed her, it's that five minutes when her energy is going to make friends with the women that are still alive.'
"This was her life. She was voiceless and faceless, and the one thing that kept coming up with the laboratory of men was that everybody had pages to say about him, but nobody talked about her. Well, that was the point, wasn't it? Nobody wanted to know about her; nobody had empathy for her. She was just . . . whatever."
Finding the right voice for the Beatles' "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" was harder. The most experimental offering, it's 10 minutes of blips, techno effects and news soundbites that converge into an anti-gun anthem.
"That song has been circling me for a while -- yes, since Columbine -- but the gun question hasn't gone away for me before or after Sept. 11," Amos said. "Because there are a lot of people on my block that I wouldn't want having a gun!
"When I would hear people involved in the gun movement say, "Look, there's going to be bad seeds,' they let us down by not addressing that access is the problem. Why can you get a gun easier than you can get a driver's license in some states, and why should that be OK without risking the Second Amendment?
"The laboratory of men brought me a wealth of information about this one. John Lennon saw this ad somewhere that said, "Happiness is a warm gun,' and then he took it further, to his gun taking on all sorts of meanings and pictures, and tastes and smells, from drugs to sex, as we all know.
"But what drew me in was that this guy was murdered by one, and he had no idea. And that still hasn't been addressed, because it's the most powerful lobby in this country. And now we can justify that everybody needs one of these things.
"I'm not against guns. But I am against people pretending they're not what they are -- no different than words."
Amos is aware that the provocative, sometimes violent imagery on "Strange Little Girls" may seem controversial after the recent terrorist attacks.
"I was in Manhattan on Sept. 11, and I've been in and out a few times since. Fear is setting in, and now it's becoming paranoia.
"This whole thing split all of us wide open in different ways. It seems to me, anyway, as I go from city to city and try to observe, some people are choosing to pick up the pieces and look at them as they're putting them back together, and other people are numbing themselves. So it's an opportunity where we can either be present and see how we're really feeling about things, or you just try and get to the next hour, the next day, and hope it's all going to go away.
"Well, it's not going away."
Who: Tori Amos, with Rufus Wainwright
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday (doors open 6:30 p.m.)
Where: Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place
Tickets: Sold out; tickets were $40
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos