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The Boston Phoenix (US)
January 21, 1994
Of sex and song
Tori Amos tackles the big subjects
by Brett Milano
I have a female friend who says she's eternally grateful to Tori Amos for writing the lyric, "Just beacuse you make me come, it doesn't mean you're Jesus." Great line, I thought, and something that needed to be said in a pop song (for the boys as well as the girls) -- the perfect springboard for an angry little rock number. The surprise came when I finally heard the tune ("Precious Things," from Little Earthquakes), and it was something else altogether: a piano ballad with a tender-sounding vocal. The line was indeed there, but the setting so lush that one was likely to miss it.
That's the big contradiction about Tori Amos. And it's even more pronounced on her second album, Under the Pink (out this week on Atlantic), which sets a number of big questions about sex and God -- and in at least one song, sex with God -- to piano-based pop that's pretty at worst, actively gorgeous at best. On first listen, the mix doesn't make sense, especially if you're used to hearing heavy topics addressed in heavier-sounding music. But the more one listens, the more Amos gets under your skin. Sure, there's any number of female indie rockers who can outdo her for radicalism, but what Amos makes is pop of unusual charm and intelligence, and there's not a whole lot wrong with that.
Save for the cheeky single "God" (with the memorable chorus of "God, sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?"), the new album has richer melodies and more-oblique lyrics than its predecessor. Having dealt with the big issues (rape, child abuse) on the last album, she's more of an impressionist here, particularly on the second half, where she takes a sharp turn away from upbeat pop. The cabaret-styled "Cornflake Girl" leads into a quartet of ballads, where some provocative lyric ideas are again couched in deceptively lovely tunes. When God turns up again, as a peripheral character in "Icicle," she suggests that the real problem with Jesus is that He can't necessarily make you come.
The musical comparisons she drew last time -- Elton John (specifically pre-glitter, deep-thinking Madman Across the Water Elton) and Kate Bush (to whom she bears a remarkable vocal resemblance) still apply. But Bush's preference for sexual themes gets more gimmicky with each album; Amos brings some honesty and urgency to the subject without relying on it too heavily. To be sure, there's a fair amount of aural erotica here. She knows the value of a well-placed gasp, an audible draw of breath, a shivery run up the keyboard. But the album's real charms come on a subtler, interpersonal level. When the rock trappings fall away and leave you with Amos's voice, her piano, and a layer or two of strings, it's seductive in more ways than one.
"These songs just kind of took me by the shoulders, threw me up against a wall and said, 'Get down at the piano and do it, babe,'" she explains over the phone. "The difference is that Little Earthquakes was about acknowledging things, some of which I hadn't looked at for 15 years, maybe longer. After I did the tour and sang those songs quite a bit, I had to deal with what happens after you sit around the table with people and everyone says, 'I know what that's like.' And it's like an Agree commercial; they say, 'We all feel better,' and they all go home, and you're left sitting there alone. I had to wake up in the morning and say, 'Now I have to apply this to my life.' How do you start walking your talk, as my grandfather would say? My concept of things just changed, and it never got resolved, it just keeps changing."
There is, however, one thrilling outburst on the new album. "The Waitress" is about a woman who succeeded in getting on Amos's nerves, and it begins as softly and gently as the rest of the disc. "So I want to kill this waitress/If I did it fast, you know, that's an act of kindness," she confides. Then the drums and a big, grisly fuzz bass (improbably played by New Orleans funk legend George Porter of the Meters) come crashing in, and Amos's voice jumps into an operatic high register: "But I believe in peace! But I believe in peace, bitch!" It's a nifty rocker, something she should try more often. But after she set an unsettling lyric about the aftermath of rape ("Me and a Gun" from Little Earthuakes) to an almost soothing tune, it seems odd that she's save her angriest music for a relatively trivial subject.
So what happened, Tori -- did she burn your scrambled eggs? "Well, I can't tell you exactly what she did. But what's important to me was the fact that I thought I'd worked on my stuff. And here a woman friend, that's 'friend' in quotes, had pushed me to the point where she'd totally controlled every cell of my being. And here I am, speaking all the time about being a peacemaker and all that good, yummy stuff, and suddenly the idea of splattering her on the floor seemed pretty yummy to me.
"So I said to myself, 'He-looo honey, weren't you kind of on the other team for a while?' How can I point my finger at people in a self-righteous way when I've felt the same things in my lifetime? The only difference is that there's something within us that stops us from taking that step. If I was to cross that line and kill her, that would be taking my choices away, and I'd be tying myself and that person together. Even though someone like her can be the slime under the mud under the scum." Is this charming woman likely to hear the song? "Probably. But I doubt she'll ever know it's about her."
It's often books and films, as much as real-life experiences, that provide Amos with song angles. Although she actually did survive a sexual assault. "Me and a Gun" wasn't written until she'd relived the experience via Thelma & Louise. An album later, Amos observes that Under the Pink still also "has to do with betrayal and violence between women. And I think that the patriarchy is indelibly intertwined with the reason women betray each other. There are no good guys here: everybody's part of the mess as far as that goes.
"I'd been reading Possessing the Secret of Joy, by Alive Walker, which brough a lot of things up in me about betrayal -- whether it's a mother selling her daughter to butchers who remove their genitals [as happens in the book] or something more subtle. The song 'Cornflake Girl' came out of that. That's something you see every day, where women can be more vicious than you can imagine. Betrayal by men doesn't bother me as much because -- and don't take this wrong, now -- because it doesn't surprise me when that happens."
Is the average listener likely to pick up these powerful subtexts? "Maybe not, but that's okay. There's a lot of layers to these songs, and it's not all about meaning. I don't know if you can get most of Prokofiev's stuff and that doesn't even have words, but there is an emotion that gets you on a soul level. You've got to work a little harder on this album and get into your own intuition.
"But there's one song where I give it all to you, and that's 'Icicle.' That's about a girl who goes to a Catholic school and she has to masturbate to survive. They tell her things like, 'When you put this wafer into you, you're going to feel much better.' And she feels like, 'Actually, if I put my own hand on this little warm spot right here, I think I'm gonna feel a lot better.' There, was that one explicit enough?"
Well, yes. And so's her explanation of the religious subtext in her songs. "I was reading Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Last Temptation of Christ, and reading that has become like a 12-step program for me. A big thing was the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which doesn't often get talked about. What it comes back to is knowing that what we've been taught as gospel really isn't. I do know what isn't gospel, and I'll tell you why: for God to say, 'I'll send my only son' -- and the son looks a certain way, is a certain race, and yet he created other people? For God to say, 'I put him on earth to experience this life, and yet he can't soil his dinky with a babe?' No, Brett, he would not have done it."
Which is why she counters my suggestion that "God" is one of the album's lighter tracks. "That's a pretty heavy idea for someone like me, from a strict Methodist background [her father is a minister]. To just go up to God and say, 'Sit down, you need a babe.' But I think the humor is a good approach to things, because you don't get anywhere being a Viking. For me it was just addressing the fact that the whole patriarchal system that we've lived with for thousands of years isn't doing that good a job." I nod agreement over the phone. "Good. Then we can be on the same Viking boat together."
It seems there's no shortage of writers who'd be glad to take Amos up on that offer. Looking through her press kit, one finds a lot of enthused pieces by (mostly) male writers that read like thinly veiled marriage proposals. "No, you're not serious? I didn't know I got those. But I am getting letters from this one guy who wants to sit me down and read the Lord's Prayer to me 17 times a day. I think he wants to hit me with the Bible, or maybe caress me with the Bible and save me from the Devil. But I think that the Devil was saved from me a long time ago."
[article shared by Lori Christie]
[transcribed by jason/yessaid]
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