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October 5, 2001

Personality Crisis

by Steffie Nelson

When Tori Amos talks about "girls," it's a good idea to ask exactly what she means. To this pop singer, the term applies equally to people and songs: "My songs are living beings to me," the 38-year-old says. "[They're] as real as you are."

It's these kinds of statements that have resulted in Amos being deemed "airy fairy" or "out there." She may thank the faeries on all her albums, but when you're playing Mozart pieces on the piano by the age of four, you need to credit someone for your gifts. Her '80s misstep as a pop/metal chick may have been the work of demons, inner or otherwise, but since 1992's Little Earthquakes Amos' muse has been kind, guiding her through personal turmoil and enabling her to create consistently vital work.

Strange Little Girls, Amos' sixth disc, is one of the most elaborate concept albums in recent memory. A covers record of songs written by men, each song/girl is sung by a different female narrator who comes with her own story, voice, and look. Chosen for their contemporary relevance, the 12 tunes run the gamut from the eerily apropos (the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays," which deals with a school shooting) to the esoteric (Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," which gets an injection of Stooges-style angst).

The collection is rooted in Amos' belief that during the last several years, male violence and aggression have achieved a new cachet in our culture. "There's an anti-freedom movement that's been growing," she says, "and you're lying to yourself if you don't want to look at it. It can be dressed up in tattoos and piercings and look really bitchin', but if you strip it back, 'power' in America often means having power over somebody else."

Rather than silence those voices outright, Amos thinks it's important to listen and respond. "Music is always a reflection of what's going on in the hearts and minds of the culture. So shutting them up isn't the answer. They're a gauge; they're showing you what's really happening in the psyche of a lot of people."

Amos' interpretations use this music as a commentary on itself, and her strategy for doing so was developed organically. While she was nursing her one-year-old daughter, Tash, the first-time mom began to consider the similarities between being a song mother and a human mother, and then mulled over the idea of men as the mothers of their songs. "That was when I began to pick up the gauntlet: Words are like guns, they're powerful things. You take a man's word, you take his seed. So... let's take his seed, let's plant it here [points to her heart], consummation. Let's go."

For this gifted arranger, the process of integrating and reinterpreting these "strange little girls" was familiar enough that she could have fun with it, yet foreign enough that she wasn't always sure who was in control. "When it's your own work and you're the mother of it, the DNA adds up and there's a certain genetic bond you have with your own song children," Amos explains. "These are the children of the men [who wrote them], and I went in with that respect. What I didn't really count on was discovering that if you build a bridge to travel into a sonic structure and you crawl inside, the fair exchange is that it can crawl back inside of you."

Some songs were difficult to get inside; others, like Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde," made sense right away. "[It] grabbed me by the hand and said, 'You need to hear this how I hear it.'" The track is a chilling tale in which a husband kills his wife and takes their daughter along on the ride to dump the body in a lake. For the recording, Amos sang from inside a box, psychologically aligning herself with the corpse. Backed by orchestration that would be at home in a Hitchcock movie, her icy whispers underscore the creepiness in lines like, "Where's Mama? She's taking a little nap in the trunk. What's that smell? Dada musta runned over a skunk."

Despite the obvious antipathy she feels for the message, if not the messenger himself, Amos grants that "Eminem wrote a powerful work. [But] I did not align with the character that he represents. There was one person who definitely wasn't dancing to this thing and that's the woman in the trunk."

It remains hazy how that character and the score of others who populate Strange Little Girls turned up at Amos' English country home -- even to the artist who invited them. "I can't tell you the first woman that showed up," Amos says. "But I realized that there was a female presence -- I don't know, is this the anima? Maybe. Are they pieces of me? Tiny bits, maybe. But yet they're not my own songs, so I went, 'Oh, I'm surrounded by all this testosterone, yet there's a female presence here.' That's when it became clear that the women had arrived."

Intended to represent a pantheon of modern archetypes, these spirits include a journalist, a sheriff, the angel of death, and an aging showgirl. Amos even imagines a grownup version of the daughter in the Eminem song. A brunette with smudged mascara, she is represented by the title track, a tune by the Stranglers that cautions strange little girls to "beware." For her rambling, loungey version of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," Amos takes on the persona of a call girl, explaining that Mark David Chapman contacted an escort service just previous to shooting John Lennon. "And do you know what service he asked her to perform?" inquires the singer with a penetrating stare. "He asked her to be silent." She concludes with a nod, as if satisfied that this woman has finally been given a voice.

Her favorite came to life through the Lloyd Cole song "Rattlesnakes." Tori's character is a platinum blonde in a Kiss jacket who likes to drive in the desert, a fitting apparition for the pulsing Rhodes piano that opens into a lush acoustic strum and the chorus, "She looks like Eva Marie Saint in 'On the Waterfront'/ She reads Simone de Beauvoir in her American circumstance."

"['Rattlesnakes'] wasn't part of my life when it came out," she notes, "and it's become this little song that was able to look into a woman and how she thinks and feels better than how I've been able to look into women sometimes."

It's hard to overlook the fun Amos must have had playing dress-up and posing for photographer Thomas Schenck for the album's artwork. Transformation wizard Kevyn Aucoin did the makeup, and Amos' character bios were written by friend Neil Gaiman, the graphic novelist whose "Sandman" series has almost as big a following as Amos does. "We figured if I'm doing impressions of male songs then a man was gonna have to do impressions of the impressions."

None of the above are accompanying Amos on her U.S. tour, which is currently under way. "No 'Tori does drag queen,'" she smiles. For the first time since 1994 the singer will be returning to her signature format and performing solo, with her piano. "Every night will be different," she promises. "We really don't know what the show's going to be that night; I sneak around behind curtains and get a vibe of the audience and the city I'm in."

This kind of adaptability has served Amos well. Never trendy, her music remains relevant because it asks questions; once a question is answered she moves on. "I think you have to let yourself change," she muses. "When I meet people and they split me open to a whole new way of thinking, that's exciting. Because I believed in something so much when I was 29, when I'm 38 I can say, 'Yeah, right. Not now.' But it worked then. Doesn't mean it was a lie. The shoes just don't fit anymore." Her eyes widen with amusement. "Nor do the pants."

This article was also posted on and was titled "Thank Heaven For Little Girls"

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