I Learned How to Sing From Tori Amos
Which is unfortunate.
It was the summer of 1994. At least, I like to remember it as summertime, but it could as easily have been a rainy southern winter. I spent a lot of time after school at my friend Caroline’s house and we entertained ourselves making up stories and listening to Broadway musicals. That particular summer, it was Phantom of the Opera. We challenged ourselves by singing some of the more complex “arias,” warbling through the scales and trills of the title song, “Think of Me,” and “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.” Yes, I was that girl.
I hated the music Caroline listened to. She seemed to like classic radio that played a lot of 50s rock and roll, which I’ve always found gratingly cheesy. Instead, I opted for the sublime sounds of Ace of Base, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Counting Crows, the transcendent experiences offered by Celine Dion, The Gin Blossoms, and The Cranberries. “Runaway Train” by Soul Asylum and “Posession” by Sarah McLachlan were my favorite songs.
Caroline and I were listening to the University radio station when a song came on that made me stop whatever I was doing (math equations? hanging curtains? building a scale model of a Mayan temple?). It was a breezy little piano song that might not have been out of place in a cabaret or a musical, but that touched depths and beauty I had never heard before. The singer’s good-natured voice was all syrup, allowed to spill wherever it may. The announcer never said who the artist was. I thought I’d never hear that song again.
It’s not cool to admit you like Tori Amos anymore. In fact, it hasn’t been cool for quite a long time — maybe it never was. Not long after Amos gained some modest commercial success, other “strong female” types started popping up all over. It was the age of Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey, the age when reversed gender roles were still considered a novelty in the mainstream media. Male singer-songwriters were “sensitive” and the women were “angry,” an emotion that became somehow revolutionary because it was unladylike.
Women musicians were (and perhaps still are) categorically dismissed. A woman writing pretty, soft music was derided as “chick music,” or “Lillith Fair shit,” because it appeared weak and sentimental. But woe to any woman showing more power or strength in her songs — even the most complex human emotions, in the hands of a female singer, were reduced to “anger” in the eyes of the media. Basically, the girls can’t win.
I met a lot of critics of Tori Amos who said she was angry, that she complained too much, was a whiner, that she was “still too hung up on getting raped.” This last criticism bothered me the most. Aside from the insulting “get over it” sentiment, I wondered how these casual Tori Amos haters could decipher her oblique and puzzling lyrics enough to pull that interpretation out of the hat because, as a devoted fan who memorized every word, I never understood a fucking thing she ever wrote. It doesn’t matter. I’m not one of those music fans who really cares about the lyrics — that’s not what I go to music for. That’s why I read poetry.
The song that I had heard on the radio haunted me for several weeks, even long after I had forgotten the melody, the voice, anything about it. A sense of it stayed with me. Almost by accident, I discovered the album Under the Pink, picked it up in the music store (back in the days of Blockbuster Music, with their lovely listening stations) because it looked intriguing, and found that track six was my song: “The Wrong Band.”
I devoured Under the Pink that year, absorbed every last note, every sigh, each breathy yawp and wail until it became part of my psyche. The controlled, light pianos suites turned thrilling, even dangerous, when they threatened to careen off their tracks into a dark, abstract world. As much as Tori was scorned for being fey, her world didn’t just contain elves and fairies and other harmless, whimsical things; it held creatures long in tooth and nail, ready to decapitate and feed. She set the tone from track one, “Pretty Good Year,” a song that floats along, happily, airily, before rushing you breathlessly to crescendo over crunchy guitars. “Bells for Her” wheezes and creaks — was that a toy piano she played on that song, or a very old one? I used to have one of those toy pianos with the plunky sounding keys. There’s something satisfying about the awkward insistence of those notes, the way it seems to make a mockery of the very idea of how a piano should sound.
The album created its own architecture in my mind. It was a large white farmhouse with open spaces and plenty of light. What was just under the floorboards? A mystery. But I knew the house hid in a never ending field of sunflowers. I wanted to live in that house, with these songs as a soundtrack, the rising and falling of the piano swirling through the wide open spaces, up the stairs into a tower, and back out through the windows. Music had never done this for me before, and I was filled with gratitude.
I sang. I waited until those magical times when my parents left me alone in the house and I sang myself hoarse. The acoustics in the hallway just outside my bedroom were particularly nice because the high-ceilinged corridor ran through the entire house, creating a cavern of rich sounds. I enjoyed singing “Happy Phantom,” but I could never get “Crucify” quite right, especially that twisty little trill when she sings the word “chains” in the chorus. After Boys for Pele came out, singing “Hello, Mr. Zebra” was a fun diversion, to follow her voice up and down the scales at a rapid-fire pace.
I still catch myself singing “Mother” when I’m all alone.
Within a couple of years I impressed/scared my friends by sounding just like Tori. Anyone who has ever tried to sing her knows that it’s impossible without aping every gasp, every oddly stretched syllable, every inflection, no matter how erratic. It is written. But it was a freakish ability I had, this ability to imitate her so completely. Fifteen years later, I think I’ve undone most of the damage, but I still can’t hit a high note without feeling the urge to just let my voice slide and lurch a little before reeling it in.
Long story made only slightly shorter, I stopped listening to Tori after a while. She made three great and weird albums, Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, and Boys for Pele. Where could she have possibly gone after that? I started to agree with some of the naysayers when they called her music “self-indulgent.” But she was exactly the right singer-songwriter for me when I was thirteen (and 14, 15, 16, etc.) and I’ll never fully understand why she’s inspired such hatred (or at the very least, extreme annoyance) from non-fans.
Because of my intense love for her work, I learned to ask more from music than what the Top 40 offered. I wanted music that helped me recognize a part of myself I never knew existed, that touched some greater and more powerful emotion in me, and that changed the way I saw the world, even if briefly. Tori was the gateway, the catalyst that turned me away from the mindless pop of Celine Dion, and primed me for my next, all-consuming musical obsession — which will be the topic of my next entry.