Let’s face it: for better or worse, humans compare things to other things. And even though my music has changed a lot since my debut as Alexandra Rising, I still think it’s most likely to be compared (by those of a certain age, anyway) to the music of one Ellen “Tori” Amos. These days, I’m torn about this.
Let’s explore that, ‘cos it’s been nagging me.
I’m well aware that our rock stars are human beings we will never really know. Any fellow-feeling we develop for them is purely parasocial. It follows that our pontification on their psychology or choices of self-expression is futile and meaningless. That said, it is difficult to process when someone whose work fundamentally shaped you morphs into a seemingly different life-form. Especially when it’s not just their appearance, but also the work itself, that becomes something you barely recognize.
I’ve been out of touch with Tori for a long time. Post-2004 there have been songs here and there that tweaked my memories of days gone by… but by and large I feel like OG Tori disappeared after the final strains of “Gold Dust” faded.
Again, let me acknowledge that this means precisely nothing. At this point the real, off-stage Tori is a 57-year-old wife, mother, surviving sibling and daughter, and absolute battle-axe of the music biz, and I can’t trifle with any of that. In fact, I’d say her interviews in recent years have been increasingly relatable, plainspoken, and no-b.s. compared to the recreational chain-jerking she used to do as a rebellious twenty-something.
But still, I’m kinda shook about everything else. It really feels like this one person was walking the earth, and somehow, when I was looking away, they were uninstalled and subtly replaced by this other person.
And it’s disorienting, and the nostalgia is searing, and it all reminds me handily that I, too, am hurtling through time at a breakneck pace.
Being that I have no business talking about anything but the work, though – let me talk about the work.
For years now it’s been sprawling concept albums that, to me, hit like homogenous porridge. There’s also heavier emphasis on the more period, sylvan, occult aspects – which were always there but used to feel less like the main attraction and more like yet another way to evade basic biatch interviewers. (Though the capes that appeared more and more between 2003 and 2005 were a warning sign.) If you’re into that, truly, more power to you – but I don’t feel like it’s FOR me, as they say.
On top of all that, like rainbow film on a puddle, floats a voice I also barely recognize. It’s as if all the dude-bro critics, whose nervous systems rejected her eccentric mezzo-soprano and who viewed her output as some copious unending menstruation, distilled all the easiest-to-parody elements of her act into a bad elixir. The vocal ferocity has been diluted, and no matter which way we turn, we are met with “adult contemporary.” Sometimes the delivery is weirdly childlike, and the words are harder than ever to discern (to the point where the enunciation seems deliberately obtuse).
Of course, this is just a matter of personal preference. She’s just out there doing her thing (and has been for over 40 years). But such is the source of my prickly ambivalence over claiming her too readily as an influence.
Anyway. A rock star means something different to everybody, which is as it should be. Here’s what Tori Amos meant to me, from 1994 to 2003.
This is a tale as old as time, but I never thought about gender before sixth grade. I thought about reading, drawing, filming stuff with the camcorder, riding my bike dangerously. Thoughts about gender were the ACME anvil that fell on me. Somewhere in the tangle of the puberty jungle I realized, with disgust, that I belonged to a certain subset of fraught human experience…
…and suddenly she was there. Radiant and confrontational under the stage lights. Sneering, challenging, grimacing the way you do when you hurt yourself or feel used. Sometimes exorcisms happened; who knows what flew out. She was Plath’s Lady Lazarus doing the big strip-tease. When I ached for power, I vicariously experienced hers. Even at her grungiest she was acidically gorgeous. A fellow mid-Atlantic southerner, too: all pink lemonade up till the savagery switch was flipped.
My crush was not sexual but aspirational. My wardrobe to this day pays homage. I was pissed that so many saw “female” before they saw “craftsman” or “virtuoso”. Standing at a harpsichord or bench-riding between a synth and a piano, she sometimes struck me more as a sort of machinist, akin to Eno or Jonny Greenwood. I got the most lit when she’d adopt a masculine edge (something that really did happen in the mid-to-late nineties, but that so much criticism and even fan frothing about “girly stuff” conveniently forgets): tailored slacks with stilettos, collared shirts with charcoaled eyes, and the sly insinuation, “Everybody knows I’m her man.” I also thrilled when her vocals suggested a similar ambiguity, as in the Prince-like, cock-of-the-walk freakout on “She’s Your Cocaine.” I wouldn’t grow to truly appreciate Prince, or Bowie, until many years later, but I would have grouped them all together. As I wrote years ago, they were forces of nature all, beyond gender or sex.
There was also the “lounge-lizard” component (a term Tori has used herself). She famously got her start in D.C. gay bars and cut her teeth on all the intimate this-means-you storytelling that that entailed. In the art of emotionally manipulative song interpretation – of twisting pop standards into testimony – she took me to school.
I’ll end with some pics of those blissful, knock-‘em-dead times with the Tori I used to know (as Elizabeth Isadora Gold wrote in Pitchfork, the “flame-haired maenad eating f*ck-boys for breakfast”). Side note: I’m a lucky bastard to be listening to WNRN as I write this. Today’s Les Temps Perdu selections have been largely from the era of modern rock I’m writing about here, and, amazingly, they kicked off with none other than “Silent All These Years”. Serendipity, my Love!