It's a job not unlike that of the village idiot--the gifted, insightful singer-songwriters in pop music whose genius sometimes leads them along the road of excess. They get out there, spaz out, and we all feel better; perhaps we even learn something. Their efforts alternate between inspirational and insipid, troubling and tiresome.
Tori Amos has been doing her version of this scenario since her name-making debut Little Earthquakes came out in 1991. She has been cast as the brilliant carrot-topped eccentric, the child prodigy grown up with a gift for expressing the struggles of the ego, not only in the widest sense of the word, but most successfully as it concerns the struggle of women's self-definition.
Technically proficient, she marries the discipline of her childhood classical training (she went to Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory to study music and composition when she was 5) to a mysticism that's sometimes hard to take; liner notes feature a thank-you to "the Faeries," and even though she at times acts like she belongs in a sylvan glade, she writhes atop her piano bench like an itchy cowgirl from St. Vitus High.
But her uniquely female energy connects. The stark interior monologues suggested by her solo piano-playing--coupled with the raw emotion of her singing--forge a directly expressive link, and her fans used to wait hours to talk to her about the kind of harrowing challenges she details in songs like "Me and a Gun," a first-person song about a rape she suffered.
On many levels she faces the danger that dogs all who would report insightfully to us on Life: As (the assumption of) intimacy increases, so does the potential for abuse; this is why Rod McKuen is so much more annoying than Motorhead's Lemmie. At its worst, playing musical confessor to the soul can leave you sounding like an unseemly know-it-all (see Shawn Colvin), but at its best, can provide you with the beauty of true communication.
Perhaps no one skirts along this thin line with more energy and ambition than Amos. She connects directly with the dysfunctions and doubts of modern life: On Earthquakes' "Crucify," she addresses the impossibility of meeting expectations and the ways you screw yourself when you try. "Girl" muses upon a sad question: "She's been everybody else's girl, maybe one day she'll be her own."
Sometimes Amos can come off as excessively twee, hallooing to Mr. Microphone and Mr. Zebra or spying Buddha and Judy Garland holding hands, but, despite the missteps, she continued to refine the dynamics behind her songs, most often a call-and-response between the vulnerability--of her vocals and nakedly solo piano--and massed pop production. Still, in much of her press she comes off as an unbearable twit.
If you use that MTV persona as a guide, you'll soon be lost, for Amos turns the convention for popular artists--nice and smart for their public relations, ill-tempered idiots in person--on its ear. Talking to Amos reveals an artist with a real need to express herself, a directed force that has a lot more in common with the food-service drone who ponders killing a traitorous co-worker ("Waitress," off of Pink) than the Faerie-thanker.
"I'm translating songs that I think are already alive, already out there," she says. "Because of what I know, or what I've done, I can see them better. I see them and write them down."
Translating is an intimate act, and it's ironic that as her success has grown, Amos--who used to go out of her way to talk with those patient fans waiting after the show--has played bigger and less intimate venues: Caravan of Dreams, Deep Ellum Live, and now the Bronco Bowl. Insularity is a danger for any artist, but when you read about Amos in the studio, playing her piano and singing with her body completely encased in a box, you wonder how far it can be taken.
"I don't think that intimacy has to be lost," she says, explaining that the box around her was soundproofing, an attempt to keep her voice from drowning out the delicate harpsichord she uses extensively on Boys for Pele, her latest effort. For the tour, "there are visuals that weren't possible before, more of a multimedia thing. The sound's more powerful." She pauses for a second, as if mulling over what she's just said. "I don't feel any farther away," she finally adds. "I think you can fill that space--because you either fill it or lose it--and I think you can do that without losing that moment where you go back to the piano by yourself with no fancy hats or shoes."
Amos can also be fiercely, even psychedelically imagistic. The artwork in the lyric book that accompanies Boys for Pele, her latest album, is a startling train wreck of symbols: Amos on the porch of a shack, gun in her lap, feet smeared with mud while snakes lie indolently about her rocking chair; Amos on her hands and knees in a field atop a filthy mattress, seemingly awaiting some ritual debasement. Most shocking of all is Amos as Madonna: Diffuse light filters in through the window she sits next to, her shirt open as she holds a pink, wrinkle-faced piglet to her breast.
Her lyrics match her pictures. She can wallow in biology, delighting in the red essence of it all: "Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon," she warns a disconnecting but still responsible lover in her hit "Silent All These Years." Sometimes she conveys real heat; other times she sounds like your 10-year-old nephew saying "titty." There is a boldness to her, though, a self-assuredness that goes beyond simply shocking people.
She was fearless enough to follow Earthquakes with an EP that featured covers--of already-owned songs by Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones--that break with the '90s trend of forgettable, letter-perfect re-creations. The songs on Crucify--"Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Thank You," and "Angie"--are recognizable but altered, fashioned in her own image.
Under the Pink, released in 1994, extended the fleshy imagery; listening to it was often like studying a Georgia O'Keeffe painting with a headful of mushrooms. "Icicle" is an ode to masturbation whose narrator suspects an imperfect Bible and ends up deciding to take communion with her own body instead.
Although her most ambitious and angry work so far, Pele still remains fiercely dedicated to one essential purpose--communication, a message from one soul to another about that long dark night. In that respect at least the album is as hatless and shoeless as they come. In "Horses," the narrator dreamily celebrates her freedom, a liberty that exists only at the whim of another, and it's impossible to tell if she's about to burst into tears, fall over, or both; on "Way Down," she uses gospel to lend weight to the song's downward momentum.
The usual excesses, however, are still there: The harpsichord lends many songs a spidery, baroque elegance, but when Amos attempts to rock things up with rolling, rapid-fire runs on the instrument, it's hard not to look around for the Munsters. The lyrics to "Father Lucifer" are trite and obvious, and despite the powerfully evocative singing on the rest of "Blood Roses," when Amos mocks a lover with "I think you're a qwee-ah," the affectation trips the song up every time.
Talk with her, though, and you quickly get the impression she is more interested in expressing herself than achieving some sort of formulaic perfection. What she has to get off her chest is a resentment born out of having to change an entire part of her life, a change that at least partially involved her breakup with boyfriend and producer Eric Rosse in 1994. It was a change that the head demanded, no matter how painful it was to the heart.
"A lot of the anger [in Pele] comes from a deep sadness," she says. "It was the end of a state of being, of relating, for me. I had to change my relationships with men ...not just boys, but all men, even my father...Sometimes people just can't continue, and you've got to split up and take two separate paths up the mountain of love. It's letting go, and that brings a great loss and great freedom."
Letting go is what animates Pele's two conversations with divinity, "Hey Jupiter" and "Muhammad My Friend."
"'Muhammad My Friend' is me looking for the seed of that idea: How did I come to think that guys gave me my own worth?" Amos elaborates. "'Hey Jupiter' is me just saying that's it--I've had enough, I just can't continue." Part of what disgusted her was the cyclical nature of fucked-up human interaction, as well as her own role in it.
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"At first, you react to the anger by hurting both yourself and others, going on until everything falls apart...I would allow myself to be defecated on, and then go out and defecate on someone else," she admits, claiming to have broken the spiral by substituting accountability for reaction. "I see how it is, now, and instead of going off somewhere, I'm dragging your balls to Antarctica--no mittens!
"Right now my romanticized view of relationships is changing," she adds. "Not only that, but my concept of myself, my heart, my relationship with a soul mate--all that. There's not a resolution in sight--it's internal. Anger is an important tool, but anger without heart is just a lot of noise, like two elk in a field fighting over a piece of dough."
Tori Amos has her faults--as anyone who could be described as a willfully mystical, stool-riding, pig-suckling earth-mama philosopher must. But when it comes down to communicating, to imparting a kernel of one's own experience, she reminds us of the difference between ourselves and the elk better than most.
Singer-songwriter Tori Amos performs June 15 at the Bronco Bowl.