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May 26, 2009
Tori Amos on Blood, Sin, and Taxes
As Abnormally Attracted sweeps the world, Tori opens up
by Erin Lyndal Martin
On "Give", the opening track on Tori Amos's latest album Abnormally Attracted to Sin (Universal Republic), a recently deceased narrator matter-of-factly sings; "There are some/ Some who give blood/ I give love." Given the album's project of examining religion, gender, sexuality, and history, blood seems particularly ubiquitous. Asked whether the blood refers to the Eucharist, menstruation, violence, bloodlines, or ordinary vampires, Amos responds, "All of those things. And the power of blood, the secrets that are in blood. People are very attracted to the idea of drinking blood, but how do you do it where no one gets hurt? Why do we always have to take it to a place of violence?"
Secrecy and power are very much bedfellows on the album's seventeen tracks and sixteen accompanying visual vignettes. Amos has been observing the way power is used, the many ways in which people are subjugated, and the secret impulses that drive them into these situations. "It's quite a seduction," Amos says. "Years ago, walking in Hong Kong -- I had a similar experience in Taipei in Taiwan -- I was walking through the markets, and they were draining the live snakes. They were writhing and they were draining the blood and the men would drink it to try and feel virile. And I saw the snakes just being tortured, clearly in pain, [with what looked] almost like clothespins on their necks."
To Amos, the drive to feel virile or accepted is an oppression akin to that carried out by large-scale institutions such as the Christian church or national government. On "Strong Black Vine," she says, "Every drip serpents bless/ You rape Earth knowledge/ Still she would save you from your evil faith," turning, as she often does, to the creative forces attributed to the Earth itself and femininity. But Amos is not naive enough to believe that women inevitably fulfill the destiny of creation.
"'Ophelia' is a story where younger girls choose self destruction over creation, whether it's scarring or being in abusive relationships. And in the song, it talks about breaking a chain, a pattern," Amos says. "'Ophelia' is not the only song to portray women who have run out of options. [This album] is trying to pass on how to survive in very dark times. But you survive by looking at the options, looking at not fitting into his world in 'Welcome to England.' And it could be Virginia to Boston. In this song, England is not a place. She's stepping into his world, but she left who she was behind," Amos explains. "Maybe California," a song in which a mother contemplates suicide, most directly confronts a lack of options in a situation Amos relates to America's current economic crisis. "How do you find abundance in your home when you might be losing your physical home? And mothers are always trying to create home. And so the idea that this woman was just pushed to the edge thinking, 'Maybe they would be better. I just don't have the answers anymore.'"
That sort of desperation seems a logical consequence of the disempowerment perpetrated by institutions. "I was talking to someone the other day who happens to be involved in tax. And he said to me 'just because I'm a bureaucrat, doesn't mean that I feel like we're doing the right thing with the taxation system. The tax system is there to frustrate, confuse, and break people.'" There are no easy answers to be found on Abnormally Attracted to Sin, but there is a clear reverence for those who have the wisdom to survive in difficult circumstances.
"I find it very sexy when women have the answers. There are certain things that time and experience gives you. Youth gives you other gifts, but being able to sail through dark days and upheavals in your life is a very important trait," Amos says. The tacit flipside to the desperation on Abnormally Attracted to Sin is the value of experience, something often debased on the altar of youth. "There was just this conversation happening at South by Southwest and that on Gossip Girl, they're gonna be exploring the story of the mother, going back to 1983. And somebody made a comment, 'I don't want to know about her. Why would I want to know about her?'" Amos laughs. "I've heard a lot of people say, 'Ooh, I can't think of the idea of my mother having sex!' Well I think that's just sick, then. You don't have to be a Peeping Tom. It's not as if you want to go and watch her do it. There is this taboo that if you really are exploring like you would possibly before you're a mom that somehow you're tainting your own energy."
Amos stops and smiles at the idea of exploration. "You have everything you need, knowing who you are and not being afraid of letting your mind take you places. I have so many secrets with myself."
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