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At Play (UK)
supplement to Scotland On Sunday newspaper
December 2, 2001
Under The Covers
Tori Amos's latest album reinterprets the rock and rap classics of male songwriters from a female perspective. But what could be dismissed as a novelty has proved to be a disturbing and controversial experiment, writes Vicky Allan.
It is a curious experiment. Tori Amos, in an offbeat attempt to bridge the gender gap, forms a small group she calls The Laboratory of Men to gather "research from the ends of the earth." Twenty five in all, they rarely meet together in the same room and are more often contacted by phone. Their job is to talk about songs that mean something to them. From this the singer seeks to create an album of cover versions of songs by male writers that gets inside what it means to be a man today. In the worlds of one of her covers, Joe Jackson's "Real Men," "now and then we wonder who the real men are." Or, for that matter, who the real women are. And if there is any way the two can come to understand each other.
Already the album has provoked controversy. Not the sort courted by "Me and a Gun," her track about her own rape by an audience member. No,this is more than she has dared to remind America hat the songs of its golden boys of rock are all about. "For now we'll just say mamma was real, real bad," Amos mutters over the spare backing track of her version of Eminem's "97 Bonnie & Clyde," and you can't help but empathise with the butchered wife. Here she finally gets to tell the story. There is no change in the lyrics, yet, as Amos says: "It looks a little different from her point of view."
You could call it a cover version, but it is much more. Along with the 11 other tracks on the album, it explores the distance between male and female experience, taking you on a nauseating trip into the murky waters that separate us. It's as if she is suggesting, "Try this for size, you men. Squeeze inside these women's clothes, just as I have squeezed inside yours." As Amos says, "This is what your seed looks like when it's grown in a woman's throat."
Amos's answers are what you might expect - a little kooky but intensely intellectual at the same time. I ask her where "Strange Little Girls" came from. She tells me it's to do with men being mothers. While she was pregnant with her first child, she noticed that many of her male friends were intrigued by what it was like her "to be a home on heels." "I was fascinated to think about a place where men could be the mothers and I thought of my own song-writing and I decided to have a relationship with their daughters."
With the birth of her daughter she became troubled by what it means to bring a girl into a violent misogynistic world. "In the States before September 11," she says, "there had been a lot of material about where women are getting butchered and rape is glamorised. A lot of malice that heterosexual men in America were having towards women and gay men. And after the killing of Matthew Shephard [the young gay man murdered in Wyoming, 1998] it all started to escalate. And the phrase I was hearing a lot was, "They're only words. I don't know what everyone's going on about." At a certain point you have to pull back and say, "Gentlemen, you are doing yourselves a disservice."
"I mean I knew that they were doing it because they were in over their heads. But if you're going to start slinging around the first amendment and say 'I can say whatever I want because I'm protected by this,' then when Oprah Winfrey comes and says, 'You're talking about butchering and chain-sawing women, what is your comment?' You can't just say 'They're only words.' We're talking about being a racist and hating someone because of their sex or their sexuality. So I said to my husband, 'I might just have to take their words.'"
By taking them, she gives them a fresh potency to even the most harmless songs. Listening to the album it feels like every track contains some reference to guns or violence. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" becomes some kind of essay on the second amendment. 10CC's "I'm Not In Love" is transformed into some kind of sadomasochistic duel. Meanwhile '97 Bonnie & Clyde stands alone in its extremity. Amos's version hits you in the guts, yet at the same time reminds you of the strength of Eminem's cartoonish original. It's as if she has done him a favour by reminding the audience of "the blood their sneakers are dancing on." You're guilty too, she seems to say. How could you stand by while this woman was murdered? Had you stopped listening?
"Some of them didn't want me to turn over that stone," she says, "but one very intelligent guy said he had empathy for the character because of what the bitch had put him through. I said, 'So you know that she's a bitch then? You're sure about that?' Nobody was intrigued to hear her side of things. But when she took me to one side, what she heard was that her daughter was being made an accomplice in her murder."
This 'she' who took her aside was one of the 'anima' Amos found in the songs. For each of them, she says, she discovered a woman hiding. "I Don't Like Mondays" is a police enforcement officer, "Raining Blood" is a French Resistance member, '97 Bonnie & Clyde' is a platinum beauty with a birthday cake who, she says, grabbed her by the arm from the trunk, demanding to have her story told. "I'm not sure if they're the anima that were attached to the songs," she says, "or if they were attached to me." Photographs of Amos dressed as these different anima stare out blankly from the CD sleeve, reminiscent of the work of Cindy Sherman. Like the artist's images they seem to be "trying to make other people recognise something of themselves."
"Archetypes are sort of road maps that can reveal the psyche," she says, "so you can crawl in and see how it plays out. I felt if I could make a pantheon of women for our time that came from the seed of the man, then we are building bridges to each other. Then perhaps the men could crawl inside the skin of these women and hear how they heard what the men said."
Does she know any man who has managed to crawl inside their skin? "Once in a while," she says, "I get some male journalist who says, you know some of us think you've been very invasive."
In a way she has been very invasive. She has delved deep into the lives of her laboratory. "I would get these answers that would just make your eyes roll in the back of your head," says Amos, describing what happened when she asked what 'Heart of Gold' meant. "'She has to understand that I'm a player. And if I come home at two in the morning it doesn't mean that I don't love her.' And I would just look at them and say, 'I think she understands'"
So, does it work? I'm persuaded, but I'm not sure how well the album communicates with men. I played the album to a friend. He seemed reluctant to comment. Had he, I asked, managed to crawl inside the skin of Amos's glitzy call girl in "Happiness Is a Warm Gun"? "It's a funny one for her to choose," he said, "because it's about a penis, about having a warm cock." What about 'Heart of Gold'? "Neil Young's one of the most sensitive writers and she's rocked it up, she makes it less feminine. It's interesting." And 'Raining Blood'? Surprisingly he said of her haunting rendition of Slayer's speed-metal track, "Genius. That's really clever."
That's men for you. Forget trying on the archetype. The question for him is, is it a clever cover version or not? But then, maybe I'm failing to crawl inside his skin, maybe I don't understand the power of his words. As Amos says, "This is a club that you can't get into unless you've got the right DNA. It's no different from ours. You're always going to see the world differently if you pee standing up."
Tori Amos plays at Glasgow SECC on Wednesday.
Strange Little Girls is available on EastWest records.
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