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Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
July 26, 2007
by Brett Winterford
Tori Amos invents a posse of imaginary women to take her politics to the world.
Concept albums are tricky things. They are so often too forced, too smug, too moral. American Doll Posse, Tori Amos's ninth studio album, risks becoming these and more. After all, it's not only fiercely political but sees Tori Amos reinventing herself as five separate personalities, with each one responsible for different songs. Yet instead of changing her image just to remain current, Amos is using the identities to criticise a culture lacking in strong role models for young women.
"Women today, under this right-wing Christian America, they are a compartmentalised version of what a woman is supposed to be," she says. "They are either career women, which means you're a bitch, or you're a mother. It's too simple for me.
"In the Christian tradition we were only given Mary Magdalene and Mother Mary. But there's so much between those two extremes that represent what women really are."
As such Amos invented her own posse, with all the personas (one is based on herself) sharing the attributes of different Greek goddesses, as well as traits Amos has observed among contemporary American women.
"As an architect, it's hard to build a new type of building unless you've studied all the buildings. I had to ask myself, how do you bring ancient myth into a modern story? So many great storytellers go back to ancient mythology.
"I studied the women -- and looked at the very strong women in ancient mythology -- not the watered-down versions of them in our current celebrities. I'm talking Aphrodite, not baby Aphrodite."
Her alter egos on the album include the reflective Pip, the overtly political Isabel, the art-savvy Clyde and feminist, liberal-thinking Santa. Amos also chooses to play one of these characters each night on her world tour as Act One, returning to the stage as regular Tori in Act Two.
The concept requires her, quite resolutely, to act half-mad. At times, particularly on the character blogs that Amos updates (see http://www.toriamos.com/posse), the fantasy can be trying. But her theatrics have some serious messages to deliver.
The posse, she explains, is a reaction to America's choice in 2004 to re-elect George Bush's Republican Party. She identifies that poll as the point in which the US ignored past lessons and lost its way completely.
"I thought America was going to make a different choice -- a nurturing choice," she says. "People talked about the idea that [the Iraq conflict] couldn't get any worse. Oh my, my -- clearly it has. The situation has devastated so many families."
Amos believes that if the collective instinct of American women had made their voice heard in that election then her native country would be in a different position today.
"The way I was looking at it, every woman had a vote," she says. "What happened? I have chosen to go door-to-door now. I can't give up on them."
Amos has a reputation for writing serious songs. Born in 1963, she received a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at the age of five and was later expelled because she didn't conform musically.
After moving to Los Angeles she played local bars, had a commercial failure with her first album Y Kant Tori Read, then found increasing success when she started writing emotional piano ballads such as Cornflake Girl that earned her comparisons to Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell and often dealt with personal loss and tragedy, such as her miscarriage and rape.
In addition to taking a different direction than her past albums, American Doll Posse is also lengthy, with 23 tracks. Thankfully, Amos is among the world's few great songwriters who is as inventive as she is prolific. From the country-infused thigh-slapper Big Wheel to the dirty, desperate rock of Teenage Hustling, to the sublimely pretty Girl Disappearing, the album has substance. And when she gets preachy -- such as in opener Yo George or in Devils and Gods -- her rants are mercifully short.
Amos's political advocacy has kicked up some dust on the tour.
"Talking about America is very painful to some people," she says. "There is a gut-wrenching humiliation when your nation is involved with what we have been involved with. People get angry.
"This [act] is going to bring stuff up. That's what's exciting to know -- that along with the sexiness and the frivolity, you are talking about dire issues that need to be discussed."
If artists don't mention the war, Amos says, they are "letting down a whole generation."
"Years from now, Tash [Amos's daughter] would have said, 'Where the f-- were you, Mom? Why didn't you rally the women? Even if you rallied one woman!'"
Her advocacy has drawn her some unwanted comparisons: "People keep talking to me about the Dixie Chicks. I say to them, 'Have you even been to one of my shows?' If I had to entertain the current [US] administration, that would be the end of my career.
"I am not America's Sweetheart," she adds. "I was the minister's daughter in leather!"
Yet Amos certainly doesn't subscribe to the Paris Hilton school of sex, saying she laments that her 15-year-old niece is more clued into cheap celebrity culture than "the great actors and artists of our time".
"There is a side of me, or should I say a side of [invented character] Santa, wooing me to say, 'We'll show them eroticism,'" Amos says sternly. "But we'll show them eroticism with some grace and some dignity."
Opening one of the first shows of her tour playing the politically charged Isabel, she says she felt "a detachment in her own skin" whereas coming back on stage as Tori Amos felt entirely familiar.
"Isabel was so far away from the [Tori] that the crowd knows," she says. "She is so focused on the war and environmental issues and the problems that are destroying us. When Tori walks on, the audience response is completely different."
Only a few shows into her tour, Amos is already losing the distinction between reality and the theatre she has created.
Amos is so absorbed by the characters that on occasion she takes to the streets as one of the other girls. She says it's beginning to warp her sense of identity.
"You begin to realise that you are the 'you' that your friends and family are comfortable with, but that it's not necessarily the only 'you' that exists," she says. "You begin to think -- this is not the only life I could have led.
"Some people think you have a destiny ... well, I don't."
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