Tuesday, September 21

Tori Amos: the pop star who taught me to be a woman on my terms | Music

METERMy childhood best friend introduced me to a lot of great musicians: Nine Inch Nails, Shakespears Sister, Suzanne Vega. But I’m forever grateful for the moment in the mid-90s when he slipped me a folded cassette from a Tori Amos album, with the song titles written in purple and green pencil on the J card in cheesy handwriting.

He was certainly familiar with Tori – the pianist’s fiery red hair and inscrutable and mischievous singles like Cornflake Girl were impossible to miss on MTV. Even during a decade in which musical weirdness surfaced, the way he contorted his voice around piano, synths, and other keyboards – an anguished howl one moment, a knowing growl the next, was striking.

Before immersing myself in his music, my listening tended to be framed from male perspectives (REM, The Smiths), or driven by aggressive and outgoing angst. I vividly remember the explosion of Nirvana’s Territorial Pissings, with its cutting sound and guttural screams, when I was upset. Connecting with Tori albums like Under the Pink and Boys for Pele fostered a more personal and introverted fandom experience; being a fan of Tori became part of my identity.

And although his singles were everywhere, listening to his albums was an intense and deeply private experience. When I finally heard his debut, Little Earthquakes, I was struck by the way he combined the brittle piano with the thunderous rock instrumentation and ruthless lyrics. I cried on the rust-colored carpet on my bedroom floor as several lines of Winter (“When are you going to make up your mind? / When will you love yourself as much as I do?”) Shot through me.

Tori Amos: Raspberry Swirl – video

Tori seemed to be speaking directly to my teenage insecurities, crystallizing hard truths about self-worth that I was not prepared to face. I was worried that a physical disability would make me a burden and I would not be able to love myself. As a result, I felt uncomfortable, perfecting the art of sighing instead of dating, and deeply uncomfortable trying to navigate as a woman. Anyway, I was physically unable to wear high heels or any other traditionally feminine footwear, which only increased my feelings of alienation.

Fortunately, Tori taught me to be a woman on my own terms. She was safe but vulnerable, so connected to his feelings in ways he couldn’t yet articulate, and comfortable in his skin. His interviews were fun and irreverent, he described creativity in wildly colorful terms, with casual references to muses and fairies, but they could also be quite serious.

And Tori spoke candidly about religion and desire, and even talked about the impact of her own rape, which she had detailed in the single Me and a Gun. I knew about RAINN (the National Rape, Abuse, and Incest Network), a US hotline for survivors, because of their vocal support as a spokesperson, and I grew up knowing there was a resource there if I ever needed one. For an introvert like me, her willingness to be open about these heavy subjects was revolutionary.

Amos playing two pianos in a 2005 live show.
Amos playing two pianos in a 2005 live show. Photograph: Martin Philbey / Redferns

This bravery extended to Tori’s expressions of desire and sexuality, which were also revealing to someone deeply insecure about this side of life. The vibrant remixes of Raspberry Swirl and Professional Widow were revelations that gave way to the ecstatic and bold physicality of the dance floor. Live, Tori was just as fascinating, a pianist who completely indulged in unaware and unapologetic performances. Although the first time I saw her perform live was in an arena, on her first tour with a full band, her power was clear: Tori was at the forefront, a band leader leading a group of male musicians toward her vision.

But in interviews and lyrics, Tori generously shared her creative space with other women as well. By elevating the stories of historical and religious figures that you often did not hear about in school or church, you opened a portal to an interesting story to discover. Understanding the many layers of his songs meant investigating myths and characters, and perhaps even unlearning conventional narratives. It opened my eyes to the complexities of gender dynamics and historical storytelling, and the ways in which power imbalances could flourish within them.

It took me years of hindsight to understand the nuances of his message. I still see her as a kind of oracle that I can keep an eye on, one that keeps me grounded and curious. In the 90s, he created a safe and accepting universe where fans could discover who they were and become the kind of people they wanted to be. Now I see so clearly how she saw being different and intuitive as a gift, not as something shameful or to hide. The last time I saw her perform, in 2017, it was surprisingly emotional to be able to revisit these songs as an adult, in a space with other Tori fans. I am amazed at how lucky I was to have had this role model: a woman brave enough to speak all her truths, so that her fans could find their own.


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