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Vancouver Sun (Canada)
November 8, 2001

Tori Amos faces off with men

The grip of songs over men's lives fascinates the woman whose chameleon-like prowess with lyrics emphasizes both the tenderness and brutality of guy music

by Jennifer Van Evra
Vancouver Sun

Tori Amos set out to get inside the heads of men in her latest album, so it seemed natural to collect "a laboratory" of the opposite sex, including her husband, to help choose the songs. The decision led to a surprising discovery. Asking them which songs were particularly important to them and why, singer/songwriter Amos found that music plays an extraordinarily powerful role in the emotional lives of men.

"We as women have our books and our journals and our photographs to document our relationships. I found that a lot of men have CDs as their documentation of their lovers, of when they lost their jobs, things like that. And I started to think, 'Wow, this is their language,'" she says. "I did this project so women could crawl into the heads of men, and men could crawl into the heads of men, then back over that bridge into the skin of women, and hear how she heard what they said. I think that exchange is really quite vital for us to respect each other."

But what surfaces in that exchange on the album Strange Little Girls isn't always pleasant. In fact, Amos' rendition of controversial rapper Eminem's '97 Bonnie and Clyde will stop just about anyone dead in their tracks.

The machines that pressed Eminem's 1999 Slim Shady LP barely had time to cool before the controversy over songs like '97 Bonnie and Clyde exploded. "Oh where's mama? She's takin' a little nap in the trunk/Oh that smell (whew!) da-da musta run over a skunk," he rapped, as he told the first-person story of a father talking to his little girl as he drives to a lake and dumps his wife's freshly murdered body.

The chorus of outcries was immediate and predictable: Evangelists, parent groups and politicians alike demanded that the song be banished from the airwaves. But as the fiery outrage shot sky-high, it simultaneously fanned the flames of the song's popularity. If kids hadn't heard it before, well, they would now -- and the protesting voices of authority were hardly going to stop them.

Rather than trying to discourage people from listening to the song, Amos' form of protest is much more potent: her cover grabs their ears, drags them to their speakers and forces them to listen -- and listen carefully -- to Eminem's words. Backed by creepy-sounding strings, Amos delivers them in a forceful, pressing whisper -- not from the male's perspective, but from the perspective of the dead woman in the trunk.

"She really reaches her hand out of that trunk and says, 'You need to hear this how I'm hearing it -- and let the gals know it's not really something to dance to,'" says Amos coolly, on the phone from a tour stop in Austin, Tex. Whether she should cover the song was never in question. "First of all, it was irresistible. And second of all, that's the way you play chess with these guys. 'If you really want to play, let's play.'"

And play she does on Strange Little Girls. Made up of 12 anthemic songs written by men, the album comprises songs that range from an up-tempo, guitar-driven rendition of Neil Young's Heart of Gold to a straight-up, piano-based version of Joe Jackson's Real Men, to a sweet, almost childlike cover of the Boomtown Rats' I Don't Like Mondays. But the album, which also includes music by the Stranglers, Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, the Beatles and even Slayer, is much more than just a well-performed set of classic tunes. Amos performs each of them from the perspective of a different female persona. And rather than just taking aim at the sexism implicit in some of the songs, she also highlights the compassion and tenderness in others.

"The statement that I have to make is, 'Words can wound and words can heal.' It's based around the fact that in the past few years, in America particularly, there has been a movement toward music that is full of male heterosexual rage toward women and gay men. But I didn't pick up the gauntlet until some of these men said, 'They're only words. I don't know what everyone is going on about,'" explains Amos, who adds that her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter Natashya just over a year ago also fuelled her desire to expose that rage.

"So I said, 'Okay, I'm going to show you how powerful your words are by using your own words to prove it. Some of the words will be the most compassionate you've ever heard. Some will scare you. And some will make you think twice.' But the question of power is at the core of the record: what is a powerful male? And the hidden question is: how have we as women in the West contributed to the definition of a powerful male?"

Slipping in and out of different perspectives and personae isn't entirely unfamiliar to Amos. Growing up in North Carolina, she was raised in part by her Cherokee grandfather, who tried to teach her how to shape-shift -- a practice that comes out of the belief that people can transform themselves from one creature into another. With a laugh, Amos admits that she was much more enthralled by Scooby-Doo cartoons than she was by her grandfather's teachings, but she adds that somehow, many of his lessons managed to sink in. Now, she finds that she can sense the over-all mood of each city she visits; and that's why she likely won't decide what she's going to play at her Orpheum performance tonight until about 20 minutes before the show begins.

"I would watch my grandfather and see how he would read people without making them feel undressed. You read a person like you read a map. It's an emotional map. And that's what you do with each city: Find the vortex, tap into it and work with the land itself," says Amos, who also takes in as much visual art as she can in every city she visits. "If you want to have a show that speaks to those people, then you can't presuppose what they are going to feel. Sometimes you go, 'Actually, they are really in a good space.' And sometimes you pull back and say, 'For whatever reason, people are passionate today. There is a fire here that needs to be expressed.' But I can't presuppose I know the climate -- the emotional climate -- until I find out what it is."

Tonight, 8 p.m. at the Orpheum

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