Before the Altar of Tori Amos
Quite suddenly, the house lights went out. The crowd was ecstatic in anticipation, wildly screaming and shrieking at the thought of catching the first glimpse of their benevolent savior. As the stage lights went up, however, Amos was nowhere to be found, at least in the flesh. A large black curtain hung from the rafters with a large portrait of Amos on it, bathed in a warm yellow spotlight. The picture was one of Amos’s alter egos on her new concept/covers records, Strange Little Girls. The girl that greeted the audience at New York’s Beacon Theater was the one that accompanies Eminem’s psycho surreal wife-killing fantasy, “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde”. The crowd heard the thumping, marching rhythm of the string section of Amos’s chilling, blood-curdling version, but she was nowhere to be seen. As Amos bravely sang the song from the murdered wife’s perspective, brimming with pathos and tragic irony, she never once stepped out from behind the curtain. As the song dizzyingly grinded to an abrupt halt, the curtain and the portrait came crashing down, dramatically revealing Tori happily prancing across a softly-lit stage.
The effect was starling and confusing. Strange Little Girls is an aggressive, controversial project, as Amos has covered twelve songs written and performed by men, all from a female perspective. The wildly ambitious record is all over the musical map, stretching from the baroque nightmare of Eminem’s “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde” to a raucous, punk rock send-up of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”. In interviews Amos has been elusive and tough, defending her project with harsh, disparaging meditations of female strength and anger. The way she opened her concert in New York was no less confrontational. Sitting in the cozy, warm, ornate Beacon Theater, Amos demanded we listen to her tale of horror and stare the supposed victim in the eye the entire time. Pretty heavy stuff.
I can certainly admire Amos’s new, belligerent attitude. Her new album is rough, defiant, and strikingly coherent—her vocals are raw and sexy, her attitude is tough and impressive, and her utilization of the Rhodes piano is a welcome twist to her setup. The problem with seeing Amos take this challenging and exciting material on the road is dealing with Tori Amos fans. Amos is one of those rare artists whose work is so personal, so emotional and affecting that her fans are often obsessed die-hards who hang on her every word and mannerism as if she were speaking directly to them.
In front of her fans, Amos was a goddess. She could do no wrong. They exploded in hysteria at her every move—when she banged on the piano, when she feigned masturbation, when she flubbed a song, when she sang a chorus really sexy and slow, when she did just about anything. Admittedly, this can produce a very enjoyable communal atmosphere. As Amos rolled through the delightfully silly Lewis Carroll-esque “Mr. Zebra” from 1996’s Boys for Pele, the congregation sang every word of the nonsense hymn along with her, breaking into rapturous applause and laughter when she had to stop the song in the middle three times to get the piano line right. Another moment of group solidarity came when Amos changed the line “And I don’t know who the father is” from Boys for Pele to the triumphant, call to arms bravado of “And I don’t know who our father is”. They were so ecstatic because Amos implicitly told them what they always wanted to know—that there was a real and vital kinship between them, that it wasn’t just about music.
To my eyes, all of this seemed like very old truck to Amos. She seemed very aloof and distant, going through the motions of waving to her fans and approaching the lip of the stage to personally accept their gifts and flowers. She only played for an hour and a half, hardly spoke at all, performed her encores in a very perfunctory manner, and avoided emotional crowd favorites like “Winter” from Little Earthquakes or “Cornflake Girl” from Under the Pink.
Moreover, she insisted on shoving in front of her emotional teenybopper legions such difficult, affecting material as “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde” and the harrowing “Me and a Gun”, her acapella rape dirge from Little Earthquakes. What was so uncomfortable and confusing about seeing Amos live was that the same screeching and crying reaction reserved for her sexy put-ons and piano humping is also unleashed by the audience after such decisively non-pleasing, in fact very disturbing, pieces like “Me and a Gun”. When you see a demon exorcised like that, do you break out in girlish, ecstatic glee? Or do you just let it sit with you, letting the images and words echo in your head for weeks and months afterward?
The bottom line is that the Tori cultists scream and cry for both “Me and a Gun” and “Mr. Zebra” because they really believe that some part of them is up there, either being silly or baring it all. They really hear “Me and a Gun” as a part of themselves speaking—the thundering applause after her harrowing rape tale is finished is a communal group hug, a collective pat on the back. Unfortunately, if you haven’t access to this close-knit circle of thousands upon thousands of Amos die-hards, you may find it a bit hard to swallow her bitter pills with such glee and appreciation. It was more like watching some strange, foreign ritual of song and appreciation, with a wild, red-haired, piano-playing temptress at the helm.