Tales of a Librarian – Tori Amos
In this new compliation album, Tori Amos brings together 20 of her favourite songs which deal with deeply personal issues such as motherhood, rape, childhood, religion, sex, and finding a voice. As Nicky Raynor explains, there's much more to Tori than 'Cornflake Girl'.
I had a friend at university, who, whenever I mentioned Tori Amos, used to sneer, and say that Cornflake Girl was the only song of hers worth listening to. Actually, I think Cornflake Girl was the only song of Tori’s that he had ever heard, which is perhaps unsurprising; when Tori was a guest on Graham Norton recently, it was the song she played. Like many artists Tori has her signature tune, and for the lazy or disinterested that will do; it allows them to show off that actually they do know who she is, though this guy liked to go one step further and make out that what he didn’t know just wasn’t worth knowing. Now Cornflake Girl is a funky, feisty little song, but there is a plethora of other Tori tracks that, for me, far outshine her most famous song, and my friend was missing out on these, though I have a feeling they would have been wasted on him.
I didn’t just feel that Tori was singing to me, but that she was singing with me
I am not alone in my obsession with Tori, as a quick search on Google reveals, Tori has a fiercely devoted fan base. In Really Deep Thoughts, the Official Tori Fanzine, fans write in about the way Tori has touched their lives; one woman describes discovering Tori at a particularly bleak point of her life, hearing the song Horses as she was driving, ‘I actually had to pull over to listen to this song?This woman, this singer who is a complete stranger to me, in that moment gave me a sense of comfort. And for some odd reason I felt I knew her’. Similarly, I first came across Tori a few years ago during the long, painful demise of a relationship; in fact, I borrowed Boys for Pele off the person I was drifting away from. For me she was one of those people we come across in life with whom we have an instant chemistry; it was not only the haunting beauty of her songs as she sings of love and loss, but her empathy that I found so startling. Listening to Tori played loud in my bedroom, I didn’t just feel that Tori was singing to me, but that she was singing with me. Initially, because of my situation at the time, I was attracted by break-up laments such as Putting the Damage On and Hey Jupiter; appropriately enough, this album is said to have been ‘fuelled’ by Tori’s break-up with long-term partner Eric Rosse. However, the songs rather than being whiny and self-pitying are filled with pathos, fury and wonder. Listening to the album as a whole, I got the feeling that there was far more to it than just a girl sitting at home thinking about a boy. On Boys for Pele, Tori is said to be ‘stealing the fire from the men in her life’, but I would argue that Tori’s fire is not stolen, though it is true that she finds beauty in the most painful experiences.
I soon found when I bought the rest of Tori’s albums that this is typical of Tori; for me her fighting, questioning spirit makes her one of the most powerful and moving female voices of our time. Since I could ramble on for hours, boring you all with my theories and interpretations of Tori’s often enigmatic songs, I’ll try and limit myself to some of the songs on her most recent release, Tales of a Librarian, her first ever compilation, which contains some twenty of Tori’s songs spanning over a decade and which she describes as her musical autobiography. In her own words, it is a ‘Narrative that hopefully takes the/listener/through the winter/spring summer/and fall of a woman’s/life/who is simply trying/to step into her/own authority/of her own Being/without becoming/devoured by those/who believe themselves/to hold the authority/over her and other/beings./While not becoming/a devourer/herself.’ Put simply, I think the compilation records Tori’s quest to find a sense of self as a woman in a world that often makes it very difficult to do this, yet, throughout the struggle, her voice not only rings loud and clear, but has become a source of inspiration and empowerment for so many other women.
Tori tells us that we should not wait for the universal approval of others – we should speak out now, while we can,
A good song to start with is Silent all these Years, which, as the title would suggest, is about the struggle to find a voice. Tori tells us that our voices are silenced at too high a price, we should not wait for the universal approval of others -that won’t happen- we should speak out now, while we can, despite restraints put on us by relationships and society: ‘years go by will I still be waiting/for somebody else to understand?years go by will I choke on my tears till finally there is nothing left’. To sing out in our own voices is one of the most powerful things we can do. Tori’s voice soars as she sings the words ‘sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been HERE silent all these years’, like Christina Aguilera and Lil’ Kim she is telling us to shout louder.
In Jackie’s Strength, a later song, Tori’s narrator aspires to the courage of Jackie Kennedy and sketches experiences of growing up in 60’s America, which remind me of my own adolescence, despite its distance in time and space from Tori’s: ‘Sleep-overs Beene’s got some pot/you’re only popular with anorexia so I turn myself inside out/in hope someone will see’. There is, in the song, this whole idea of being seen and the ways that teenage girls try to get noticed, be it by starving themselves or sleeping around: ‘virgins always get backstage, no matter what they’ve got to say’. Again, there is a sense of injustice at the fact that the way a woman looks is more important than what she’s got to say. Should we be noticed in terms of what use we are to men be it decorative or sexual, asks Tori, well, no, of course not!
Similarly, in Girl, a song which did not make it onto Tales of a Librarian, Tori sings of the way girls compromise their sense of self to please others, ‘she’s been everybody else’s girl maybe one day she’ll be her own’. In Mary, a rare B-side reworked for this compilation, and one of the many Tori songs in which she addresses a character from history, myth or religion, Tori sings to Mary Magdalene, empathizing with her and singing to her, sister to sister, across the thousands of years that separate them. Again, the song contains the idea of women splintering themselves, giving away pieces of themselves to others at a cost: ‘Everybody wants something from you/Everybody want a piece of Mary’. Again there recurs this idea of other people’s demands and the way we react to them for others’ approval. Nor is Tori afraid to sing of the secret life of women, the hidden parts and dark desires we keep concealed: in Precious Things she hints at what might be ‘tucked inside the heart of every nice girl’, why should we ‘sit in the chair and be good now’ she asks in Girl.
There is in this song the whole idea of women as Other, as a threat to conventional religion
Tori’s father is a Methodist Minister and the shadow of patriarchal religion and her own troubled relationship with God looms darkly particularly over her earlier songs. ‘God sometimes you just don’t come through/Do you need a woman to look after you’ she asks in God, quoting in the same song Proverbs 31.3, ‘give not thy strength unto women/nor thy ways to that which destroyeth kings’. There is in this song the whole idea of women as Other, as a threat to conventional religion which is, of course, a male construct in the first place. In fact, this is an idea that recurs in many of Tori’s songs, and perhaps most explicitly in Muhammad my Friend (which is not on this album); ‘we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem’. The quotation from Proverbs in God, then, points to the biblical idea of women as something that must be oppressed and restrained, while still being utterly necessary for the existence of men. Indeed, Tori’s struggle with the patriarchy of religion seems to me to reflect not only her own stormy relationship with God, but the troubled relationship between men and women.
In Crucify, a fantastically passionate song, Tori positively yowls as she takes on the patriarchy. It is a furious, angst-ridden song wrestling with religious notions of guilt, sacrifice and sexuality: ‘I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets/Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets’. Tori is railing against the restraints of the old order, singing ‘my Heart is sick of being in chains’, but also seems aware of the difficulties of challenging it, ‘Every finger in the room is pointing at me/I wanna spit in their faces/then I get afraid what that could bring’. Ultimately, however, Crucify is a fighting song, for while it initially seems to be about being good enough, meeting other people’s (men’s) standards, it is, in my mind, asking, why should I be bound by these standards that were never mine in the first place? The guilt, the sacrifice, is futile when ‘nothing I do is good enough for you’. And the biggest sacrifice, loss of self, loss of spirit, is not one worth making, ‘You’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird’. It is a tremendous song, one of those play-it-loud-dance-round-your-room-punch-the-air songs.
Tori’s fighting attitude is one of the things I love most about her
Later, in a song from her 1998 album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, Tori is still wondering if she makes the grade, but this time in the context of motherhood; Playboy Mommy is not addressed to a man or god, but to her miscarried baby daughter. Tori has spoken out about the difficulty of grieving for a miscarried child, ‘The strange thing is, the love doesn’t go away for this being that you’ve carried. You can’t go back to back to being the person you were before you carried life. And yet you’re not a mother, either, and you still are connected to a force, a being’. In the song she seems to be plagued by anxiety about her ability as a mother: ‘the baby came/before I found/the magic how/to keep her happy/I never was the fantasy/of what you want/wanted me to be/Don’t judge me so harsh little girl’. Playboy Mommy, with its lovely mellow sound, is a song of palpable tenderness as she sings to her lost child, ‘I’ll say it loud here by your grave/those angels can’t/ever take my place’. However, it is also a song about surviving bereavement and loss, ‘this record really became about being alive enough to feel things, no matter what it is’.
Tori’s fighting attitude is one of the things I love most about her; listening to her songs you don’t doubt how deeply she has felt things and experienced pain, but so often when she confronts her past, she turns her experiences into bewitchingly beautiful songs that offer inspiration, comfort and hope to other women. This brings me to the most harrowing song on the compilation, Me and a Gun, in which Tori sings unaccompanied about her experience of being raped by a ‘fan’ in the 80’s. It is a song so raw I still find listening to it difficult, but when I do I am always struck by the potency of lyrics, ‘You can laugh it’s kinda funny the things you think times like these/but I haven’t seen Barbados so I must get out of this’. This song is about gritty determination to survive and was the inspiration for the creation of the rape and incest charity, RAINN, which helps the countless women who too have asked the question, ‘I wore a slinky red thing does that mean I should spread for you’.
Love, loss, rape, motherhood, sacrifice, silence and creativity are all handled in Tori’s haunting and enigmatic lyrics. I like the fact that you can’t always pin down the meanings of her songs; I once found myself howling along to Icicle in company only to realise I was singing about masturbation, although there were subtle pointers such as, ‘when my hand touches myself/I can finally rest my head/and when they say take from his body/I think I’ll take from mine instead’. The songs seem to have a life force of their own and Tori refers to them as female in her live performances, as if they were her sisters or girlfriends. Listen to them and their singer will sweep you away on a journey through history and religion, traversing a landscape that is both familiar and alien, questioning and fighting as she goes.