Identity, Image and Acting with Archetypes in the Music of Tori Amos

by Alex Ramon

30 September 2012

Constructing characters, adapting archetypes, blurring personas and myths, Tori Amos’s work is characterized by a fascination with selfhood and its transformation. In this first essay in the PopMatters Performer Spotlight series, Alex Ramon gets under the skin of identity and image, Amos-style.

“The story-teller brings forth what is hidden, and what is being erased.”
—Tori Amos, Piece by Piece

As consistently as that of any other contemporary artist, Tori Amos’s work exhibits an abiding fascination with identity—its expression, its construction, its suppression, and its transformation. Across her diverse musical output, and also, frequently, in her interviews, Amos evokes and interrogates questions of selfhood—exploring, in particular, the challenge of maintaining the self in the face of other people’s perceptions, prejudices, judgments, control and, even, violence.

Amos’s perspective on such issues is characteristically complex. On the one hand, her work keeps faith with the idea of an “inner self” that requires protection and preservation from disabling societal forces. On the other hand, she appears to subscribe to a more po-mo view of identity as relational and provisional, as fluid and fragmented—and not always negatively so. “We’re not one-dimensional people,” Amos has often been quoted as saying, and her work represents, I’d suggest, a sustained endeavor to explore the complexities of human personality and emotional response, the mystery of our vulnerability and strength. The multi-dimensionality of Amos’s music—its ability to conjure wildly contradictory moods and sensations—is part of what makes it so compelling. It also means that her work offers an especially illuminating case study for exploring issues of identity and image in the current cultural sphere.

“Every performer has to create a public image,” Amos acknowledges in Piece by Piece, “and if you’re a woman you can’t pretend it’s a matter of small importance to your career.” Having walked into—or, to subscribe to Amos’s own take on events, been coerced into—a “false” image in her mid-1980s, “shopping-at-Retail-Slut,” Y Kant Tori Read years, the artist’s sensitivity to these issues comes as no surprise. In Piece by Piece, Amos and Ann Powers dig deeply into the wider cultural implications of Amos’s shifting, multiple roles, and the task of balancing a (workable) public image with the more pressing and vital demands of composition.

“Traversing pop culture’s addiction to imaging,” in Amos’s phrase, is especially challenging for the contemporary recording artist, then. But it isn’t, in her conception, a challenge that only public figures face. Rather, Amos contends that everybody constructs an image in their daily life—one that we might develop simply to please or appease those around us—and that such images seldom represent all the facets of one’s identity. “There are pieces of me you’ve never seen,” realizes the protagonist in “Tear In Your Hand,” as her lover exits their relationship. And this realization—the idea that we each have repressed and hidden sides of us that can be called upon and mobilized to help us out in difficult situations—is absolutely central to Amos’s art.

Amos’s (ultimately affirmative) challenge to stable selfhood seems to go hand in hand both with her wide-ranging study of myth and archetype and her awareness that the tag “singer-songwriter” is itself a “role” which comes with specific, culturally-defined parameters and expectations, ones that may sometimes prove limiting to an artist’s development. “You can get trapped in an image,” Amos told Out magazine in a 2008 interview. “And people can trap you in an image. Think of your friends that turn around and say: ‘I don’t like you this way.’ … Well, fuck you! Why would you stifle your friend’s exploration?”

Amos’s pushing against these parameters has led her, increasingly, into the realm of character and narrative in her work, transforming her, in Matt Mazur’s appraisal, into “a sonic character actress … proffering a new one-woman style of storytelling through characters, personae and archetypes.” This approach was initially developed on Amos’s Cindy Sherman-influenced conceptual covers project Strange Little Girls (2001), on which she and Neil Gaiman constructed a range of female protagonists to recast the meanings of twelve male-authored songs, effectively subverting several of the tracks from within. Speaking of the “Portraits of Girls” narratives that she and Gaiman devised (they’re brilliant, and can be read here), Amos emphasized “the importance of know[ing] the story of each girl in each song …t was character-building in a lot of cases … Before I sang [the songs] I walked into who these people were. No different from theater. It’s the same thing, but sonic.” 

In interviews, indeed, Amos variously connects and contrasts her work as a composer and performer with the work of actors (Lillian Gish in Night of the Hunter, Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Barbara Stanwyck among them), frequently noting that “I’m not an actress” but nonetheless acknowledging her desire to “inhabit” or “embody” other essences and energies by taking on diverse roles. In many ways, the Amos-as-actress analogy isn’t adequate, for as a performer who, as it were, writes, produces and delivers her own “scripts,” Amos might be better defined as an auteur, for all the problematic associations of the term. (A subject for another essay, that.) Whichever definition you choose, it’s certain that Amos’s recent work is pioneering new approaches to composition and performance, and merging singing and acting in cinematic ways. Clearly, Strange Little Girls significantly changed her methodology, spurring her character-centered approach to Scarlet’s Walk (2002), Night of Hunters (2011) and, most dramatically and dynamically, American Doll Posse (2007), with its five Greek-pantheon-derived personas, constructed to challenge and complicate the stereotyping and pigeonholing of patriarchy.

Each of these diverse projects has pushed Amos further and further into conceptual and performance art, where the lines between artist and character are in no sense easily demarcated. Inverting the traditional (reductive) notion of songs being directly “based on” the experiences of their creator—a charge to which her own work has always been subject—Amos notes that “[t]he female characters in my songs do become part of me” and comments, of Scarlet, that “[y]ou could say that she is based on me. Or perhaps I am based on her.” Amos’s approach to character construction is thereby revealed to be a somewhat Method-derived one, in which the artist’s own experiences and emotions provide a basis for explorations of other subjectivities and larger, archetypal patterns. “You walk a thin line as a writer,” she told Dan Reilly when quizzed about just how much of the Night of Hunters narrative was “fiction.” “What you write about you have to emotionally understand … A lot of what the woman [in Night of Hunters] is going through in one night has taken me 20 years to go through, in some ways.”

For other artists, such transformations in song seem considerably clearer cut. When Kate Bush morphs into literary or historical figures—into Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” or Houdini’s widow in “Houdini,” say—then the divide between artist and character feels pretty easy to discern. In Amos’s work, by contrast—and its one of the (many) things that make comparisons between Amos and Bush so myopic—that divide is always much blurrier, more fluid and complex. “I … allow myself to excavate my experiences,” Amos has said. “I’ve chosen to make sure that I’m usually one of the characters, somewhere in the song.”  As such, Amos’s method comes closer to that of Sylvia Plath’s approach to her poetry, in which, as Judith Kroll suggests, “personal experience provides the starting-point. But only after it has been worked over and metamorphosed into myth does the material become poetically acceptable.” 

Myth and metamorphosis are, of course, central to Amos’s accounts of her creative processes, which habitually equate both composition and live performance with magical shape shifting. And unlike Plath’s, of course, Amos’s work doesn’t’t only exist on the page; rather, the artist continues her explorations and transformations in the concert arena. “A live show,” Amos writes, developing further her analogies between acting, music and myth, “is sonic theater, and for a few hours in my life or in the life of a person in the audience, we are descending to the underworld. Here, very personal internal feelings about ourselves, other people, and issues can take off their masks and show us where they truly stand. Then, as we ascend into the… final act of the show, we can choose what we want to take back with us: a piece of our underworld self that, frankly, the cheating boyfriend may need to meet, or the boss that doesn’t appreciate you, or the terrorizing Bitch at school … Some fragments that took their masks off while we were on this underworld journey sometimes walk quietly with me.” The transformative potential of music—its ability to reconnect us with the wayward chips of self that have been suppressed in socialization, to “bring forth what is hidden,” in other words—is once again key here.

These transformations were physicalized on the American Doll Posse  tour on which the album’s characters—each endowed, of course, with her own wardrobe, wig, website and worldview—were brought vividly to life during the opening sections of the shows. The camp nature of the concept was fully embraced; however, anyone who saw these astounding performances and witnessed Amos dynamically channeling Pip’s aggression, Isabel’s cool neutrality, Clyde’s compassion and Santa’s sensuality quickly became aware that this project was not simply a case of an artist “playing dress-up” but rather a way of further investigating the mutability of identity and challenging the stereotypes that are often all too passively and willingly accepted.

That’s not to undervalue the fashion side of the Posse project, though. An internal revolution, for Amos, can be sparked by an external transformation, and from leather to orange knickers, velvet to cotton, satin to suede, clothes and fabrics often serve as vehicles of empowerment in her songs, allowing the subject to step into a new mode of being. The (mostly underappreciated) brilliance of American Doll Posse was to visualize and literalize this notion, to make its protagonists living, breathing creations, and to render album and concert hall alike spaces for transformation, exploration and (ex)change.

“The songs that have been coming to me lately, with their varied points of view, have been helping me to see how many different aspects of the self there are and that there is so much to work with, for each of us, at every stage,” Amos writes in Piece by Piece. “[V]aried points of view” are exactly what Amos’s work seeks to offer the responsive listener. With its quick shifts of tone and mood, its moves between first-, second- and third- person perspectives, its use of dialogue, and its wide allusive reach, Amos’s music has always granted listeners a remarkable amount of flexibility and space. Increasingly, however, Amos takes this flexibility further, researching roles, constructing characters and acting with archetypes to create a discourse on identity that is equal parts playful and profound, that advocates growth and evolution, and that encourages us to work creatively and imaginatively with all the “different aspects of the self” that we contain.

* * *

Works Cited

Amos, Tori and Ann Powers,  Tori Amos: Piece by Piece (London: Plexus, 2005).

Kroll, Judith, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (Stroud: History Press, 2007).

Mazur, Matt, “Abnormally Addicted to Sin: Tori Amos Talks with PopMatters  (22 May 2009)

Michelson, Noah, “Taken By The Throat: Interview with Tori Amos”, Out (15 July 2008).

Reilly, Dan, Tori Amos Interview, Spinner (20 September 2011).

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