Tori Amos: Sex, Sin and Scissors (Part One)

I originally wrote a version of this piece for my personal blog, but have since adapted it to coincide with the re-release of Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, with added details and commentary.

Walking in a well-known music store the other month, perusing the racks of their relocation sale, I saw a familiar face on the new releases shelf. I could not help but notice the mass of red hair and piercing stare of Tori Amos coming from a little below my waistline. As a diminutive person, I realised that, for most, Tori’s then new album, packed away towards the floor, would go relatively unnoticed amongst the more popular, younger artists of today. I say that with some regret because, while Tori has never really been able to recapture the giddy heights of her 90s heyday, she is still a stunning singer-songwriter whose dedication to her art I truly admire. I doubt a lot of artists would exist today without Tori Amos – I’m thinking particularly of another favourite of mine, the lovely, quirky, emotionally charged Regina Spektor.

But I digress. I resisted the urge to save Tori from her shelf, partly because I was a little afraid that Unrepentant Geraldines would just confirm my fear that, while still elegant and graceful and filled with class, Tori is just too far away now from the events that shaped her persona for her to recreate her past glories. A few months down the line from these events, the first two of Tori’s many albums, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, have been re-released in deluxe editions. And I couldn’t be happier. The reissues are a chance to recapture the most glorious days of Tori’s reign and reflect on what makes her early nineties efforts so powerful.

Tori Amos is a survivor. She’s a survivor of sexual assault and numerous times on her first three albums she confronted the issue head on. Nowhere was this more devastatingly clear than on her debut album Little Earthquakes. Amos has never been particularly shy about what happened to her all those years ago and even just for that she deserves the utmost respect – the fact that she then went on to deliver an album that is on the one hand so delicate and on the other so brutal about that very subject is frankly amazing. Perhaps the greatest point about Little Earthquakes is that, although clearly and deeply personal to Amos, the narratives she weaves on each track resist wallowing in self-pity and instead focus on self-belief and have a strong sense of universality.

‘Every finger in the room pointed at me,’ Amos begins the album, bringing to mind the shockingly naïve and careless accusations against rape victims that they are somehow ‘asking for it.’ Although Amos talks about herself in the opening lines of ‘Crucify,’ she brings it back round to a group feeling by the chorus: ‘Why do we crucify ourselves everyday’ she asks, her voice eventually breaking by the final rendition of the line. It’s a powerful opener that captures the trauma felt by victims of sexual assault as well as considering the beliefs of others. ‘Girl’ changes the focus to an unnamed victim; ‘she’s been everybody else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own’ Amos laments, hoping that the victim will change her life for the better, but only on her own terms.

Any look at a Tori Amos album would be incomplete without some kind of discussion of her piano-playing skills. She is a simply spellbinding piano player and on the tracks where it is mainly just her voice and the piano, Amos shines the brightest. I mention this because ‘Silent All These Years’ is undoubtedly one of my favourite songs ever, period. I doubt anything will change my mind that the third track of Little Earthquakes, with its hypnotic, off-key opening melody and fragile chord progression is probably the best song ever written about domestic violence.

Amos knows when a simple melody will do: ‘Crucify’ and ‘Girl’ are backed up by drums and guitars and are the more powerful for it. ‘Silent All These Years’ packs a heavy emotional punch because of the minimal production. Its melancholy minor-key tone and the gentle introduction of unobtrusive strings in the chorus just adds to the beauty of the song. The narrative itself isn’t completely obvious from casual listens but the underlying themes and issues come to the fore through subtle imagery. From the lyrics, you can gather that the woman in the song is trapped in an abusive relationship, where she is frequently assaulted (physically, mentally and sexually) by her adulterous partner, and briefly considers an abortion when she is raped. This provides the most abrasive and direct line of the whole song: ‘boy you best pray that I bleed real soon/ how’s that thought for you?’ If the abusive undertones weren’t clear by this line, Amos lays it bare for a brief but harrowing moment.

It is unclear whether the man is eventually arrested or whether the woman exacts more direct revenge against him. The lyrics in the end are wonderfully ambiguous, only saying ‘it’s your turn now to stand where I stand.’ But it’s the chorus, with the woman realizing that her voice and power was always inside her, which is spine-tingling.

Other songs on the album are more piercingly direct. In particular, ‘Precious Things’ and ‘Leather’ practically attack the listener with how open they are about sexuality. I am always struck by a single line in ‘Precious Things’ that is spat out with all the venom in the world: ‘So you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus,’ Amos roars, across a suddenly blaring drum beat and her practically attacking the piano keys in a rage. ‘Leather’ seems sweet and playful on the surface, a kind of faux-swing melody that wouldn’t be out of place in a cabaret club. Underneath its sing-song demeanour and Amos’ affected vocal tones (in this song she mimics accents and sings in a kind of staccato on everything but the chorus), ‘Leather’ actually confronts you with a rather deep take on the virgin/whore complex. On the one hand, Tori is innocent and sweet-natured, but as the opening line asks ‘Look I’m standing naked before you, don’t you want more than my sex?’

The acapella ‘Me and a Gun’ sees Amos singing alone about her own personal experience. In interviews she claims that most of what she sings on this track is true, even the fact that her attacker made her sing hymns during the assault so that he didn’t hurt her. When you realise how true most of these songs are, it just makes you appreciate the bravery of Little Earthquakes all the more.

One resounding criticism of Little Earthquakes is that Amos paints men with very broad brush strokes. While ‘Precious Things’ and ‘Leather’ are bravely female-centric, there’s only one man who comes across relatively well on the whole album: the rubbish collector in ‘Silent All These Years’ that the woman considers confiding in. This is a flaw that’s easy to forgive. Amos was writing from the heart in this collection and so it’s not surprising that men come across badly on the album, considering her experiences.

On the other hand, if I was a man I’d find this album extremely hard to listen to. Perhaps this is most true on ‘Silent All These Years’ when Amos spouts her venomous line on rape. This was possibly the first time, even as a woman, that I’d heard the topic of menstruation brought up in a song. It’s all the more shocking considering the context; the character has been raped and is possibly pregnant as a result. This is uncomfortable imagery from the male perspective.

But perhaps this is because, nowadays, we are so used to female celebrities bearing their bodies as sexual objects rather than sexual beings; this kind of open acknowledgement of the actual reality of female sexuality therefore becomes shocking. Amos is not afraid to tackle subjects that other stars won’t. Sure, someone like Rihanna will talk about S&M, but will never examine the emotional issues behind it, making it look like a game. ‘Leather,’ which suggests similar themes, brings real human emotion to the subject. And as much as I like some of her music, I can’t imagine Beyoncé ever referencing having a period, even on her powerful self-titled album.

Perhaps this is why I am continually drawn to Amos and Little Earthquakes. Even compared to her other 90s albums – which all tackle similar themes – Amos feels relatable and human even if the situations are, sometimes, fictional. The power and sincerity in her voice also lends a weight to the songs that is sometimes missing in others; you can feel the deep connection that she has with her own work and the album flourishes as a result.

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