Your Musicology Is My Mythology Featuring: Tori Amos

26 Jul

Until I read this Bitch Magazine article in defence of the Tori Amos fan, I had no idea that she wasn’t cool. Apparently, liking her music remains a “forbidden and dorky love”, comparable only to playing D&D or voluntarily watching The Craft.

What the fuck? was my initial thought. Tori is amazing. The girl taught herself how to play the piano by age four. When she started out, she did show tunes in gay bars and survived on the contents of her tip jar. She sings about masturbation, mermaids and MILFs. She is ginger and friends with Neil Gaiman. What the fuck more do you fucking people need in a fucking rock star? Fuck!

But then I read on. And apparently, the real problem with liking Tori Amos is that her lyrics are too ‘pretty,’ whilst simultaneously causing discomfort by addressing taboo topics and being laced with something too assertive to be stereotypically feminine. “In rock music, there tends to be two types of women granted the stage: tough girls and nice girls.” And Bitch Magazine journalist Sady Doyle explains it more thoroughly in her personal blog:

Over here, we have Taylor Swift. She is fulfilling one of the fucked-up Acceptable Woman archetypes: Permanent girl-child, weirdly virginal no matter how many famous dudes she dates and writes songs about dating, white-dress-clad, sort of a permanent bride waiting for her lifelong heterosexual marriage which is the only thing you can really envision for her, Has A Lot Of Feelings but saves the really venomous ones for (a) girls whose boyfriends she wants to steal, (b) girls who steal her boyfriends, and (c) occasionally boyfriends. Depoliticized, only ever speaks about private concerns, anti-feminist or a-feminist, a giant child, strangely impossible to sexualize (even when she’s talking about “things that [another girl] does on the mattress,” she sounds like a sixth-grader who’s not quite clear on what Mattress Things consist of, but knows they’re DIRTY and girls who do them are GROSS). Acceptable, culturally, for these reasons.

AND OVER HERE, on the OTHER END of the spectrum, we have Ke$ha. Who, yes, looks exactly like Taylor Swift in the process of incurring the world’s worst hangover. Permanently offensive, permanently blitzed, always as loud and rude and inappropriate as she can possibly be at all times, frankly and hugely and inappropriately sexual, confrontational, vulgar, mean, covered in glitter and puke and possibly her own urine, out for attention and doesn’t care who knows it: Ke$ha occupies the whore/bad girl end of the Girl Spectrum, on which Taylor Swift is of course the virgin/good girl at the opposite end. You would think the whore/bad girl would be less acceptable, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not true: She’s still depoliticized and anti-feminist or a-feminist, she still reserves her hostilities for other girls and the disappointing boys she’s dated, so we have room for her. If only because we need someone to publicly vilify and disassociate ourselves from.

It’s a false dichotomy that many of us are familiar with. ‘Bad’ girls get a reluctant kind of respect because they display traits we honour in men, like strength. And ‘nice’ girls are admired for the traits we associate with femininity, like sweetness. But where does poor Tori fit? Tori, who is a Nice Girl but also a Strong Girl, openly defiant but vulnerable. Tori, who might sing about fucking, but she’s singing about fucking butterflies. A woman who’s shaved everywhere you’ve been, boy, but also thinks it’s a sorta fairytale. She is a fiery, soft round peg that doesn’t seem to occupy the square holes of the Madonna/Whore complex.

Well, according to Doyle, the media opinion of Amos formed years ago, forces her into a shadowy third category: the hysterical female.

As a society, we encourage girls and women to be emotionally accessible, and in touch with their feelings; we say that it’s an innately feminine trait. We say it, that is, until they have feelings that make us uncomfortable, at which point we recast them as melodramatic harpies, shrieking banshees, and basket cases.

But Tori Amos’ music is neither melodramatic nor lunatic – at least, I don’t see it that way.

Take Playboy Mummy for example. It’s a song written in response to her miscarriage. “And then the baby came before I found the magic how to keep her happy.” God, I can’t even begin to imagine how much guts it must have taken to write and record that song, to sing to the daughter she lost, to lay herself bare when she performs it live.

Perhaps Tori Amos’ music has never had the potential of widespread appeal because it speaks almost exclusively to women. And that’s one more thing I wanna talk about.

Amos estimates that “one in three women who comes to my shows [has been] raped or sexually abused.” And formal studies support these numbers; Deborah Finding surveyed 2,000 Tori Amos fans for her 2009 thesis, and found that the rate of sexual assault in the fanbase “was enough to support the statistic that one in four women has suffered sexual violence.” Tori Amos is an outspoken victim of sexual violence herself; after releasing Me And a Gun, the chilling a cappella recount of her own rape, she decided to co-found RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), the first national support network of its kind in the States, due to the letters she received from other victims of sexual violence.

These letters were from people who had felt completely alone until hearing her music in solidarity with their own experiences. One of these people was Shannon, who founded Pandora’s Project, an online organisation which provides support and resources of survivors of rape and sexual abuse, and Pandora’s Aquarium, an online community named after a song by Tori Amos of the same title.

When I was 19 years old and starting to come to grips with my own rape, it was the music of Tori Amos that brought me comfort. If I felt painfully alone, I would listen to her Little Earthquakes album on repeat; there was nothing more comforting than feeling like someone understood.

Tori Amos is among the most powerful, inspiring and effecting voices of our time. She has an extremely devoted fanbase – a point I suppose I’ve only gone and underlined. Now I’m sure that the majority of these fans don’t buy her music because of some perceived life-changing nature of her songs. They don’t raise her to cult status because they are feminists, or queer, or socially ostracised or even because they have been abused. It is because she is talented, and her music is brilliant. But seriously – who can honestly say that Katy Perry’s Ur So Gay changed their life? Shouldn’t that MATTER?

We named my childhood dog after Tori Amos. And I hope you realise that’s more flattering than it sounds.

One Response to “Your Musicology Is My Mythology Featuring: Tori Amos”

  1. kassommers July 26, 2011 at 6:21 PM #

    When I saw Tori Amos live there were many men in the audience. I wonder if they analyse her lyrics or just admire her music as it is and her ability to give such an honest performance – drooling and growling.

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