Coming Soon: Tori Amos, A Collection of Collections
Tori Amos is a fascinating person and she will always be, among other things, the classically trained pianist who rebelled against her preacher father; sought inspiration from witch doctors and their drugs; made zany, unmediated statements in interviews; and proved that pianos are as liberating as guitars.
In the past three and a half years, Tori Amos has released the following material:
A greatest-hits collection marketed as a "sonic autobiography" (Tales of a Librarian: A Tori Amos Collection, with a bonus DVD, 2003).
A concert-length DVD of live songs (Welcome to Sunny Florida, with a bonus CD of new B-sides, 2004).
A new album (The Beekeeper, 2005).
An autobiography (Piece by Piece, written with Ann Powers, 2005).
A 45-track anthology available on iTunes (iTunes Essentials, 2005).
Six two-disc sets of official bootlegs eventually packaged as a 12-disc set (The Original Bootlegs, 2005).
A two-DVD collection of videos (Fade to Red: The Video Collection, 2006).
Now she has released A Piano: The Collection, a five-CD, 86-track box set that is packaged as a facsimile piano keyboard and includes a 60-page booklet of press photos and liner notes. Note: This is only the second in a string of reissues and compilations Amos is contracted to release with Rhino, an imprint of Warner Bros.
And so the Tori Amos branding and marketing machine marches on. What's next? Tori Amos: The Interviews. Tori Amos: The Photos. Tori Amos: The New Mythology, Bible, and Kama Sutra as Written by Tori Amos. Tori Amos: A Key to the Gardens: The Ultimate Video, Bootleg, Photo, Interview, and Song Catalog of Everything Tori Amos Has Ever Said, Sang, or Done, Ever; or more like Tori Amos: The Original I-Don't-Have-Anything-Left-to-Say-So-I'll-Just-Reissue-My-Past Official Collection.
For an artist so disdainful of the music industry -- the attendant commentary here is fixated on reminding us how radically she defied the industry and its dismissal of the girl-with-piano shtick throughout her career -- Amos clearly sees no contradiction in indicting the industry's tunnel vision while promoting and collecting herself ad nauseum beyond industry norms for any artist of any caliber, excepting maybe the Beatles. This sudden, near-pathological interest in documenting and re-releasing her work seems less a celebration of Amos' substantial contributions to contemporary pop music, and they are substantial, than a combination of the halt to which Amos' career has come and her label's fear of losing control of her prodigious output in the face of increasingly uncontrollable digital distribution.
A Piano acts as an anthology of Amos' career, which spans 15 years, now, and exhibits astonishing range. The five-disc set collects a handful of tracks, some subtly remixed, from nearly all of her releases, and includes a healthy number of B-sides and several previously unreleased songs. I would like to treat A Piano's 86-track anthology as a well-timed and significant retrospective of her musical achievements over the past decade and a half, as those achievements are formidable. But as a former Toriphile who once called herself an Ears With Feet and who spent boundless time and energy chatting with other EWFs online to set up bootleg trades and pre-Meet-and-Greet meet-and-greets, I can't help feeling a teensy bit had. My artist, my hero, has gone transparently self-indulgent (five collections of material in three years, and more to come?) while commodifying my desire into a facsmile piano with fake plastic keys.
I hate to be a cynic; maybe her aim is true and she simply wants to provide her listeners with a nice solid collection of her work. And yet, the anxiety I felt at the news that Tori was releasing a perhaps premature, perhaps gratuitous box set, echoed the intense repulsion felt when I saw Amos in concert a year and a half ago. She could have played chopsticks and yawned, and the theater would have filled with maniacal shrieks and fervent applause. As it was, comments like "hi guys" and "I'm tired" won loyal approval from fans. Awww! They love her anyway! Isn't she adorable? She can do no wrong! Well, she didn't play any of my favorite songs.
While her cult is not necessarily her fault, such an ingratiating fan base is dangerous. Inevitably, the object of the fanlove will feel she can do anything, anything, anything; no one will question her output. The label doesn't need to and the critics don't matter -- she's already proven that people love her no matter what. Soon the object of the fanlove stops putting pressure on herself; she tries less and less. Her ambition fully realized, she feels just fine releasing previously unreleased trifles like "Ode to My Clothes" and "Intro Jam" as so-cute! extras on her first definitive anthology, the strength of which rests on her earlier work for a reason.
Amos clearly agrees that she has lost much of her oomph in the past few years. She's leaned emphatically towards her first two albums on A Piano, providing Little Earthquakes in its entirety as she originially envisioned it, including the B-sides ("Upside Down", "Flying Dutchman"), as well as almost all of Under the Pink, while keeping the later albums to a stock four or five tracks (The Beekeeper gets just three). Her 1996 magnum opus Boys for Pele is disappointingly underrepresented while To Venus and Back gets more space than it demands; meanwhile, Strange Little Girls, her ambitious if uneven covers album of feminist appropriations of male-penned songs, is strangely absent. A few unreleased songs, a handful of her better B-sides, and a demo medley make up the extras.
While a box set like this is certainly reaching for her fans, I'm guessing that most of her fans are so obsessed that they (like me) already have all this material in one form or another. And the fact that Amos has gone anti-bootleg and anti-piracy seems wrongheaded, considering her fan base became so large and intensely devoted due primarily to the capabilities of the early internet age, through linked web sites, online discussion boards, and trades of pirated material. I guard my copy of Y Kant Tori Read with…a coat of dust, but the point is that Amos' cult of personality would not have existed without the internet and the exchanges it cultivated. In a sense, she doesn't need to subject her catalog to such documentation -- we've already done it for her.
And so it is that A Piano's album reorganizations, with their necessary excisions of certain tracks ("Icicle" and "Talula", for instance) and sometimes uneasy track combinations (the move from the soothing tones of "Hey Jupiter (Dakota Version)" into the screeching alarm calls of the "Professional Widow" dance mix comes to mind) seem a violation to those of us who know these albums intimately. Admittedly, that’s an unfair complaint to level, since any box set has to rearrange and delete. But she left out all her escapades into experimental ragtime boogie, and, well, I miss "In the Springtime of His Voodoo", okay?
From a less indignant perspective, the track progression is illuminating. I wouldn't have put Under the Pink's sprawling, orchestral "Yes, Anastasia" next to Boys for Pele's frighteningly raw "Blood Roses", but the adjacency calls attention to the violent imagery of both songs. Similarly, the move from 2002's easy-listening "Amber Waves" to 1998's swirling primal moan, "Iieee", underlines the theme of beauty as sacrifice that runs through both. While Amos' methodology is not always clear, she has arranged all five discs in ways that ask listeners to attend to the dialogue between songs from one album and songs from another.
It's also wonderful to see forgotten B-sides like "Upside Down" and "Cooling" get their due. Other nice surprises are the resurrections of "Mary", "Here. In My Head", and "Frog on My Toe", all fan favorites from the mid-'90s. The final disc of B-sides includes a three-song demo medley, the best thing A Piano has to offer. The "Playboy Mommy" demo is absolutely stunning, if painful to hear, as it is so clearly an attempt by Amos to work through the loss of her baby. The demo version sounds bruised, wounded, its form not yet clearly defined -- even more emotionally powerful than the final version.
The previously unreleased songs vary in quality, but are for the most part noteworthy only for their inability to stack up against Amos' finished work. Throwaways like "Ode to My Clothes" and "Intro Jam" sound especially insipid pushed close to sweeping beauties like "Gold Dust" and "Marys of the Sea." "Zero Point," as Amos says in her liner notes, was the underdog to Venus's "Datura", and "Datura" won fair and square -- "Zero Point" meanders without a point and needs three minutes lopped off. Of the handful, the soaring, energetic "Dolphin Song" and catchy new-wave "Not David Bowie" have the most promise.
Amos has made herself open and accessible throughout her career. She's discussed some intensely personal experiences in interviews and is known for letting it all hang out in concerts -- pelvic grind, microphone fellatio, and more. While a box set such as this may add legitimacy and a certain canonicity to Amos' career, it adds little new to the mythology that is already so active around her. The information presented in Amos's commentary offers little that hasn't been said in the stacks of articles and websites already written about her, though some of the details given about her experiences, inspirations, and songwriting processes are quite moving. The track commentary is selective and covers just 16 songs, with variable depth.
A box set does, of course, provide music journalists with an opportunity to re-evaluate and recontextualize Amos' oeuvre and influence, whether or not she is due for one.
I'd argue that she is due for (another) one. Her early work especially is worth revisiting. We haven't seen another artist with such singular talent and depth of experience as Amos in quite some time, who has managed to be both mainstream and fringe while saying the things that are hard to hear. Amos has a cult around her for a reason. She is a fascinating person, and her music is an extension of that. She will always be the classically trained pianist who rebelled against her preacher father; who got sex tips from the twinks who frequented her piano bars; who transformed rape into a brutally honest, darkly graceful testimony to survival; who sought inspiration from witch doctors and their drugs; named albums after Hawaiian goddesses; made zany, unmediated statements in interviews; demonstrated (with snakes!) that female spirituality and sexuality are not mutually exclusive; and who proved that pianos are as liberating as guitars.
Have we seen another artist so fearless, so unapologetic, so totally fucking UnCool in the past 15 years? No one compares. In the age of hyperconsumerism, we don't have time to form relationships with our artists. We form relationships with our iPods and playlists, instead. The climate that made the cult around Tori Amos possible may now be obsolete. What we have instead is an endless stream of flashes in the pan and hordes of music aficionados whose tastes are as fickle as they are limitless. It makes sense, then, for Amos to put out a box set now even though so much recent Tori propaganda has preceded it. Her career seems to be quieting down; she's not one to make it in this new realm of music consumption. Might as well do the best-ofs, the collections now before packaging is no more.
The covers are noticeably absent. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is missed, as is her haunting revision of Eminem's "97 Bonnie and Clyde". Maybe copyright issues were too much to deal with. Or maybe we're in for, next year, Tori Amos: Under the Covers: The Official 3-CD Covers Collection.