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

This is Part Two of a retrospective of the first two albums by Tori Amos, which were recently reissued. To read part one, click here.

It’s difficult to really read Little Earthquakes as a full statement of intent. Such force and fervour surrounding personality sexuality and experience is difficult to keep up. No doubt Tori Amos thought that, after the personalised narratives of her first effort, her next album would have to expand its range; surely there is only so much self-reflection a person can do before they crack. Thus, on her second album Under the Pink, Amos doesn’t abandon the themes of sexuality and abuse (far from it) but makes them even more oblique and also sets her thematic sights elsewhere.

Opener ‘Pretty Good Year’ begins with the lines ‘tears on the sleeve of a man/ Don’t want to be a boy today.’ It’s emotional, but it’s also significant. ‘Don’t want to be a boy today’ suggests that Amos has expanded her sights beyond the solely female experience, while also introducing the concept of coming of age, a concern held by many significant tracks on Under the Pink. What ‘Pretty Good Year’ does with its mournful melody and Amos’ breathy vocals is introduce a theme of transience and uncertainty. Much of Under the Pink is far more oblique than anything presented on Little Earthquakes, with many of the songs shrouded in an air of mystery when it comes to the purpose of their narrative, just reflecting the uncertainty of its protagonists. ‘Pretty Good Year’ sets up this conceit perfectly.

And so Amos is ready to fully introduce the next major theme in her canon, one that will help her weave her stories of intrigue: religion. Though it occasionally came up on her previous work (the metaphor of ‘Crucify’ and the references to Christian boys on ‘Precious Things’), Under the Pink gave Amos the chance to address the subject more directly. ‘God,’ only the second track on the album, powers through its issues with religion relentlessly and restlessly, its grinding, screeching guitar riff emphasising the discord between Amos and the Lord. God, though, isn’t interested in participating in this discourse with Amos. Her voice is the only one to be heard on this song as she points the finger to Heaven and proclaims ‘God sometimes you just don’t come through/ Do you need a woman to look after you?’ There’s something deliciously witty and acidic about Amos’ taunts and jibes on ‘God’ that makes it somewhat magical.

It’s not too long through Under the Pink, however, that the theme of physical abuse rears its ugly head once again. This time, though, it’s more subtle, far less direct than on Little Earthquakes. On her debut album, Amos generally sang from the position of the victim; unsurprising considering her own personal circumstances. On Under the Pink that field is widened, and though the themes of sexual and physical abuse are still there, they’re often obscured through the lens of another, outside party. ‘Bells For Her,’ for instance, weaves a tragic tale of siblings torn apart. It’s decidedly subtle, with only the one line (‘now she seems to be sand under his shoe’) that really hints at what’s going on under the surface. Instead, Amos shrouds the darker aspect of this narrative under a blanket of nostalgia and rose-tinted visions, from the assertion that ‘hey whatever, we’re blanket friends’ to ‘through the walls they made their mud pies’ and this cushions the final blow: ‘and now I speak to you, are you in there?

It’s interesting that on ‘Bells For Her’ the theme of the voice comes to the fore, if only briefly, once again. On Little Earthquakes’ ‘Silent All These Years,’ Amos sings ‘sometimes I hear my voice, and it’s been here, silent all these years.’ Here, Amos is herself, channelling her own experience as a victim of sexual abuse. On ‘Bells For Her,’ Amos assumes the role of the protagonist and says ‘she says you’ve got my voice, I said you don’t need my voice girl, you have your own.’ Amos’ new found strength, and her ability to channel her own memories and passions into a narrative such as this means she has regained her voice. Instead of allowing people in a similar position to lean on her new-found strength, though, Amos attempts to empower them and tell them that their voice is inside of them, waiting to be heard. It’s almost ‘Silent All These Years Part Two,’ in that respect; it’s the continuation of a narrative that demands to be completed.

One of Amos’ most famous songs, ‘Cornflake Girl,’ takes on one of the most serious forms of sexual and physical abuse that can be suffered by a woman: female genital mutilation. It’s a horrifically tough subject to tackle and a brave one for any songwriter, but Amos makes use of her new found subtlety to tackle the issue without ever directly referring to it. Instead, what starts as a song that appears to be about difference – ‘never was a cornflake girl, thought it was a good solution, hanging with the raisin girls’ – gradually reveals itself to be about something much more murky. ‘Things are getting kinda gross,’ Amos states before saying ‘and I go at sleepy time,’ suggesting underground and illegal activity. What actually happens during the act is never directly referred to, but it’s there, lurking under the surface. Amos has learned that you don’t need to be piercingly direct to be powerful.

One of the biggest problems that dogged Little Earthquakes was the lack of compassion for men; this is something that still seeps into parts of Under the Pink, but there’s a distinct attempt by Amos to balance the books. Some of Amos’ lyrics on Under the Pink are evocative of the perfect, idealised American town, still stuck in the 50s and with distinct values. ‘Past the Mission’ is typical of this view, with its titular Christian symbol, the field of roses that the narrator passes across… but it’s revealed all to be a fine sheen of white fences and perfectly mown lawns, in a typically Lynchian way.

Even with its sunny plink-plonk piano and Amos’ most girlish tones over the verses, the first line tells you all is not well: ‘I don’t think I went too far.’ Essentially, ‘Past the Mission’ tells the tale of two women in love with the same man. The narrator is the rejected party: ‘Everyone wanted something from him, and I did too but I shut my mouth, he just gave me a smile.’ Eventually, the pain of being jilted becomes too much for the woman, who murders the man and winds up in prison. In this narrative, the man has done nothing wrong. He’s barely in the actual story at all, which instead chooses to focus on the thoughts of its antagonist narrator and her rival. While the man has no specific agency in this tale, it’s significant that he is the one who is the subject of violence in this circumstance; it’s a step away from all the narratives Amos weaved in Little Earthquakes that helps to balance the initial disdain shown for the opposite gender on that album. Women are violent too, and are just as capable of sins.

Significantly, though, it’s on ‘The Waitress’ where an underlying disdain for the typical 50s Girl Next Door really comes to the fore. It’s one of Amos’ most powerfully composed tracks, and though it spans only three and a bit minutes, its grinding guitar, thunderous drums and blistering screams from Amos demonstrate the most violence and aggression towards a woman musically than any other song on her first two albums. Taking the role of a fellow waitress, Amos leaves nothing to the imagination in the almost nonchalantly delivered opening line: ‘so I want to kill this waitress.’ The extremity of the violent passion is acknowledged by the narrator – ‘I can’t believe this violence in mind’ – and she may not go through with the act – the chorus bitingly spits ‘I believe in peace, bitch’ – but the intent is clear. Amos puts on the table that women can be capable of acts of evil too; sin and violence isn’t just confined to the male and something that women alone are subjected too.

Even between the first two of Tori Amos’ albums, there’s a distinct shift in songwriting style and, although she treads familiar ground throughout both records, the narratives present on both albums are classics, whether it’s due to the subtleties of Under the Pink or the blunt directness of Little Earthquakes. For varied, beautiful and often brutally insightful examinations of some extremely difficult issues, Amos’ first two albums are essential listening.

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