home / interviews
supplement to the Canberra Times newspaper
August 9, 2007
Power of Personality
The Many Faces of Tori Amos
Queen of complexity
Tori Amos revels in being provocative - and her latest album is a classic album, Dave Curry writes.
Tori Amos' American Doll Posse is not your average pop album. That's obvious before you even get to the songs. Flipping through the CD cover, which introduces the album's five "characters," you come across an arresting image. It's Amos, dressed as a vampish housewife, standing in front of a nondescript suburban house with the Bible in one hand, the word "shame" scrawled on the other, and blood running down her inside leg.
Religion, menstruation, female sexuality and guilt - hardly themes that typically make it on to mainstream radio. But then, Amos is hardly your average artist. And while it's true she has enjoyed chart success during her 19-year recording career, Amos seems to go looking for trouble.
Consider the first single from the album, Big Wheel, which ran into trouble in America. There was nothing wrong with the song musically; it's up-tempo, impeccably produced and features one of Amos' bluesiest - and catchiest - melodies. A sure-fire hit, surely. But what's this at the end? Amos counts in so you don't miss it: "I am a M-I-L-F, don't you forget". The phrase is then repeated twice for good measure.
For the mystified, MILF is an acronym for Mothers I'd Like to F--- that has become widespread in internet pornography, referring to women who look older than 35 (Amos is 43). Unsurprisingly, mainstream American radio was less than impressed and refused to play the single (it was later re-recorded without the offending phrase). Instead of prudishness, however, Amos sees only double standards and a wider conspiracy to divide women for political purposes.
"The fact that it was being banned, when you can step-by-step go through how you're going to butcher somebody and say, 'I'm a maneater', on radio," Amos says. "To use a little [acronym] - I don't even say the words - that was enough, because it is taboo and it's a threat, if the spiritual side of woman claims the sexual side.
"That's what the whole Christian right wing is about: dividing the mother Mary and the Magdalene. You know this. When you integrate them, that means you're whole, and that is threatening to them. You have to understand why it's being banned - it proves my point."
Um, perhaps. But is Amos embracing or subverting the sexual objectification?
"I don't need you, Dave, [as a man] to tell me I'm hot, whether you think so or not - it really doesn't matter to me," Amos says. "I have to claim that, whoever I am as a woman. As a mother [Amos has a six-year-old daughter, Natashya], to be able to look in the mirror and claim that, is the most powerful thing."
Amos is on the phone from Athens, Greece, which is apposite, as it happens.
Outraged by what she sees as the American Christian right's attempts to reduce women to either "mothers or whores," Amos looked to Greek mythology to launch a personal counter-attack. Early in the recording of the new album she decided to create no less than five female characters, or parts of her personality, based on the Greek goddesses Artemis, Persephone, Aphrodite, Athena and Demeter.
"I know that the thing the Christian right wing fears the most is the idea of a mother god," Amos says.
"So I decided to conjure their greatest fear and bring on a multiple group of mother gods, and that's the encoding the women need to remember, not these diluted Aphrodites. Come on, look at these broadsheets, these are little damaged Aphrodites that you see on the red carpet, they're not the real thing."
Most artists would run a mile from this kind of stuff, but not Amos, who has long been attracted to "difficult" issues. One of her first singles, 1991's Me And My Gun, dealt with her rape at knifepoint as a 21-year-old. Amos sang about her miscarriages on her fourth album, From The Choirgirl Hotel, while Scarlet's Walk dealt with, among a host of other subjects, pornography and homophobia. Even the seemingly innocuous Cornflake Girl was inspired by Alice Walker's novel Possessing The Secret Of Joy, about female circumcision in Africa.
It's interesting to speculate about how much Amos's upbringing, with a Methodist minister father and a part-Cherokee mother, led to her preoccupations with religion and sexuality. Certainly as far as her spiritual beliefs go, Amos says her mother's "Native American spirituality" won out.
"Religion is tied to some kind of institution, some kind of authority - usually male - which I don't accept," she says. Right wing Christians also rile Amos for pitting "woman against feminist," as she sings in Girl Disappearing.
On the sexuality front, though, not all is troubled. There's no hint of shame or guilt in the wicked You Can Bring Your Dog, while Programmable Soda is playful and Body And Soul celebrates sex as a sacred rite. "To walk with erotica and sacredness in the same hand, to have that as a marriage, is a very powerful thing," Amos says. Amos distinguishes her views from raunch culture, the idea that embracing sexual objectification and aping male predatory behaviour is empowering for women.
"The Santa character [on the album], who carries the Aphrodite archetype, is about respecting her body," she says, "as opposed to seeing it as a revolving door for anybody to walk through. It's one thing to celebrate your sensuality; it's another thing to not respect it."
Whether you actually need to understand Amos's elaborate concept for American Doll Posse to appreciate the album is debatable. For one thing, trying to match the colour-coded lyrics to each character - who even have their own blogs - is likely to give you eye strain. Even when you do, it's not hard to conclude that the characters are just a convenient concept to hang on an album that works equally well without it, as well as being a useful device for Amos to make a point about the complexity of women.
Certainly the music alone should satisfy Amos's legions of loyal fans.
Clicking in at just under one hour and twenty minutes, Amos's ninth album is a dazzling display of her vocal, piano, compositional and arranging talents.
It ranges from the gentle piano playing on the opener, Yo George (more elegy for Lincoln's vision of America than anti-Bush rant), through to the T-Rex guitar stomp of Body And Soul. Kate Bush comparisons have long dogged Amos and her influence is unmistakable in the aching vocals, rich arrangements and melodic gleam of Bouncing Off Clouds, one of several sublime moments on the album.
"I don't think I could have made the new album if I hadn't produced so many of my own records," Amos says. "It's extremely varied, and you can't do that if you don't know how. Because if you're going to have Roosterspur Bridge, which is very James Taylor meets The Eagles, or that Mick Ronson guitar line in Digital Ghost, then you have to know how to produce records like this."
Love her or hate her, you have to respect Amos's courage and talent.
Pretentious? Sure, and some of her songs - and explanations of them - are downright baffling. But Amos still takes big chances and asks provocative questions, and that's what artists are supposed to do. It's easy to dismiss Amos as "the cornflake girl," but I think it's good to have her around.
Long live art rock.
When: Sunday, September 16, 8pm
Where: Canberra Theatre
Tickets: $119, from the Canberra Theatre, ph 6275 2700, or visit www.canberraticketing.com.au
[transcribed by orfeo]
t o r i p h o r i a
the World of Tori Amos