On Tori’s Past -- and Next: 20 Years Surviving the Music Industry
Tori Amos has always worked to create music that fits her own instinctive sense of what popular music should sound like. And via the brain of a piano prodigy with the compositional impulses of Bach, the rock sensibilities of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury, the confessional courage of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, and the tinkering tendencies of Thom Yorke and, yes, Kate Bush.
I recently wrapped up a phone conversation with an especially effervescent Tori Amos (the results of which can be found all across this week’s Performer Spotlight) by asking her what she thought her next 20 years might look -- and sound -- like. She paused for a long moment, then promised the National Theatre debut of her long-in-the-works musical The Light Princess in 2013 and a new studio album and tour sometime in 2014. In an attempt to tease out more information from her, I named some other possibilities: Working with different musicians? Inviting some noted co-producers into the studio? Toying with a “new” sound? But Tori, unsurprisingly, was one stiletto step ahead of me, and would commit only to being noncommittal. She quickly maneuvered the chat into a charming story about 12-year-old daughter Natashya insisting she make better use of her Twitter feed, and then buttoned our exchange by reminding me that, when it comes to making music, “it’s not a democracy in my world, honey.”
And who can blame her? She was held, seemingly out of spite, to a decade-long contract by a major label that benefited handsomely from the prestige of her talents but punished her dearly (skimping on promotion, doling out tickets to her legendary live shows to industry insiders in exchange for increasing visibility of other artists) for not crafting easily digestible pop hits. And yet, on her own steam, Amos managed to cultivate one of the most loyal followings in the history of touring musicians, sell over 12 million records worldwide, debut regularly in the Billboard top ten, and now holds the distinction of being one of very few female musicians able to write, produce, and fund her own projects. She possesses a work ethic, compositional integrity, and prolificacy uncommon in a sudsy musical climate that values salability over talent, and buys the radio like Tony Soprano scoping out a construction site.
Though Tori had her rightfully earned heyday in the mid-1990s, becoming the “alternative to alternative", paved some very rocky roads for countless female singer-songwriters, and is generally well-regarded by critics -- the likes of Ann Powers and Chuck Klosterman consistently in her corner -- she hasn’t quite retained the same “street cred” or “cool factor” as some of her peers. In 1994, Tori appeared on a now-classic cover of Q magazine with PJ Harvey and Björk. Entitled “HIPS. LIPS. TITS. POWER.” the article featured a conversation between the “gleesome threesome” and, somewhat patronizingly, claimed that “if Andrew Lloyd Weber were to ever make Macbeth! The Musical he’d need look no further for his three witches". While the article is a fantastic artifact -- and, God, who among us doesn’t yearn to relive the days when these were our female radio offerings instead of… well, you can fill in the blanks -- it marked the beginning of their being rather carelessly lumped together. That cover image erroneously imposed a like genre on all three women who, though they enjoyed an overlap in their fanbases to be sure, couldn’t be more musically dissimilar. As Tori points out during the interview, “We have tits. We have three holes. That’s what we have in common. We don’t even play the same instruments. It really disappoints me that some kind of competition has to be manufactured for [the industry’s] little minds and fantasies.” Even then she understood that, however well-intentioned, putting the three together might stand to marginalize rather than highlight their individual artistry.
And, to some degree, this is precisely what’s occurred over the past decade, not only thanks to a regressing record industry -- you won’t see new Björk, Harvey, or Amos video clips on MTV between episodes of Teen Mom, that’s for fucking sure -- but among their listeners. Of the three, Tori has become something of a pariah, the witchy wrinkles in her early work slowly ironing out into slicker, more “conventional” (to the common ear, at least) structures that have left some longing for her early meandering piano lines and the unabashed heavy breathing she now removes from her final mixes. The unspoken expectation in the '90s seemed to be that all three women would continue to be as weird and confrontational and experimental as their 20-something selves, and, for the most part, two out of three have lived up to this prophecy, with varying success: Björk has turned her body and voice into an ongoing art project, donning strange attire and performing her material in increasingly unorthodox settings that often overshadow the music, while Harvey has stuck to such a close blueprint of her early work and persona that you might pick her new record after a few years’ absence and not feel as though you’ve missed many stylistic beats in between. Amos’ shifts, however conceptually complex and inclusive of her trademark keyboard skills and ethereal vocals, have proved far more divisive.
Following her split from Atlantic Records -- her final “fuck you” came in the form of a dark covers album of well-known songs by men -- Tori signed to Sony’s Epic Records, then headed by Polly Anthony, who was prepared to champion Tori’s 2002 record Scarlet’s Walk as the advent of a new wave of mature rock. It would signify Amos finding renewed musical focus and aging appropriately alongside her legion of diehards while, hopefully, picking up a few new ones along the way. But before the album’s release -- and right at the moment when Britney Spears’ brand of bubblegum pop had officially changed the radio-scape -- Anthony parted ways with Epic and suddenly Tori was stuck once again to fend for herself among male record executives more interested in milking the new J.Lo record for singles than promoting a high-concept, post-9/11 opus more akin to vintage Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell. Again fulfilling a contract for bosses who didn’t know or care very much about her music, Amos crafted the 2005 follow-up The Beekeeper, an album that embellished the more accessible moments of Scarlet in a manner that sent some fairweather fans off the deep end (seven years later, the merits of a song like “Cars and Guitars” can still evoke debate as ruthless as healthcare reform).
And yet, “mellowing out” and adapting a less abrasive approach to her sound was perhaps the biggest musical risk of Amos’ career. Rolling Stone’s review of Beekeeper made the claim that she “suffers the same affliction as Prince and other freakishly talented musicians: Too smart… to take direction, she overreaches and ends up making music that’s [either] too abstract and oblique… [or] squanders her gifts.” Entertainment Weekly offered something of a backhanded compliment, calling it the album “for those are normally freaked out by Tori Amos", citing the paradox of “Barons of Suburbia", a song about “fake friends and users, especially within the music industry… you’d expect to be a bilious screed [but] turns out to be calm and meditative, Amos’ whooping-crane vocal so reined in you’d hardly know she was angry.” And so resumed perpetuation of the great misunderstanding of Tori Amos -- one that has plagued her since, and in many ways, far more aggressively than in the first half of her career, when she inspired equal parts adoration and animosity for embedding issues of female sexuality, oppression, religion, patriarchy, and politics into maddening brilliant feats of musicianship.
There exists now a faction of listeners who hold the belief that since her music has become less cryptic and less emotionally seething (though I’d argue she’s always painting accurate, truthful portraits of her life at the moment, so if the tone of her music suggests contentment, then good for her), it isn’t as worthy of contemplation or attention as it once was. The real issue at hand, however, isn’t that Amos’ music is somehow less impressive -- on the contrary, the sheer commitment to her recent classical-meets-contemporary song cycle Night of Hunters proves that she’s as willing as ever to go deep into the core of her disciplined musicianship -- but rather that Tori has, simply put, always been many things to many people. There’s an oft-heard lament from fans (who still pile into her sold out shows year after year even if they aren’t showing up at albums’ midnight release parties) pining for a “return to form” -- and this has been happening as early on as 1998, mind you, when folks worked themselves into a tizzy over the inclusion of a band in her live shows. But how can such an expectation be placed when Amos has essentially always been form-less? Spin any Tori Amos record, from 1999 or 2009, and you’d be hard pressed to draw symmetrical lines between the lyrics, the arrangements, or the production. She’s never repeated herself, at least not in the conventional sense of recycled pop tunes, and as longtime string arranger John Philip Shenale told PopMatters, when Tori approaches a particular sonic vision, “she dives into it, and really does it as opposed to just dabbling or experimenting. She jumps in both feet first.”
But herein lies the frustration: listeners historically tend to invest -- and project -- so much emotionally in Tori and her music that when she isn’t giving them more of what made them initially fall hard for her, or what they’ve subliminally asked of her, it feels like a personal affront. I recall leaving an energetic show during the 2007 American Doll Posse tour, an era which featured Tori quite literally and astutely responding to her status as “programmable soda” by alternately inhabiting different personas that represent some aspect of her musical endeavors -- the political Tori, the angry Tori, the sexual Tori, the sensitive Tori -- and overhearing a woman behind me as we filed out apologizing to the group of friends she’d brought to the show. Tori had performed with sheer abandon as “Pip", clad in a dark wig and rubber tights, slinging out such ferocities as “Cruel", “Bliss", and “The Waitress", and then returned for the second half of the show as “Tori", catering to the crowd with an array of concert staples. “I’m sorry, you guys,” the woman mumbled to her pals, “I wanted her to be pretty Tori, but she gave us scary Tori.” Likewise, there are those who self-consciously lean on her latter output as an easy way to deflect their past participation in the well-known intensity of Tori fandom. A few days after that same show, I ran into an acquaintance -- a former hardcore Toriphile in his youth, now kneeling at the more hipster-friendly resurrected altar of Kate Bush -- who had also been in attendance, and when I asked what he thought, he responded with a gripe somewhat in opposition with the forlorn gal who wanted a show full of ballads and breakup songs: “I just can’t understand how she can still perform “Cornflake Girl” and “Silent All These Years” and not lose her mind.” To translate: her newer material left him cold, and yet he disapproved of her inclusion of classics in her sets. Talk about being damned if you do.
What many seem unable, or perhaps unwilling, to recognize is that Tori has always worked overtime to create music that fits her own instinctive sense of what popular music should sound like. And via the brain of a piano prodigy with the compositional impulses of Bach, the rock sensibilities of Robert Plant and Freddie Mercury, the confessional courage of Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones, and the tinkering tendencies of Thom Yorke and, yes, Kate Bush, it’s a sound that isn’t going to ever fully scratch the itch of anyone but Amos herself. She never set out to be anyone’s resident Madwoman in the Attic, and she ultimately bears little responsibility for the disappointment felt by those who would have liked to keep her up there and throw away the key.
So, where does she go from here? In terms of musical influence and genre-crossover, she’s gone in just about every plausible direction, short of full-on country twang and rap (she’s toiled fleetingly in the former, as any good Carolina girl would, and the latter would be amusing given she’s stated about a dozen times that Fear of a Black Planet was one of the strongest inspirations for Little Earthquakes). And while she may not be inviting Nigel Godrich, Timabland, or Glen Ballard into her studio to fiddle with buttons or offer advice on what notes to hit anytime soon (read: ever), she has been steadily opening herself up to strategic collaboration. Whereas many musicians partner with a collaborator as a means of borrowing a style or coopting an audience, Tori has been consistently seeking out musicians truly of equal caliber, who are in turn pushing her to the brink of her disciplines in order get into deeper touch with her musical core. Night of Hunters was commissioned by classical music powerhouse Deutsche Grammaphon and found Tori working closely with famed musicologist Dr. Alexander Berg, the musical deans at the Peabody Conservatory (yes, the same school that ousted her nearly 40 years ago for insisting that studying the Beatles was more practical than Beethoven), and a world-class octet. That work led to her invitation to play with the 50-something piece Metropole orchestra, and all the while she’s been working on The Light Princess for the notoriously demanding British National Theatre (for those wondering what’s taking so long: American Idiot, I assure you, it is not). And while, in the immediate, this orchestral path may seem to only be leading Tori to drift further and further “out of touch” with what’s happening on the contemporary music scene, I’d argue she’s got her ear firmly planted to the ground, positioning herself to jump back into the current dialogue with prescience and prominence.
Though we live in an America that validates Justin Bieber’s barely-pubescent rasp as much as it worships his crooked bowl cut and is helping Katy Perry destroy Michael Jackson’s chart records, we are also experiencing a unique moment in which, slowly but surely, talent and nonconformity are seeping back in with encouraging results: from the monstrous, defiant success of Lady Gaga, to the more celebrated and controversial likes of Frank Ocean and Lana Del Rey (all of whom, if you listen and look closely enough, bare faint, and not so faint, markings of Tori’s influences). By sitting on the sidelines and not engaging so explicitly in what’s current, Tori is investigating and revisiting her musical roots with scholarly purpose and desire, boldly picking the brains and studying the compositional bones of the long-dead rock stars of centuries past. She’s wiping the slate clean, taking stock of her essentials as a performer as a means of figuring her next move.
It’s anyone’s guess what the next two or 20 years will yield from Tori Amos and, as she’s shown us time and time again, none among us will guess correctly. My prediction (hope, perhaps)? Tori’s imminent radical act will take shape as a truly “solo” outing. Though we often make the association with the press image of Tori as a “girl and her piano", thanks to years spent touring intimately with only her Bosendorfer in tow, she’s actually never released an album that’s solely been keyboards and vocals. Every album since the very beginning has featured tracks adorned with drums, guitars, programming, and effects, right alongside her sparser work. Her raw energy as a performer has always been at its most nuanced and captivating when she’s alone, pedaling and pawing at synthesizers, organs, and harpsichords and tasking herself with being her own bassist, percussionist, and harmonizer. To be sure, she works wonders when she has others onstage beside her, but is it is when she is in full, meditative collaboration with herself, seated before thousands of entranced fans, that we’re reminded no categorization, genre, production choice, or concept can ever define the mystifying singular vision of Tori Amos.
JOE VALLESE's creative, academic, and pop culture writing appears in Southeast Review, North American Review, Field Notes, and on PopMatters. He's a recent Pushcart Prize nominee and was named a Notable in the upcoming Best American Essays 2012. He is Language Lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at New York University and currently lives in Brooklyn. His favorite Y Kant Tori Read song is "Fire on the Side".