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Entertainment Today (US)
November 9, 2001
This Strange Little Girl Explores the songs of a varied cast of men with her new album
by Adam McKibbin
The room crackles with the conversations of 13 women who have been granted voices after a lifetime of silence. They are strangers to each other, mostly, not counting the meloncholy mother-daughter duo and the set of twins. An S&M girl with a kinky twinkle in her eye sits next to a veteran Vegas showgirl who nurses her sore feet. On the fringes are a conscientious observer and an androgynous cowboy of sorts. In the middle, of course, sits the angel of death.
This room is not on the set of the next David Lynch film. It is, in fact, the new album from ever-provocative songstress Tori Amos. Strange Little Girls is a fascinating world to step into, a travelogue of sorts in which Tori spends time hanging out inside the heads of men and faithfully reports and records her findings.
"What I needed to say really could only be said by using men's words," she says. "The project was really spurred on by the fact that... there's been a lot said about women and gay men with a kind of malice that I wouldn't have [noted] if you would have asked me in 1992 when the grunge movement was at its fever pitch. It was a different male rage. But it wasn't malevolent against any group of people."
Not often do we see a cover album that doubles as a concept album. On each of the 12 songs of Strange Little Girls, Tori steps inside the skin of a different female character created from the fabric of the original (one track, "Heart of Gold," gives birth to the twins; thus we have 13 women in our room). There are clear blueprints for some of these women (Eminem's slain wife in his "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," for instance). Others, such as Slayer's "Raining Blood," do not have such clearly defined characters or archetypes and seem to require longer leaps of imagination (which no one has ever accused Tori Amos of lacking). Upon further investigation, though, it seems that imagination isn't the key as much as rolling up one's sleeves and digging deeper into the source material. None of this comes out of thin air, after all.
"The way that I approached this is that I'm not saying I understand a lot about a lot," Amos says. "But I do understand song law. There's an ethical law if you're going to take someone else's child-work and find out their secrets. So... my relationships were with the songs, not with the songs' male mothers. I am not here to justify what the men said or didn't say. This is a commentary, this is how a woman heard what a man said."
The cast of men is a list that alternates between legends and potential surprises, as disparate and compelling a group as the women to whom their songs give birth. There's Lennon and Young, Tom Waits and Lou Reed, but also Lloyd Cole and Martin Gore; the metal gods from Slayer and the blonde king of controversy from Detroit.
"A lot of people think that I'm talking about certain artists and I'm not," Amos insists. I'm talking about philosophy, about cutting up women and beating the shit out of gay men." Needless to say, there won't be many party-goers dancing to her revision of Slim Shady's fantasy opus about sending his wife to a watery grave while his beloved young daughter tags along as an accessory. Amos' stark, chilling treatment places all the attention on the words themselves, which is right where she wants it. If it results in a formerly ambivalent listener gaining an appreciation for Eminem's poetry, so be it. Amos doesn't deny that he has a certain gift with words -- quite the contrary -- but the idea that a song can be "just words" or "only words" drives her up the wall.
That is where I picked up the gauntlet," she says. "And I kind of said, 'OK, I'm going to penetrate your little club and I'm going to take your words. I'm going to take them and I'm going to give them back to you and show you the power that they have. And they also have the power to heal.'"
She refers to the ensemble of women as a "pantheon," and they do represent a much more complicated collection of ideologies. There is never an attempt to find a single male perspective. So, while there is Eminem's spouse slasher, there is also the compassionate plea of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence." The listener finds, as Amos found, plenty of violence ("Raining Blood," "I Don't Like Mondays"), but also finds lonely souls looking for love ("New Age," "Heart of Gold").
The two boldest statements, musically speaking, are "Heart of Gold" and "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." The Neil Young classic is scratched up and swirled around, rendering it almost indistinguishable at some points. The Lennon/McCartney entry, meanwhile, has also been gathering its fair share of attention -- and controversy. At just under 10 minutes, it's miles away from the original -- one senses that she respects The Beatles too much to merely duplicate or imitate them -- and is clouded with a sound collage that features snippets from the likes of our very own President, who offers up a priceless nugget of wisdom on the proceedings ("I believe that people who are gonna commit crimes shouldn't have guns").
Where, one may ask, is the female character in "Happiness Is A Warm Gun?" Here we find her not in the song itself but in the events surrounding the song. Mark David Chapman, on the night before her murdered John Lennon, placed a call to an escort service. His demand on the call girl was simply that she "be silent."
"The whole thing about 'Happiness Is A Warm Gun' is in our time now the alliteration to the cock with the gun and the needle," Amos says. "That's not really, right now, potent. What's potent is that a man that made this alliteration 30 years ago... was killed by this thing that he was commenting about."
This brings up the subject of gun control and the fact that in some states you have to jump through fewer hoops to get a gun than you do to get a driver's license. "The gun lobby hasn't really looked at their involvement in accessibility to firearms," Amos says, leading her to question who's really to benefit from this continued standstill. "We've lost so many people by using this excuse of our rights and our freedoms... Well, what are the rights of the people who have been victimized by this?"
Adding his own voice to these questions is graphic novelist Neil Gaiman, who has a rabid following of his own (he is best known for Sandman; his latest novel is American Gods). He authored corresponding short stories for each of the tracks on Strange Little Girls. The album's artwork -- which features Amos in full costume and character (x 13) -- includes one-sentence fragments of these stories, while Gaiman's complete work is available in the tour book.
"What the really is about," Amos says, "is he looked at me and said, 'You've done impressions of men and now I think a man needs to do impressions of your impression.'"
All of this taken together means that there are more levels to Strange Little Girls than we're used to finding in an album. It has the feel of a short story collection -- even without Gaiman's contributions -- and encourages listeners to take an unusually active role in processing what they're hearing. For this reason alone, the decision to save the accompanying text pieces for the tour book (instead of the liner notes) was a smart one.
While her take on Eminem and Neil Young are marked excursions into alien territory (it's hard to imagine Amos scrawling "I wanna live / I wanna give / I've been a miner for a heart of gold" in her notebook of lyrics), other songs feel like they could just as easily have been hers from the beginning. This is quite a feat, considering she pursued neither obscure men nor obscure songs. Most listeners, for instance, will remember (if not cherish) The Velvet Underground's take on Reed's "New Age." And yet when Amos sings "I'll come running to you, baby if you want me," you can't imagine that they're anyone else's words but her own; or, if the concept has fully been sold, the character she inhabits.
Those who are still hoping for Little Earthquakes redux -- and they are out there -- will be sorely disappointed yet again. Those folks should resign themselves to the fact that Little Earthquakes is territory that won't be tread upon again.
"I could never write like that again, because I don't see the world the way I saw it then," Amos says. "And a lot more people see the world like a saw then, than see like I see it now." She pauses, measuring her words carefully, respecting them enough to want to choose the right ones every time. "I wrote that in a one-room little hut behind a church, being at the bottom of the food chain. That resonates with a lot of people. I now write from a place of having achieved a lot of what I wanted to."
This doesn't mean, of course, that she what she writes now doesn't resonate, and even resonate with the same people who clutch her now decade-old debut close to their hearts. But a lot of happened since then -- including marriage, miscarriages and finally motherhood -- and the Tori Amos that stands before you today is very different from when she first introduced herself in '92.
"There's something to be said for not having to be at the fringes of your life to have something to say," she says. "There's almost a Catholicism in all of that, such a shame if you're a successful writer. You have to give up something -- your happiness or love -- to be able to write something. And I always kind of pulled back and thought, 'Well, we don't have a whole lot of work that's been written by people that have crossed over to the other side.'"
That's not to say that the next album will be all sunshine and lollopops. Even those who have worked their way up the food chain are still prone to those observations of outer darkness, not to mention moments of inner darkness. Now even a satisfying career, a happy marriage and a beautiful daughter can take those away. And you can bet that when they come, she'll be listening.
In the meantime, Tori's tour winds its way through Los Angeles on Nov. 15 for three straight nights at the Wiltern. Fans can expect a sharp contrast to the full band and arena rock show of the last tour. This time around it's more intimate; just Tori, her piano, and a few new friends who are ready to have their stories shared.
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos