No sum of crumpled-brow conversations will capture it. No new sexual position or surgical procedure will do it either. We can slip hairy legs into nylons, steroids into pools of estrogen; piss sitting down, piss standing up. No matter how hard we try, most of us will never get a chance to slip inside the skin of the opposite sex and take a good look around. And it’s hard to say whether those who do ever really do.
But with Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos has come pretty fucking close.
Her sixth solo album attempts to crawl inside the creative birth canals of 12 male songwriters. Or as Amos puts it: “Crawling into the men, hanging in their heads, their songs, their world.” Arms stretched out and palms flattened against flesh walls, Amos absorbs some sort of surreal masculine power through trembling reverb, menacing synth and whining rock feedback — and comes out a stronger woman for it.
She tackles songs from the obvious violent misogyny of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” to a more hidden sense of male confusion and rage tucked in the lyrical corners of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” or Joe Jackson’s “Real Men.” Many of the songs are so poetically ingrained in our mental landscape that it slips our minds to take offense. Or is it that we’re so deadened by violence that this is our landscape and we can do nothing but accept it as that? But when you hear “happiness is a warm gun” in Amos’ wilting wail, you can’t help but bolt up out of your complacency. Especially within the context of Amos’ own songwriting history. Just hearing her voice swirls up images of “me and a gun and a man on my back”; she’s recounted her own rape in song as well as a fierce survival instinct and various fantasies and realities of revenge. Eminem’s original telling of the “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” narrative was creepy enough. With his daughter in a car seat, he talks about putting her mommy in “time out,” tying a rock to her “footsie” and rolling her off a dock.
But Amos hushes Eminem’s daughter in whisper-breathy baby-speak punctuated by involuntary tongue and teeth clicks: “Don’t play with dadda’s toy knife, honey. Let goa it.” It’s a positively chilling moment within an album of equal parts frost, equal parts fire. And that’s the song that’s garnering the most attention on the entire album.
Eminem, she says, “wrote a very powerful work on domestic violence and aligns with a certain character. I didn’t align with that character. I was drawn to the person in the trunk who was dying, who wasn’t given a voice, and how she heard it. And the thing that struck me was, when I was doing my album, I had this laboratory of men who were my research group and my control group. And not one of them, whatever their thoughts of him were or weren’t, whether gay or straight or whatever — not one of them asked about her. So (Eminem) had constructed a work where she was really not an intriguing character for a lot of the men in the research group. And that told me something.”
So what did the male artists think of her interpretations of their work?
“Well, Slayer has sent T-shirts,” she quips. “Some of them have sent messages. And some of them … um … I didn’t do this record for that reason. So some of the messages are kind of private and I try and respect that.
“I was respectful to the fact that these men are the mothers of these songs. One of the premises that I had from the beginning that I still hold close is that there are some things you only tell your mother. And I knew this relationship between these songs and their male mother writers. Also, however, there are some things you never tell your mother. And I held true to that, and I’m aware that that applies the same to my songs. I mean some of my songs are galavanting around God knows where.”
She mentions her song “Leather,” a playful-yet-powerful commentary on casual sex off Little Earthquakes.
“I’ve always said I never know where ‘Leather’ is until she shows up at night to do a show. I have no idea where she goes. From 10:28 when she shows up and then I don’t see her again until she shows up again.”
Amos’ current tour marks her first unaccompanied performances since 1994; she’ll be alone with her keyboards Thursday. Her publicity material warns audiences that one of the “essences” — 12 vastly different female characters who adorn the CD booklet, representing each song — will be present on stage, but Amos herself downplays that claim.
“There might be things onstage, where the women are there, but that’s such a subtle thing. It’s kind of been made more than what it is.”
The “women” are actually all Tori, dressed up in a variety of personality poses — from a vampy woman about town to a bleached blonde with Tammy Faye eyelashes to an aloof mod.
It almost resembles a fashion advertising campaign (or anti-campaign a la Adbusters) thus delving into concepts of identity, image, model worship and consumer culture.
“We thought that was amusing, but I was working with a couple of Brits and what they find amusing isn’t always what other people find amusing,” Amos makes light. “I mean it’s loaded. There are a lot of different layers to it. And that was just something we thought was kind of sick, but sick in a good way, like not puke-sick. I don’t know, reflective of the time.”
The “essences” were the women who came to visit her while working on the songs, she explains.
“It’s almost as if there became this unspoken agreement with — I don’t know what you’d want to call it — the song world or song law. As I took on each man’s song, a woman — was it the anima? I don’t know — came attached with it. So that she seemed to have access to me at any point. I thought I was just crawling into the men, hanging in their heads, their songs, their world. But the women — where did they come from? — were able to crawl back into me. So maybe it’s the men coming back in with their anima that could access me. I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
While Amos does do a good job of feeling around the male psyche within the songs, they also become very much her own and would fit snugly alongside any other Amos tune whether it be “Precious Things,” or “Cornflake Girl.” By not changing the words, the music becomes a commentary upon itself.
And with all of her explorations of guns and violence in her work, it’s not surprising that she’s thought a lot about the meaning of Sept. 11.
“We’re a very violent culture. I believe in the First Amendment. And I believe that people have to stand by their work. I think it’s very telling, first of all, what writers are tapping into and have been saying the last couple years. There has been a male rage that has taken root before Sept. 11, that started maybe as a brushfire and then it had taken over national forests. I felt that this is not just something the writers are coming up with. It doesn’t take away their responsibility. Because I think if you write something, you have to stand by it. And standing by it means you don’t say, ‘Oh it’s only words. What are you going on about?’ That’s just weak. If you’re a satanist, stand by it. I just feel like, where is the integrity of the songwriting community? I’m not against people writing about violence. Look at my work. I’ve been writing about guns for a long time and what they mean and them as a metaphor and crawling into the psyche of it. And what is it in us that breeds violence? I’m spending part of my time as writer trying to investigate it.”
Since the birth of her daughter a year ago, literal motherhood has given Amos a new sense of responsibility, but she says that it’s different from the responsibility individuals must attach to their words.
“Motherhood has made me a warrior mother, there’s no question, on one hand. The events that happened on Sept. 11, for me, are intolerable as a warrior mother. And on the other hand, violence is not my first choice in how to handle things, to belittle somebody else, or to have power over somebody else. That doesn’t make me feel powerful. It isn’t my choice usually, to solve things with violence. However, if somebody’s gonna threaten my cubs, and it might not be just my child, but those that I love, then your neck might be in my jaws with absolutely no remorse. Because that has become clear since we have been invaded as a country and I’m a mother now. There is a warrior mother energy in me that is ignited and ferocious. And yet, if you needed a plate of spaghetti and we don’t agree politically, I’m gonna make you one. We might not have a whole lot to say. I don’t know you. I don’t know your beliefs, but I’m not gonna leave you out there if you’re hungry. I’m not necessarily gonna let you watch my daughter. …”
Strange Little Girls isn’t the first time Amos has covered another artist’s work. Her version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the Crucify EP jumps out as one of her most noteworthy. And countless musicians have taken liberties with her lyrical babies. Although she doesn’t claim to have heard all of them, she says she’s fascinated with the ones she has “because it gives you insight too. And the power of perception, that’s something that I really started to think about. There was a time in my life for a while that I thought that if I said something then it was clear what it was. If I was clear about it, then that other person that I really needed to communicate with was clear too. How silly of me. I had to really see, oh my God, they’re seeing something so different.”
Throughout her career, Amos has been heralded as a “popular freak,” a phenomenon similar to Madonna or Howard Stern. Her attempts at communication range from the bizarre — piglets suckling her bosom in the artwork for Boys For Pele — to standard stereotypical feminine hysterics to deadly serious activism. I’m sure she’s been misunderstood her fair share. But that doesn’t mean she’s going to quit communicating, crumpled brow and all.