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Cleveland Free Times (US)
October 17-23, 2001
Cult of Personalities
A Role-Playing Tori Amos Reinvents the Idea of Sexual Healing
by Jason Bracelin
"Pussies are bullshit." So goes the opening of an article on the porn industry by Martin Amis in the Manchester Guardian this past March. It was enough to grab the attention of flighty piano chanteuse Tori Amos, and then to inspire the concept behind her latest album, the aptly titled Strange Little Girls (Atlantic). Amis' story, as interpreted by the singer-songwriter, was a commentary on the increasing appetite for demeaning, violent sex. This -- combined with the birth last year of her daughter, Natashya, who arrived after three successive miscarriages -- left Amos reeling.
So what has Tori done in response? Never the one for understatement, she's dropped an album where she covers 12 songs about women or male-female relationships written by 12 different male artists as disparate as Eminem, Slayer and Joe Jackson. She's done this in an attempt to reconfigure the way men hear themselves speak, to blaze a few new synapses amongst what she perceives to be an all-too-prevalent mindset -- the male sexual dominance that owes more to the incognizant than the maladjusted.
In listening to the record, one gets the sense that Amos isn't being so much accusatory as illustrative. She's not lashing out at men -- the alienating tactic of the foolhardy feminist -- she's trying to adjust their perception of their own words. To do this, Amos adopts a different female identity -- twins, in one instance -- through which she sings each song on this record. On her version of the Beatles' "Happiness is a Warm Gun," a 10-minute meditation on gun control, Amos slips into the role of a prostitute, explaining that Mark David Chapman had called an escort service prior to shooting John Lennon. For her take on Lloyd Cole's "Rattlesnakes," Amos becomes a peroxide blonde in a leather Kiss jacket who enjoys driving through the desert. On the title track, the Stranglers' "Strange Little Girl," she sings as Eminem's daughter, all grown up.
Moreover, in putting together the project, Amos insists that she engaged in a sort of spiritual contact with the various personas depicted.
"As I started to get deeper and deeper into the project, I started meeting these women," Amos told MTV News. "Are they the anima of the writers? I don't know. Are they the girls themselves personified? Not in all cases. Each woman has a very different relationship to her song. Some women are implied, some women are clearly there, written into the song by the male writer."
The result is startling, though not in an overbearing way. Few, if any, of the tracks come off as all that sexually politicized or ironhanded in their agenda. Amos is not necessarily calling into question the sentiments found on the respective tracks. Instead, the album is driven by the disparity in how women hear what men say and vice-versa. So when Amos covers a song such as Neil Young's patronizing "Heart of Gold," it's not so much to challenge Young's implicit chauvinism as it is to provoke an awareness among men of the implications of what they say.
In doing so, Amos delivers an album much more penetrating, and ultimately enjoyable, than any knee-jerk condemnation. The debauched sex of the Velvet Underground's "New Age" becomes a comeuppance rather than a come-on; Slayer's Auschwitz fantasy "Raining Blood" is transformed into a languorous funereal dirge, way scarier than the original.
Amos' most chilling reinterpretation, though, is that of Eminem's "'97 Bonnie and Clyde." Sung from the perspective of Eminem's slain wife, the track becomes the supplication of a mother to a daughter, as the former watches over her child, powerless, wondering what will become of her. Amos sings in a whisper, as if her words, given too strong a voice, will rouse her captor before she can breathe a few last words into her child's ear. It's harrowing and affecting, turning Eminem's most indefensible display of flippant misogyny into a song of bereavement. It's the track that most clearly and effectively encapsulates the aim of this record. You'll never hear the song the same way again. The image most associated with the cut -- that of Eminem's car with a leg dangling from the trunk, which served as the cover of his debut -- has been replaced with a fuller picture of the person inside. She's no longer a mere appendage. She's a woman complete.
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