The first girls who memorized every gasp and coo of Tori Amos must be getting on in age by now. Postadolescence isn’t quite dotage, but in the nearly 10 years since Amos rose from the ashes of Kellogg’s commercials and ill-fated quasi-hair-band escapades to deliver Little Earthquakes—a diary of naked emotion that earned her an army of acolytes—some things have changed.
Once upon a decade, a girl had her pick of impassioned and inventive women who were safely subversive yet still spoke to her experience. Lured by mainstreaming alt-soul divas, the latest crop of girls on the cusp of adolescence probably won’t look to the same outlets of solo passion. Besides, most of those ’90s goddesses’ glories—from the muscular lunges of PJ Harvey to the impish glee of Björk—have grown up and away.
Those were days of ripping open and laying bare. Tori Amos began perfecting the art in 1992, with “Me and a Gun,” a chilling a cappella tale of her real-life rape at gunpoint. Now, with Strange Little Girls, a collection of songs penned and originally performed by men, Amos is gently but firmly forcing those men to turn that gun on themselves—not to make them pull the trigger, but simply to show them what it’s like on the other side of the barrel.
This woman is not afraid of anything. Not of the men whose stories were the only stories; not of blood or Jesus; certainly not of a certain wisecracking cracker. Eye-for-an-eye-irony Net rumors that Eminem, whose ” ’97 Bonnie and Clyde” is borrowed for the project, was going to cover “Me and a Gun” died quickly, but left indelible images of Slim Shady tackling “Yes I wore a slinky red thing/Does that mean I should spread for you, your friends/Your father, Mr. Ed?”
Well, radio won’t even play Tori’s jams, either, though it’s probably safe to say that these two are coming from opposite ends of the spectrum of the unplayable. Either way, Amos isn’t content to leave unchallenged the first-person narrative of a man soothing his toddler daughter as he murders her mother. “When I first heard the song,” she said in Atlantic Records’ offices a couple weeks ago, “a hand reached out of that trunk and pulled at me and said, ‘You need to see how I heard it.’ Because I’m a new mother, I think I was very open to viewing it.”
In her version, velvet, Southern-inflected whispers replace Eminem’s rapid-fire giddiness, and the result is oddly campy, like a horror classic: a palette limited to black and white, a tone imbued with accidental absurdity and quiet distress. Nary a word is changed. “It stands without having the critique at all,” says Amos, when asked about her efforts to give the female perspective a voice without altering the basic structure of the songs. “Its power is showing you, without in most cases changing a word, a secret the song might have had.”
Way back in 1994, when the only men she was dissecting were her father and God, Amos told Spin, “I love the screaming male aggression of [Trent Reznor’s] music, because I’m not in touch with that part of myself so much. I think there ought to be a raging-male cruise line we could take, go to seven islands and just watch these guys act out.”
For Amos, getting on that ship took the form of asking the men in her life to bring her songs that had stirred them—their emotional time machines. Having already explored the thornier sides of female desire with 1996’s Boys for Pele—her bombastic, critically underappreciated work of percussive harpsichord and emotional pyrotechnics that was sadly followed with restless, aimless efforts—it was high time.
Classic testosterone demigods of varying persuasions (Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, the Beatles) aren’t off the hook here, and a few wild cards (Boomtown Rats, 10cc, Joe Jackson) are thrown in for good measure. Neither a straight feminist critique nor a tribute album, Strange Little Girls is rather a nuanced exploration of the dualities of love and aggression.
It’s also a call and response with her previous work: Answer Little Earthquakes’ “Silent All These Years,” which chafed against the stifling of her voice, with “Enjoy the Silence,” and suddenly Depeche Mode’s apparent love song crosses into ominous stalker territory (“Words are very unnecessary/They can only do harm”). In “Blood Roses,” on Boys for Pele, Amos whimpered, “Sometimes you’re nothing but meat”; now, she irons out the fast-forward croak of Slayer’s “Raining Blood” into the quiet after a storm—unrecognizable, but suddenly intelligible.
The trembly, futuristic desperation of “New Age” opens the album with a suspended tension that ferments into full-blown rage, vying with the bruised gentleness of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” as the album’s chief triumph. In “Heart of Gold,” Amos sings at herself with splintered, twitchy wails that present the only instance when she fully fractures the original song structure, unless you count the turgid deconstruction of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” which features samples of her father, Papa Bush, and the news report of John Lennon’s death, all tying into the album’s overt gun theme.
The spectral communing with the faeries, with which Amos is often dismissively associated, is absent for obvious reasons, but critics who always found her fancies vacuous and her soliloquies incomprehensible were missing the point. Her touches of kook never lacked humor and the whiff of performance; her obsession with mythological archetypes provided just the right language for the silent to speak up.
Sooner or later, all little girls—and boys—have to grow up. “Permanent immaturity is a heavy price for rock to pay for permanent youth, and maybe we’re the ones who are afraid of change if we’re prepared to pay that price,” Phil McNeill mused in NME about the Stranglers’ misogyny, in 1977. Amos sees more in the song than those old punks probably could have, so she chose their “Strange Little Girl” to follow ” ’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” turning it into the story of what happened to the little girl in the front seat. Amos tends to the girls that almost slipped away: “Everyone else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own” was the chorus of Little Earthquakes‘ “Girl.” Today isn‘t that day, and “Strange Little Girl” is no happy ending. But it‘s better than silence.
Tori Amos plays the Beacon Theatre October 9, 10, and 11.