Reflections on Tori Amos and the Feminist Movement
There’s breathing room in being a 33-year-old feminist Tori-lover. Feminism isn’t so black and white to me now as it was back then. I don’t know what choices Tori made with regards to feminism, I don’t know if she calls herself one now, or if her daughter does.
Sometime during our 15th year, my twin sister and I began dyeing our hair red. When the boys in chemistry class asked us why, we told them it was because our house was like Russia.* Tragic, I know, but when you’re 15, every moment feels like the most important, every choice critical -- and the music you listen to perhaps most of all. We loved Tori Amos, which became one of our definitions, and our bottle-red hair was our mission statement.
By that time we had already begun identifying as feminists, and when Boys for Pele was released, the buzz around it coming just in time for our junior year of high school year (and isn’t she always just in time? Each album, exactly what we need at that moment, each song a secret message) I fell hard, singing out loud to anyone who would listen. I quickly realized how beautifully they collided, those two aspects of my new teenage self: feminist and Tori fan. Tori fan and feminist. It was an obvious pairing.
We all make excuses for those we love. But you can only make them for so long until they run out, until one day a hammer comes down on your mirror and something is shattered, something finally revealed. The big media blitz surrounding Pele meant that, suddenly, Tori was everywhere. (You don’t get any more mainstream than being named one of People’s 50 Most Beautiful People.) It also meant that Tori was talking everywhere, and various quotes about feminism were strewn on the side of my road like old tires. And they hurt.
She told George Magazine in 1996 that “feminism was an important shift that happened on the planet. But being a feminist isn’t enough now. It’s about being a whole person.” And that same year, to UK’s Dazed & Confused: “Feminism is limited. Listen, I can drag a man’s balls across the country better than a man can. … But I don’t want to have to play it better than a man. That’s what makes me puke. I just want to play it like it is.” And then to Esquire in October 1999, she espoused that “the word ‘feminism’ will shift because of its associations. It needs to change ‘cause it’s turning people off.” And, the kicker, at a 2001 roundtable discussion: “I think I was born a feminist, and then at about five decided okay, Gloria Steinem, yes, this makes sense…Now I think it can be associated with a bitter consciousness. I am not bitter. I believe in a place that is about equality for both sexes -- or whatever your sexuality is. And I don’t necessarily think that feminists are for that…” (MusiqQueen)
I hid my disappointment in Tori’s lack of connection to the feminist movement, if not its outright rejection, for years. When she declined an invite to play Lilith Fair in 1997, the summer between high school and college, the summer that built a Tori-shaped fissure in my chest cavity, I harbored hopes she was just playing with us, with me, with the media, and I grasped, white knuckled, to the positive quotes she did make about feminism. Because when you’re 15 and in love with a musician, and you know that to be feminist is simply to be a human who believes in equality, one who acknowledges that living in a patriarchal society has unfair consequences on half the population, you need Tori to feel the way you feel. I needed her. My friends and I would discuss these quotes at length, five shades of red hair in a small beach town with bootleg tapes blaring from car radios, and we could never come to any conclusions. Was she or wasn’t she a feminist? And why couldn’t we stop caring deeply about it?
The funny thing, of course, is that everyone outside the Tori realm has painted her a feminist from practically the moment the first note of Little Earthquakeshit the radio: “As Feminist-As-Ever Tori Amos on Her Latest Album and Penetrating Classical Male Composers”, Vulture, 2011; “Why We Need Tori Amos’ Outspoken Brand of Feminism Now More Than Ever", NME, August 2012; “Tight Socks and Feminist Freedom", Illinois Entertainer, 1994; “Tori Amos is an awesome feminist activist,” writes Brooke N. Benjestrod in “Feminist Activism for the College Girl"; her music is listed on countless “feminist songs” lists. In 1999, Tori kicked off the 51/2 Weeks Tour with Alanis Morissette, and I gritted my teeth and went -- front row -- because, dammit, that was the kind of feminist and the kind of Tori fan I was, even if I didn’t understand her motives, and even if Alanis’s impossibly mainstream fans made me feel, simultaneously, weirdly inadequate and haughtily superior.
Here’s the thing: despite her protestations, the media had it right. Proof of Tori’s feminism was evident--it was in her co-founding of RAINN (“It would be impossible to estimate how many women have been directly encouraged to report rape by Amos's actions,” writes Lucy Jones in NME); in her creation of a concert environment that was a safe space for girls and boys and women and men and everyone in between, a cathartic experience that still makes me cry at every show. In a very direct way, Tori has served as a healer-slash-therapist-slash-parent figure for teens who’ve experienced sexual abuse in some way. (Sady Doyle notes, in her fantastic Bitch Media piece from 2011, that “London School of Economics gender studies scholar Deborah Finding, who surveyed more than 2,000 Amos fans for her 2009 PhD thesis, found that the rate of sexual assault in Amos’s fanbase was ‘enough to support the statistic that one in four women has suffered sexual violence', and that ‘98% of the respondents said that they used her music as a means of emotional support.’”)
Proof of Tori’s feminism was also in the musical pudding -- her songs, her stories, her inspirations. From Y Kant Tori Read’s only album (a personal favorite of mine, ripe with an '80s sexuality and a faint whiff of hairspray) to the confessional Little Earthquakes, with its obvious feminist gems “Me and a Gun” and “Silent All These Years” and “Girl,” to the mysterious Under the Pink with its odes to Anastasia Romanov and its songs about female genital mutilation (“Cornflake Girl", inspired by Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy), to the miscarriages and marriage explored on from the choirgirl hotel and to Venus and back, to Strange Little Girls (a cover album comprised entirely of songs by men, about women) and The Beekeeper and Abnormally Attracted to Sin, each of which I could spend thousands of words on. (I mean, The Beekeeper is not an accidental title. Tori considers beekeeping a source of female inspiration and empowerment, and the album is full of religious and political references about women’s place in church and government. Incidentally, The Beekeeper debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 in 2005, which made Tori one of the few women who has secured five or more US Top 10 album debuts.)
It’s also right there in Tori herself, in her straddling of the piano bench, in her unapologetic growls, in her fire, in her costumes. Doyle adds, “…the public persona of Tori Amos was tied, whether by coincidence or intent, to the emergence of third-wave feminism, and the struggles around gender and sexuality that characterized the decade of its rise.”
And if it’s there, if we all see it, why can’t she?
My own version of the '90s holds up to Doyle’s premise, and my introduction to Tori will always be tied to the other cultural movements of the decade, from the riot grrrls to third wave feminism to Bill Clinton to Agent Scully. But I think where we, the public, get it wrong when talking about Tori as a representative of '90s feminism is that we forget the crux of what it meant to be a girl, especially a teen girl, in the '90s: we had to be effortlessly multi-faceted, wearing flannel one day and Clueless-style minis the next, alternating between 120 Minutes on MTV and Friends on NBC. We were impossible to nail down. We wore dark purple lipstick, but it was lipstick nonetheless, and it was a weapon; it was a symbol.
So if we had to be so multi, if we could hop from one persona to the next, why couldn’t we allow Tori that? I feel bad for the corner I, we, backed her into then. Because if someone keeps calling you a feminist musician and you keep rejecting that, where does that leave you? Do you surrender and embrace it? Do you fight? When you have a fan base that critics refer to as “a quivering gaggle of whey-faced young oddities” (Bitch Media), maybe separating yourself from them is a self-serving move, a necessity so you can continue making the music you need to make. Maybe that’s where Tori’s rejection of feminism comes from.
In 2007, I was 27, and my drive to be a repository of Tori information had waned, so I missed much of the media surrounding the release of American Doll Posse. (This is not to say I missed the album itself.) Ironically, 2007 is when Tori became much more vocal about her political beliefs, both in media interviews and in the art that is the Doll Posse.
The overtly political album may as well have been called “The Official Tori Amos Response to What is Happening in the World and Boy, Have You Guys Fucked It Up or What.” If Tori’s qualms with identifying with a capital-letter Feminist Movement were a result of feeling boxed in and overly labeled (which I suspect they were), Posse was her moment of release, of escape, of pointing a giant middle finger with sparkly nail polish to the world at large. Posse was her reminder to everyone who was listening -- and to those who made the mistake of forgetting to listen -- that Tori Amos was still here, that in fact multiple Tori Amoses were still here, in the form of five different female characters, wigs and all, that symbolized the different aspects of her personality -- and indeed, of ours, too.
“For many years I have been an image; that isn’t necessarily who I am completely,” she told SameSame, an Australian blog. “I have made certain choices and that doesn’t mean that those choices are the whole story. I think these women [Isabel, Clyde, Pip, Santa, and Tori, the characters in ADP] are showing me that I have not explored honest extensions of the self who are now as real as the redhead…This [world] has been created by the patriarchal authority. And I’m coming after them.”
One of the must-reads from that time period comes from an interview with Paul Tingen, a journalist and musician. She told him:
“The main message of my new album is: the political is personal. This as opposed to the feminist statement from years ago that the personal is political. I know it has been said that it goes both ways, but we have to turn it around…For me the new album is about representing the American women that I see and meet, but that right now is not the world’s view of American women. And there are those in the American media and right wing that try to shame these women for speaking out.”
What most interested me about her interview with Tingen, though, is what she said about who she’s singing for these days. Not surprisingly, it’s not people like me -- my political views have long been formed. No, she’s talking to the me I used to be when I first discovered Tori: “I’m not interested in the old farts… I’m after their teenage daughters. This is about rousing 18-year olds to wake up and make choices. I want them to realize what their future will be in 20 years time, unless they start voting for whom they truly want in power.”
If I said things like “boom", I’d write that here. Because, well, BOOM. That’s what feminism does, today more than ever: it reminds women and men that there are very real consequences when there are anti-feminists, or even simply people who have never viewed the world through a feminist lens, in power. The movement right now, in an election year especially, is about highlighting which candidates, which parties, want to control women, our bodies, our choices, our futures, and let them make their own informed choices. And Tori gets that. And that is huge.
Today, a full decade later, I’ve finally stopped worrying about Tori’s feminist status. There’s so much more to worry about, after all, like debates over what constitutes “legitimate rape,” the GOP’s war on women’s reproductive rights, the fight over reauthorizing funding for the Violence Against Women Act, and like whether the movement I hold so close to my heart is stuck somehow, or is too divisive, or isn’t resonating with the younger generation. And there are days when I throw up my hands, close my Twitter account, and wonder why I bother with the feminist movement at all. There’s just too much work to be done, and in so many ways, we all still need to start with the basics. We kind of need to rewind.
There’s breathing room in being a 33-year-old feminist Tori-lover. Feminism isn’t so black and white to me now as it was back then. I don’t know what choices Tori made with regards to feminism, I don’t know if she calls herself one now, or if her daughter does. (“The birth of my daughter was my healing,” Tori wrote in The Guardian Observer in 2009. “I claimed my body back. I stopped being a victim.”) But I know it doesn’t matter to me as much as it used to. Because the truth is, my Tori, the one I carry with me, the treasure I always keep close, is a feminist, stripped bare of any expectations or baggage that word brings with it. She just is. The evidence is all there.
Just this summer, Lucy Jones wrote about why we need Tori more than ever for NME. She says: “…[Tori] has brazenly tackled topics that many writers avoid: Christian patriarchy, sexuality, gender, guilt, shame, miscarriage and motherhood, couched in her swelling, filigreed piano rock and sometimes sweet, often acerbic vocals. She pulls up the music industry on its sexism and patriarchal structure without fear; a vanguard, paving the way for female artists to be received equally to men.”
Was Tori’s rejection of the word her way of rebelling, and her recent embrace a way of making amends? Maybe. Or maybe that’s me, making more excuses for her. Because I will always make excuses for Tori. She’s earned them. Her music has been lacing through my veins for more than half my life, almost as long as my feminist identity, tracked alongside all my major life moments, and I couldn’t divorce myself from her -- or the feminist movement -- if I tried.
* For the uninitiated, have a seat while Amos takes to the sky...
MORGAN BADEN is a Communications Director at Scholastic, an advisory board member of the nonprofit Girls Write Now, and an author of teen fiction. She likes yoga. She loves Tori Amos. She lives in Brooklyn but hails (mostly) from a small shore town in south New Jersey, and is a 2001 graduate of The College of New Jersey. Find her at morganbaden.com or @MorganBaden.