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The Boston Globe (US)
Sunday, September 16, 2001

Tori Amos play-acts pop's images of women

By Steve Morse, Globe Staff

Pop feminist Tori Amos doing a song by arch-chauvinist Eminem? And while she's at it, how about delving into songs by figures as diverse as Neil Young, the Beatles, Slayer, Depeche Mode, Tom Waits, Lou Reed, and other male icons?

Maybe only Amos could get away with it.

The result is an album of cover songs that "is not a tribute record," she is quick to point out. Rather, the new CD, ''Strange Little Girls,'' which comes out Tuesday and is sure to be controversial, has Amos reinterpreting male-written songs from a female perspective - specifically, that of the women portrayed in the songs.

"I said, 'OK, let's really turn over these stones,'" notes Amos. "Let's look at this a little more closely. Let's crawl behind the men's eyes and hang in their heads. And then let them crawl back over that bridge into the skins of these different women and see how they heard what they had written. You take the man's seed, you plant it in the womb of the voice of the woman, and the consummation happens there. This album has a Y chromosome in it."

It also has strikingly different photos of Amos in the CD jacket to accompany each song. Aided by a team of fashion designers, Amos changes from a vulnerable, Sharon Tate lookalike for Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" (in which Eminem raps about killing his wife), to twin, tough-as-nails businesswomen for Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." In Amos's revision of the tune (though she keeps the lyrics intact, as she does with every song on the CD), it is about women "not looking for a heart of gold in a man, but looking for gold in the corporation." She also assumes the pose of a woman in the French Resistance for Slayer's "Raining Blood," and a woman talking to Satan for 10cc's "I'm Not in Love."

The new album was sparked by Amos's belief that there has been "a mass, unconscious rage against the feminine" in much of today's pop culture. "And it's not just from Eminem. In a lot of work out there, I was hearing about this subjugation of women and that was a turn-on for a lot of people and even for some women," says Amos, who will introduce these songs, and play some of her hits, during a solo performance at the Wang Theatre on Oct. 15.

Amos is no stranger to edgy subject matter. Her previous repertoire includes "Me and a Gun," a true account of her rape as a young girl; and "Juarez," about the unsolved murders of many women in the desert where "no angel came."

The idea for the new CD came when Amos, 38, nursed her first-born child, Natashya, last year. She had ample time on her hands and would sit up to 12 hours a day with her daughter on her lap. The infant was a long-awaited arrival: Amos says she had three prior miscarriages, including one just after her tour with Alanis Morissette two summers ago.

Some will assume that an album of cover songs was a natural project at a time when Amos did not have the energy to write original material, as she did in her previous hit albums, "Little Earthquakes," "Boys for Pele," and "Songs from the Choirgirl Hotel. (Collectively, she has sold 10 million albums.) The truth is that she has continued to write original tunes; she just became fascinated by the thought of probing women who populate male-penned songs.

She consulted a "laboratory of men" to come up with the songs. "Straight men, gay men, all sorts of men contributed ideas," says Amos. "It was tricky to assemble this material because a lot of the songs just didn't work. But the men were my control group. They brought the songs to me that meant something to them as men.

"I contributed the Eminem song. He was brought up by the men, and I said, 'OK, he seems to be a real talking point with men.' Some didn't want to have anything to do with it. Some did. And some of the gay men said, 'No, you have to do him. You need to look at this.' Because some of the gay men were very offended.

"When I heard [Eminem's] 'Bonnie & Clyde,' I found it very scary, just because nobody ever mentioned [his wife] in any of the discussions. As I listened, she reached out her hand to me and said, 'Let me show you how I heard the song.'"

"Straight men, gay men, all sorts of men contributed ideas," says Amos. "It was tricky to assemble this material because a lot of the songs just didn't work. But the men were my control group. They brought the songs to me that meant something to them as men."

In Eminem's version, he raps almost cockily to his daughter about killing her mother. Amos changes the tone to a haunting near-whisper. Again, the lyrics are the same, but they're conveyed through the fading voice of a dying woman. It's a chilling moment.

"[His wife] dies soon after, knowing that her daughter will be divided between the two of them. This is her daughter's legacy - to be completely pulled apart - and she will grow up as a strange little girl," says Amos.

Hence, the album's title, and hence the reason the song is followed by Amos's take on the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl," released as a single in 1982.

"This is such a dangerous project," Amos says. "It's not about your own work, where your DNA is in your songs and you are the mom. This is something I really had to approach differently. You have to acknowledge that these men are the song mothers. I'm not the mother here. But what I did find surprising was that with each male song, a different female character came intrinsically tied to it that had access to me.

"A woman said to me that this [album] is like my little archetypal United Nations. And maybe it is, because if you look at the different women, there are some that hold the Athena essence, some that hold the Aphrodite essence, some that hold the Demeter, some that hold the Persephone. It's all there."

Her band on the album included guitarist Adrian Belew (known for his work with David Bowie, King Crimson, and Talking Heads) and bassist Justin Johnson, from Beck's group. "Justin suggested the Slayer song," says Amos. "He said, 'You haven't represented the metal acts. You've covered the rappers and everyone else. So I said, 'OK, expose me to what matters to you.' He opened up his world and said 'Raining Blood' was a benchmark album for him. I said, 'Let's go. Let's do it.'"

The new album may not be destined to be a grand commercial success, but Amos has outdone herself in creative experimentation. Young's gentle "Heart of Gold," for instance, becomes a roaring, industrial-style tune. And "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" is augmented by a spoken-word rap about the Second Amendment by Amos's father, who is a Methodist minister.

Have any of the male authors heard her versions yet? "Some, yes," she says. "But they've been very quiet about it, though Slayer did send me a [tour] T-shirt that said 'God hates everyone.'"

Meanwhile, Amos has gone on tour with her husband, Mark Cawley [sic] (also her sound engineer), and Natashya, whom she says will be her only child.

"We're all out together. We don't want to be away from Natashya," Amos says. "But down time means something very different to me now. Down time is crawling around on the floor with stuffed animals. But it's taught me patience - and I'm giggling now, because patience isn't something that I've been known for."

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