In early 1992, during the winter in which grunge was thrust into the mainstream and declared the defribulator of rock ‘n’ roll, a fiery-haired American woman began appearing on MTV, offering us a new kind of yin to balance out those yangy boys in Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Stone Temple Pilots. Captured within the frames of our television screens, the video also found her trapped inside a wood-framed box. This now iconic image from “Silent All These Years” provided our first exposure to Tori Amos. Although she’d known confinement in her life, she broke through with her debut album, Little Earthquakes.
Almost immediately, she was leading the charge of a whole new generation of women in rock. In an era when entertainment was taking over as the principle medium for the communication of ideas, it would not be a stretch to say that Amos was among the leaders of the last (but presumably not final) wave of feminism. Without a doubt, more females in the 1990s were exposed to Tori Amos than to Betty Freidan or even Eve Ensler. While Amos’ lyrics contain many of her ideas on the position of women in the western world, she also communicates a great deal through her physicality, often adding layers of meaning through the performances in her videos. Fade to Red, then, as a de facto greatest hits collection, provides a more satisfying and compelling portrait of Tori Amos’ career than the 2003 CD compilation, Tales of a Librarian.
Tori, as the producer of Fade to Red, chose to sequence the tracks on the two DVDs non-chronologically. Aesthetically, this leads to a minor downside of this collection, in that the majority of the Little Earthquakes videos have a vastly different look from the others. Let’s face it (as Tori is fond of saying), they look cheap. Well maybe that’s too strong a word. They look cheaper. Filmed primarily on a starkly white soundstage, the trio of Cindy Palmano’s directorial contributions on the first disc might have once all sat well together, but they are awkward next to the higher production numbers that followed. Something as stylistically stunning as the digitally constructed mini-film “A Sorta Fairytale”, in which the head of Adrian Brody co-stars in a somewhat unsettling love story, is groundbreaking and feels fresh in 2006. But sweet little “Winter”, which was surely made on a fraction of the budget, immediately follows “Fairytale” and suffers for it. After the first full viewing, though, most of us will likely pick and choose our favorites to rewatch, anyway.
But let’s get back to Tori Amos as a woman’s libber. She walks proudly into this role in the first video on Fade to Red, “Past the Mission”, as she very literally leads a group of women toward freedom from the patriarchal priest of a rustic Spanish village. What was, as a song, a portrait of the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez now becomes a statement of female empowerment, with Amos facing down the glaring padre and guiding her proud new flock to a golden field of laughter and liberation. Later, in her audio commentary, Tori says that she wishes to present herself as “the independent woman who is passionate but also compassionate”. Having taken care of her sisters in “Past the Mission”, she shows us her sexy side in “Crucify”. Although lacking much of a plot, the frequent shots of Amos grinding her hips on her piano bench offer a taste of her sensual live performances. By refuting the old notion that a schism exists between these roles of women as caretakers and women as sexual beings, Tori Amos embodies the contemporary female, who’s far more comfortable with these aspects of herself than were the women of previous generations.
Today, enlightened chicks like Tori are also unafraid to reveal their intelligence. The audio commentary throughout Fade to Red shows Amos to possess a broad knowledge of women’s history, from Mary Magdalene to Ann Boleyn, as well as a sharp talent for weaving the stories of these women into the tales Tori tells. Although doing so places the music in the background, letting Amos talk about the symbolism and iconography in her videos is a Da Vinci Code-like experience (minus the clunky prose style).
For those of you who simply like her music and want to gaze at the comely Tori for a while, don’t worry. It isn’t necessary to think of Tori Amos in a sociopolitical context in order to enjoy Fade to Red. The majority of these videos are just as stimulating as eye candy as they are treatises on girl power. The music, of course, is also great. Sure, I’d rather hear “These Precious Things” than “China”, but such are the limitations of a collection of videos, which are made to promote singles. And all of her biggest singles here. Thoughtfully compiled and not at all skimpily assembled, Fade to Red provides an excellent overview of the important career of Tori Amos: woman and musical artist.