Some People Just Don't Get It
Updated February 13, 1998
A special Thank You to Sarah (SarahLeeAb) for sending me these wonderful Tori photos from various television appearances over the last few years.Those of us who are devoted followers of Tori's art may have a difficult time understanding those who are not impressed by her. Since the release of Tori's latest album, Boys For Pele, I have noticed several negative, stinging reviews in some magazines and newspapers, such as Rolling Stone. Other examples include the reviews in the Courier-Journal newspaper in my hometown of Louisville, where the critic repeatedly utters "I Just don't like her".
I will be the first to admit that Boys For Pele seems very confusing and difficult to approach when you first listen. It is Tori's most challenging work. I have seen a few fans post to newsgroups that they do not like the new album in comparison to her other two albums, Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink. This is not to imply that there have been no positive or glowing reviews of the work. Spin magazine gave it a high rating, and I have seen many many fans praise the CD.
The reactions of the fans and critics seem to be clustered at the two ends of the scale; they either fiercely love the album, or they really hate it. Tori has stated that this is how she wants it. To her a work is boring unless it stirs up these kinds of extreme reactions. However, I have been thinking about why some critics or listeners "do not get it". I have gathered here a list of reasons why people dislike Boys For Pele or Tori, and my reaction or commentary on them. I make no claim that this is objective (I still wonder if there is such a thing as true objectivity). This is all IMHO. It is not my intention to insult anyone. This is not directed at those who prefer Tori's earlier work, but rather to those who see little merit in BOYS FOR PELE. I think that if critics rage against a work, the reasons they use should at least be valid. I have heard fans who really know Tori's music express disappointment in the new album; This essay is not directed toward them.
1) They have jumped the gun and judged a complex, multi-dimensional work after only a few, superficial evaluations.
One thing I have noticed repeatedly in newsgroup and mailing list postings is that some fans who initially posted negative comments about BFP or who expressed disappointment, later softened or completely reversed their position. Others have changed their minds about particular songs after they heard those songs performed live by Tori. I feel that many critics do not listen to the songs more than a few times before writing their reviews, and as a result have not developed enough understanding to properly review it. Of course, for a professional music critic, who has many albums to review, there may not be enough time for a full evaluation. Tori's music defies mainstream music criticism. Keep in mind as well that many of the great artists of the past were not appreciated right away, but only after the passing of time.
2) They judge ALL of Tori's music by how they feel about her spiritual beliefs or non-acceptance of patriarchal religious customs.
Some people just do not like Tori personally, because in her music and interviews she states beliefs that offend or anger them. She is relentless and sometimes shocking in her criticisms of mainstream religion. Here is an example quote from Tori from Nuvo in 1994.
"...the greatest problem in Christianity has been the division of lust and love...People have a very hard time having their baby suck their breast and then sucking their man off later. They have a very difficult problem of being a whore and mother in the same household. There shouldn't be a division of the Magdalene and the Mother Mary. You know, Mary had other kids after Jesus. She 'did it.' God forbid, she spread. People have a hard time with these truths."
And as Tori said to Mark Edwards of THE FACE:
"I'm known as that girl who has tea with the Devil. I'm the thing that fundamentalist Christians cringe over. Mothers drag their daughters out of my shows. Because their daughters are going, 'Hey, maybe i don't have to think about these things. Why am I worshiping some dead guy?'"
One hardly needs imagination to see the reaction of some people to these revelations! It is also easy to realize that this might color their review of her music in a rather negative hue if they are offended.
Tori also talks about faeries, Native American spirituality, reincarnation, and the idea that she is merely a channel through which her "girls" (songs) can express themselves. Some folks who are very practical or closed minded in their spirituality think of such talk as plain silly. (Of course, angels make perfect sense to many, but faeries are considered nonsense...strange!) The British press has called her a "fruit loop" in the past. I truly believe that such reactions cause reviewers to treat even her less controversial material severely and negatively. Tori is , in my estimation, simply too progressive and open-minded for some to handle.
3) They compare her work to the adolescent ideas found in the diary of a teen-age girl, and say she mostly appeals to the young and immature.
Jeffrey Lee Puckett, the critic in my local paper the Courier-Journal, has made this "accusation" in his savage evaluation of her music. He states in his concert review of the Louisville show on April 20, 1996:
"I don't like her. I wish I did. Really. I'd like to share in all of the emotion that her intense fans were tossing around like Frisbees. I'd like to find deep meaning in nonsense lyrics....The thing is, I'm not a female between the ages of 14 and 17, which seems to be the bulk of the Amos demographic. That's a very hormonal group that sees everything in shades of purple and blue...Eventually it registered in my thick male skull that Amos is a rock star for "girls" - her term - and that's a pretty important area for role models. The question is, why Tori and not Victoria Williams? Or Royal Trux's Jennifer Herrema? Or Helium's Mary Timony? At least they're more art than artifice."
Where does one begin to address this criticism? First of all, there is a slight whiff of sexism here, combined with the strong aroma of the depreciation of youth. Beware of those hormones in women, especially young women; they taint one's appreciation of art! While we're at it, let's use PMS as an excuse to keep women out of the workplace...
Okay, maybe I am getting carried away here. But the comment does leave a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, what is wrong with appealing to young women? They are just as important and human as the guys, and the implication that music that appeals to females is in some way inferior just sounds sexist to me. Tori IS an extremely positive role model and source of inspiration for young women. They find that they can identify with many of the feelings and shades of meaning that permeate her work. For example, Tori's courage in overcoming the experience of her rape has helped many other young women deal with their own violent experiences. They also understand how she was "Silent All These Years", and are learning about empowerment, independence, and how to find their own "fire" instead of getting it from the partner in their life, a theme that runs throughout Boys For Pele.
Tori certainly appeals to intelligent young women, but she also has a very dedicated male following as well. I am a 29 year old male! I have waited in line to by concert tickets with other older males. Many of the millions of home pages dedicated to the red-headed one are composed by male fans. The simplest of research would reveal that Tori has a wide range of admirers from both sexes. An article in a May issue of Time Out New York says that she has a following that includes, "gay men..recovering christians, teen punks, sexual abuse survivors, Internet geeks, British comic-book enthusiasts, and sentimental grannies". Mr. Jeffrey Puckett, simply because YOU do not like Tori's music, do not speak for all other guys, okay?
It is true that Tori, like other progressive artists, has a large base of younger fans. Some adults simply scratch their head in confusion at her work. To me, this is simply a reflection of our unimaginative and conformist adult society. Tori comments on this herself in Vox magazine in 1994:
"This is a very functional civilization that wakes up, takes a shit, goes to work, eats, comes home, maybe gets it once or twice a week (if they're really lucky), shits (if they're regular), and goes to bed again. Dull, press the eject."
Tori also comments on this in an article that appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester NY on August 29, 1996:
"They're not entrenched in trying to feed the babies, make ends meet...I'm turning 33 next week and a lot of my friends don't question things now. They're so busy with the day-to-day functionalism of every day life. I refuse to be domesticated, I refuse to become lethargic."
"I'm letting you know that I get far more interesting letters from 19-year-olds. Isn't that kind of sad that the people who are running the world aren't coming up with interesting questions?"
When people are young, they are not static. Their imaginations are fertile, and they are open to alternative visions. Sadly, this open door into the land of vision closes for many as they stumble into adulthood. Society digs it claws into their minds and turns them into clones, non-thinking machines, blind worshipers, or corporate head count. Many adults, as they criticize young teens for their unrealistic flights of fancy, live boring lives, saving for the rainy day that never materializes. Their lack of imagination and impulsiveness leads to non-action, and non-fulfillment. Many of the best ideas and philosophy come from young, untrapped minds. Young people are often the only people who have the time, imagination, and willingness to think that are vital ingredients in any recipe for Tori appreciation. Therefore, disparaging the fact that an artists attracts young people can be foolish.
Finally, in her music Tori shows a strong knowledge of mythology, psychology, and history. Only a well-read, and well-developed intellect could construct musical poetry of this depth. Her songs are not the ramblings of a confused young person, but demonstrate solid ideas and wisdom. The next section of this essay will elaborate on the sophisticated literary techniques that Tori uses in her work. Techniques that prove that any critic that says that Tori's music is immature is simply not paying attention or is plain stupid. Perhaps our critic Jeffrey needs to brush up on his knowledge of literature and history. Any young "girls" out there care to help this poor male out? :)
4) They claim that her lyrics are nonsense, impossible to interpret, or too damn cute for their own good.
I am beginning to lose track of how many times critics have insulted the line from Marianne, "Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo". I tend to lose patience here. It's called METAPHOR people. Look it up! You mean I have to THINK with this music...NO!
Seriously folks, Tori admits that her music is more about images and feelings than organized thought. These feelings should become very evident, even if the literal meaning of the lyrics do not register right away. Tori addressed this criticism herself in the UK biography Cornflake Girl:
"People play games when they've got you under the microscope and when they don't understand something I say or an experience that I've talked about, they jump on it and try to make it look silly or insane."
In a very Eastern twist, Tori writes from the gut and not from the head. She says something about Under The Pink in an article called "Holding Hands with Violence" by Laura Morgan that can also apply to Boys For Pele:
"Under The Pink is a place, it's an internal place. It's the inner world, the inner life. You have to listen from your stomach. To me it's all there. But you've got to be willing to put your moccasins on and walk down the road."
Tori also says in Performing Songwriter from 1994:
"Beyond the logical mind there is the tummy. And I really believe this, because we can over think everything. Hey, I'm not writing things for some genius that's sitting trying to criticize. I'm writing from the tummy, because that goes beyond what somebody else's concept of cool is."
At a 1995 appearance at UCLA, Tori stated:
"Don't let them tell you that the mind is greater than the heart. That is a trap. The mind is very tricky. I don't trust my mind. It's really good, but I don't trust it."
In the May/June 96 issue of B-Side magazine, Tori says the following after the interviewer calls Boys For Pele not very user friendly:
"It is about the heart. So to analyze it, you have to let yourself go. I still recommend a really good bottle of red. Get something good. It is a journey, this record, and when you can dull your brain a bit, you know...If you are detaching yourself from it and reading the lyrics, you will never arrive at what she is really saying. She's crawling on the floor to a phone that isn't ringing. So to understand her you have to remember when you did that. You have to let yourself go there."
In the article that appeared in the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper in Rochester, NY, Tori defends her metaphoric approach:
"If your work is really linear, that's not much to talk about...There's a lot of mythology in the work that I do. I'm referring to different characters. So, if you're aboard, there are different layers to look at. And I think a lot of kids have very busy minds."
In an article called 'TOURING WITH TORI' which appeared in the Baltimore Sun September 26, 1996, Tori talks about understanding Boys For Pele:
"Things are really breaking down right now. Emotionally, relationship-wise --- things that you thought would last forever aren't lasting forever. I said that the people that are going through that dark, on-their-knees descent will understand [this album], and hopefully, this will be a little [tool] that will help them to ascend and find parts of themselves that would give them strength. Parts that they were afraid, that I was afraid, to look at....my instincts say that quite a few of you are going through what I'm going through, which is trying to find your own power. And I have to trust that some will want to take the journey. Or some are already in the middle of the journey, and this would be like the glass of red wine --- which, as we all know, is just a necessity once in a while."
A fellow Tori devotee, Darcy Gray, emailed me in response to this essay, and shared with me some thoughts on Tori's lyrics and the literary techniques that exist in her work. He writes,
"I think a lot of the time, Tori's lyrics are based more on the sounds of the words (especially when sung) than the actual literal meaning. She also indulges in a lot of stream-of-consciousness style word associations that make sense only to her...I think the effect that she is trying to create is that of 'being inside the mind' of the song's narrator (which is not necessarily Tori herself...). So naturally, if you're trying to convey that sensation authentically, there will be a lot of strange associations and obscure references that you can't understand -- think of what would happen if someone could 'listen in' on your own mental process. All of this comes from James Joyce...I think Tori has a lot in common with Joyce: in addition to the stream-of-consciousness style, there's that love/hate obsession with Christianity, a desire to make poetry out of things that most people would consider vulgar (masturbation, etc.), a focus on a single critical moment of illumination (Joyce calls this "epiphany")....Tori uses some pretty sophisticated literary techniques, so it's not surprising that your average rock critic doesn't get it, especially not right away."
Another Toriphile, Dave Woodson, posted the following to the Precious Things mailing list in February 1998:
"I think the line that Tori crossed was to take a lot of the elements that were so prominent in earlier female artists, the independence, vulnerability, sexiness, agressiveness, poetic expression, joy, pain, and combine them into a single, complex whole, existing simultaneously and indivisibly, and without contradiction. Then she made it personal, by forging a bond with her audience far more intimate than anyone who had come before, in her lyrics, performances and her offstage accessibility. She removed the barriers between performer and audience to the point where it is difficult, listening to her music, to tell where the feelings Tori expresses in the song leave off, and the feelings it evokes in the listener begin. Ultimately, they are one and the same; the Tori experience is different for everyone, a collaboration between the two that changes depending on what you bring to the mix [a fact that completely stymies critics who complain that Tori's music is nonsense because they approach it empty-handed, and thus get nothing out of it having put nothing in]"
Tori's songs require work, repeat listens, complete attention, and an open mind and HEART willing to jump off a cliff into a pool of metaphor. If your intellect bullies you around, you may miss out. The very nature of her lyrics lead to a multitude of interpretations. Tori allows us to get what we want or need from her art. This allows her music to be very personal and inspirational to a diverse and large number of people in a surprisingly large number of situations. Even the same listener can, on repeat listenings, travel down a different path every time. This is one of the true strengths of her work. The critics who try to pin a song's meaning down and then complain that they can not are often using the wrong process to approach her compositions. That does not make them bad people, but they had better realize that it doesn't make Tori a bad artist!
Ultimately, Tori is aware of the dangers posed by her latest work. In an article in Diva in Feb/Mar 1996, she says:
"It has crossed my mind maybe that the public doesn't want my ultimate. But I can't censor or contrive. I think I'm lucky to have skated through under the guise of pop musician. I'm really a classical musician. If i get found out now, if the whistle is blown...maybe that's not such a bad thing."
And Tori IS too damn cute for her own good! :)
5) Some women, who identify themselves as feminist, are offended by some of Tori's imagery in her photos, or by the way she sensually plays the piano in concert. These women claim that Tori is making herself an object, and contributing to negative stereotypes about women.
First, there are many women who are not offended at all by her style or imagery.
Second, calling Tori damaging to women reveals a deep misunderstanding of her music. Tori is about empowerment. Boys For Pele documents a women's search for her own fire after a long dependence on the males around her. Her song 'God' is a biting criticism of patriarchal religion and a purely male God. Take To The Sky is a song that COULD be interpreted as an indictment of the powers of the patriarchy, or "male only rule". Finally, Tori says that she and her primary photographer Cindy Palmano are solely responsible for the imagery you see in her photos, like that infamous piglet photo in BFP. Says Tori,
"I'm not a victim to marketing. Don't kid yourself: there's no picture that goes out that I can't live with.... I work with Cindy Palmano, who's an amazing photographer; I want to portray certain things visually, and I do."
In summary, Tori is a strong, independent woman, seeking to find her own voice and strength, without depending on a man for that "fire". She trashes patriarchal social customs, is in control of her marketing image, and writes and produces all her songs on BFP. Her music talks about stripping away self-deception and getting to the truth, where you will find freedom. Finally, she has done a tremendous amount of work to help those recovering from abuse or rape. Sounds like a pro-woman individual to me.
I will allow Tori's own frequent commentary on this finish the topic.
From Women, Sex, and Rock 'N' Roll In Their Own Words by Liz Evans:
"These women were supposedly left wing feminists, saying they were really offended by the way I was playing because I was making myself an object. But I didn't see myself as an object, this what how I felt good playing. And I still do. Not only do I support myself physically, but it is a very passionate thing. Again, it's about sexuality beyond the penis and vagina, so if anyone wants to see it as a shot in Penthouse, then that's their concept, and if I see it as my expression of my sexuality, then that's what it is for me. It's really between me, my piano, the earth and my soul, and how I'm just kind of in this line of energy that moving down from the top, through me, into the earth....And you know what, the only place I've never felt guilty or shameful is when I've been playing...
Some of these women become fascists, because they're saying if I don't do certain things that they deem appropriate then I'm not a strong independent woman. BULLSHIT. Whether it's the Concerned Mothers of America or the left-wing feminists who have to try and censor things and try and attack you. To me it's fascist either way."
From the September 1996 issue of Curve Magazine. Tori is responding directly to the criticism that one can not fight the patriarchy in a tube top (which she wore in some photos published in 1996 in Spin Magazine):
"This whole p.c. thing has to go down the toilet. This person should let us all in on the dress code necessary to fight the patriarchy, and isn't it interesting how patriarchal that statement is. If I think I need a cute little heel, some blush and a good lip line then that's what I need that day."
From Hot Press magazine in 1994:
"In the states I'm presented as a sex object..and in Britain I'm 'weird'. Either description is a copout and an easy way of avoiding having to face what I'm really talking about in my songs..."
From the German publication Vision - Crossover in 1992:
"I am not offensive, that's just passion. I want to show my power. Many woman think that, when they are not intelligent or show their passion, they are considered to be bitches. And to justify themselves, they sit there, with dry, closed legs and condemn me for that. I have a conscience, a heart, a spirit, but also my sex. I am a sexual, emotional being. When you describe that appearance with one word, I would consider confrontation the right word. The people should be responsible to their feelings when they leave the concert, because what they feel and think afterwards is not my feeling, it is their feeling"
In Lisa Robinson's Backstage Pass on the IGuide web site in 1996:
"Some of my harshest critics have been women. A lot of times when you start getting in touch with your sexuality, 'feminist' women feel like you sold out on the cause. I think a lot of 'feminists' are really afraid to be vulnerable, to get in touch with that part of themselves. We have cut ourselves off from that. To feel passionate, vulnerable, open, exposed -- just because you're a passionate woman and in touch with that doesn't mean you're an object.
There aren't enough women supporting other women to be who they are. I have a problem with the judgment that women have over other women, and the incredible jealousy and competitiveness."
6) They dislike Tori's music because they say it is too depressing.
A review of Tori's show in Nashville in April 1996 demonstrates this sentiment. It was titled A DARK AND GLOOMY NIGHT ON STAGE WITH TORI AMOS and was written by local critic Tom Roland. He ends the article with this bit of writing:
"But Amos' music-to-slash-your-wrists-by still dominated the show. One can almost hear a pre-concert conversation among 20-somethings: "You're goin' to Tori Amos? Cool. Have a depressing time."
Life has a dark side to it that overshadows us more than we care to admit. Tori faces her demons, and has tea with them. There can be very sad and painful currents in her music. Sometimes people find that brutal honesty too shocking. They are unwilling to look at themselves that closely.
However, I also refer to Tori as a healer. Her music does much to help me, or rather it gives me the inspiration and tools I need to heal myself.
Tori says in an interview for the internet by Michael Pearce:
"I think there's so much emphasis on pushing things away, instead of pulling them out of the closet. A lot of times I just notice that people try to hide their dirt for as long as possible. Monsters, dirt, whatever you want to call it, the stuff that you censor and that you don't really want to share with people. I think you can only do that for so long before you start losing your mind. I'm finding a lot of freedom right now in just looking at things that I really feel. We're not encouraged to do that, and I think that's what makes people sick inside of themselves...you're okay if you have monsters."
There is sorrow and a little crawling around in her music, but there is also hope, sweetness, love, passion, and fire. There is a desire to end suffering and avoid staying a victim. That is why her devotees are so intensely into what she does. This is not always depressing. It can be beautiful and hopeful instead.
I'll let a quote from Hot Press magazine and a lyric from her song Little Earthquakes end this article:
"I'd be quite happy, as an artist, if I knew that a verse, even a line in one of my songs could do for people what 'Thelma and Louise' did for me, liberate them in some way, particularly from a fear of the darker side of their own nature."
"Give me life, give me pain, give me myself again..."
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