173 · 21 May 98
Tori Amos: from the choirgirl hotel
7:44pm, first repetition.
I should have kept track of how many times I've listened to this album already, even before sitting down to spend the whole night with it, tonight. It came out on May 5th, and it's the evening of the 20th as I begin this, and I've played it once every day at work, twice if my officemate didn't notice and ask me not to, and six times on his birthday (which would have been cruel of me had he not taken the day off), plus either once or twice at home each weekday, two or three times a day on weekends, and two more times all the way through, bit by bit, in the car. So what's that, forty or fifty times? Might as well be half a dozen, for how far I am from feeling like I've exhausted it. It ends, and I start it again. It ends, and I start it again. It is playing in my mind even when the air is still. I have been living in increments of fifty-four minutes, and I strongly suspect the cycles of my heart-rate look like diagrams of the album's tempo-changes by now. Do you know what this feels like, Tori? So much of your life is condensed into these songs, but do you know what it feels like to live it over and over, to have your compressed life tiled over a listener's uncompressed one, like Escher's salamanders purring and peering curiously at you down endless staircases? These songs are your children, but I'm not sure you realize, as I suppose mothers never do, the destruction they wreak when they barge in, all at once, to pay a visit without you. I love them fiercely, too, as if they were my own, but Tori, they break things, and afterwards I often can't remember if the fragments were parts of a treasure or a ceramic albatross. They rearrange the walls of my house, making rooms out of hallways, secret passageways out of verandas, ballrooms out of closets, and then they disappear and I get lost trying to figure out where the kitchen has gone. They leave every inanimate object I own breathless and inconsolable, pleading in whispery voices for me to promise they'll be back again soon. I want to put the rest of my life on hold and just sit, watching them play, and the fact that I can't makes me question how I live. As long as this record plays, a part of me feels like I've been exempted from having to accomplish anything of my own in this existence. Only listen; every answer is in there somewhere.
8:38pm, second repetition.
Part of the point of listening to this record over and over was to understand it. And understanding must have been in there, between new wonder and emotional integration, but I obviously passed by it too quickly, and now I doubt I'll ever find my way back. I can't exactly recall why I wanted to. There's no need to construct an argument to take us from one of these songs to the next; the CD player seems quite able to make the transitions without our interference or help. In one of my favorite books, Daniel Keys Moran's The Long Run, a musician named Mahliya Kutura, in the year 2069, makes an album called, simply enough, Music to Move To, that is both the narrator's private soundtrack and the world's public one. The verses of Kutura's that Moran includes in the book, perhaps inevitably, haven't the ring of words that would really shake the world the way he says they did, but I just take them as placeholders. In the kinds of futures I dream of, history and music are inextricable, and perhaps my fondest fantasy entails precisely this convergence of the private and the public, the idea that one of the ecstasies that periodically well up in me might spread out to the rest of the world, or vice versa. It's almost happened, a few times: Kurt, but it was never my pain he was howling from; Alanis, but she is a champion, not a prophet. But now that you're playing arenas, maybe it's you. I don't know what all those other people hear in your songs, but that's when it occurs to me that the problem with Kutura's lyrics is not that they aren't strong enough, it's that they aren't mysterious enough. I can believe they were popular, because plenty of complete nonsense has been popular, but they are too flimsy and too thin for lives to accrete around them. Your songs have the quality Katura's needed, a violently inexplicable internal logic that can't be meaningfully criticized from outside. Actually, it isn't that it's impossible to explain the resonance of lines like "How many fates turn around in the overtime?", "Lollipop Gestapo" and "I'm not Persephone, / She's in New York somewhere, / Checking her accounts" in non-Tori English, it's that there's no point to it. It's like standing on the diving board, reciting to the swimmers the equations for why they feel simultaneously frozen and electrified in the water. The people who aren't in the pool don't know why the situation merits analysis, and the ones in the pool know that if your symbols added up to the same thing they're feeling, you'd have jumped in with them a long time ago. The songs that seem to me to have the most power to change the world are not the ones that everybody has to understand the same way, they're the ones that people want to share, not analyze. Maybe you can get people to shut up and pulse in sync.
9:32pm, third repetition.
"Is it really that good?", someone once asked me, after I told them that Little Earthquakes was my favorite album of 1992. I took the question as rhetorical, since I couldn't see how it made sense any other way, but I have a habit of answering rhetorical questions, so I said, without having thought much about what I meant by it, "It changed my life." "It did?", he said, puzzled. And while I knew what I said was true, it was hard to explain how. For a while I stopped trying, even, and took to disclaiming the profession as less a reflection of the album's extra-musical power than my way of expressing how integral music is in my life, so that changes in the fabric of my musical tastes constitute substantive changes in my life. But I've realized, at length, that it was more than that. I remember watching your Little Earthquakes video for the first time, and squirming at the interview segments, at the way you talked about your songs like people. I kept expecting the camera to pull back a couple feet to reveal that your left hand, just out of sight, was absently stroking the mane of a sad-eyed unicorn. You were a pagan (or whatever the word is for someone that rubs against ideas the way Pan rubs against trees), and I was a scientist, when we dressed up for True-Selves Halloween. But four albums later, I discover that you don't seem crazy to me any more, that a whole spectrum of ideas doesn't sound crazy to me any more. How much of that is my giving up bits of science, and how much of it is empirical observation that treating ideas like creatures often helps you anticipate their courses better? You have added a chapter to my personal philosophy, a chapter that has pieces to do with gender identity, and divinity, but more to do with where you pretend the center of the universe is. I understand technology differently, because of you; I understand relationships and people and personal struggles and the purpose and utility of pain, understand architecture and geometry, understand gestures and taboos, clothing and anger, breath and defiance, all differently because, directly or indirectly, of you.
10:26pm, fourth repetition.
I've said before that your albums paralleled Kate Bush's. I know you love Kate, so I hope you understand that I intended no insult by the comparison. But if Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink seemed like clear descendants of The Kick Inside and Lionheart, and Boys for Pele like Never For Ever edging towards The Dreaming, the lines have now radically diverged. The schedule had you making either The Dreaming or Hounds of Love this time, but you managed, it seems to me, to swoop through the remainder of Kate's catalog all at once, coming out with an album that has the coherence and drama of Hounds of Love, but the stylistic variety of The Red Shoes. This isn't a criticism of Kate, either, nor would you have heard any complaints from me if you'd kept walking in her footsteps until you caught up to her and got a chance to ask her some important questions, but I'm thrilled to be surprised by this turn. It takes my breath away that I no longer have any idea where you will go from here. Precipices always have the most spectacular views, and while I have the feeling, listening to The Red Shoes, that Kate is standing on one, in a long coat, contemplating either her own mortality or all of ours, you seem to be hurtling towards yours like it's one of Evel Knievel's jump ramps, and I'm suddenly painfully aware of how long I've gone without re-evaluating the idea that this cliff was where the world ends.
11:20pm, fifth repetition.
And god, how terrifyingly beautiful the view is from here. I don't know if these soaring choruses and unearthly harmonies are easy for you or hard, if you struggle with them or feel guilty about playing such obvious cards, but either way, thank you. The pealing rounds in "Spark", the pattering marimba on "Cruel", the supple strings on "Jackie's Strength" and "iieee", the diffident cymbal tick and evasive piano in "Liquid Diamonds", the cathartic (and "Heart of Gold"-like; your nod to Neil Young, yes?) squall of "She's Your Cocaine", the muted poise of "Northern Lad", the synthesizer turbulence of "Hotel", the wheezy Kurzweil, languid pedal-guitar and measured swagger of "Playboy Mommy", and the abstract contours of "Pandora's Aquarium" -- all these things make some gland in my neck contract, like I'm about to either cry, faint, or fire a bolt of pure Good out of my chest like Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element. It might have been much easier to make an uglier album, to use your studio toys to make a soulless dance record like all those remixes you let people do last time, or to cultivate the abrasive sides of these songs' personalities (following Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galás), or just to retreat into yourself (like Kate), so I want you to know how glad I am you didn't. Given how often this record makes me want to take to the streets, I think it's fortunate for everyone that there are just as many moments that make me want to do nothing but shut my eyes and stand still, swaying drunkenly, in the middle of my own living room.
12:15am, sixth repetition.
And if Kate struck a blow for women's dignity when she recovered Elton John's "Candle in the Wind", I guess you know that you've now written a song for Jacqueline Onassis like Elton's for Marilyn (hastily re-edited for Diana). And you probably know, because I expect you set out to make it this way, how different your song is from his, and how hard it would be for anybody to invert yours like Kate did his. "Candle in the Wind" is part of the process that imprisoned Marilyn (or Diana) in her own image, a song sung from the audience, sentimental idolatry as alienating and unresponsive as the constant mandible click of camera shutters. It would have been easy to pin Jackie up in the same sort of display case. She was an image, too, after all. But where Elton's song was born of bedroom hours tracing the curves on a poster, yours is about extricating Jackie from the glossy paper, giving her new life by sharing with her some of yours. You need her help, which is a much greater kindness than Elton's eulogy. You drag her into your world, and in a moment of inspired reversal, even show her the view from the other end, the voyeur's life of lunchbox heroes and promising yourself to myths. "Candle in the Wind" is a victim's lament; "Jackie's Strength" is an anthem of gratitude. Somewhere she nods, and tells you that you have her strength already, that your prayer was answered long before it ever reached her.
1:09am, seventh repetition.
At the same time, though, Tori, you must know some of the jaws you are sticking your head into. People will leaven their compliments with insults, as if a sentence that doesn't end up neutral is somehow malformed. They will praise you for your new electronic toys and your new bandmates as cover for saying your "girl with a piano" thing was played out (but when does anybody ever say someone's "boy with a guitar" thing is played out?), and they'll claim "I guess you go too far / When pianos try to be guitars" is an apology, not your way of stalking the borders of their tiny musical worlds, and of understanding how we try desperately (and frequently successfully) to make parts of ourselves perform functions they aren't officially capable of. They will pick on the sexual transparency of the lyrics of "Raspberry Swirl", never noticing that the song amounts to an ebullient rejoinder to "Smack My Bitch Up", and as a dance epic demands a mantra, not a talmudic text. They won't read the lyrics to see where you pretend you're singing "alive below the waste", not "alive below the waist". They'll list the other people that play on this album (conveniently forgetting that it was only ever the tours and some of the b-sides you did entirely by yourself), and miss that you've turned them into as effortless an extension of yourself as your own piano keys. They'll notice the way the other instruments go away for "Black-Dove (January)", but won't listen closely enough to hear how the ambience itself changes, the walls and microphones all gathering around you like the edges of the universe rushing in to hear you tell them a story. They'll miss at least half of your eerie lyrical ambiguities (enunciation in music, like realism in painting, is often cruelly overrated), like "mama laid me" and "my molasses" that both sound like "marmalade", "Beene's got some pot" like "Being in Gadsen Park", and "backstab" for "backstage". They'll perk up at the totally harmless "fucking", in "Northern Lad", oblivious to the fact that the entire chorus turns on an explicit sexual detail. They will recount the story of your miscarriage and pull all the lines about babies out of "Spark" and "Playboy Mommy", like they retold the story of your rape every time they mentioned "Me and a Gun", and they will miss, entirely, that one of the things "Me and a Gun" did for you was lift you above the experience, and by extension above all such experiences, so that your songs, at least, if not your life, can now overcome a miscarriage without everything else having to stop. They'll flip impatiently through the xerograph booklet-photos, missing some of the most unsettling and expressive self-portraits I've ever seen, like you're the answer die floating up out of the inky water of a Magic 8-Ball, delivering the inscrutable and ambiguous verdict most questions of destiny really demand. They won't have the patience or the self-possession to give themselves over to the tangled logic of your songs, either musically or lyrically, and so they'll never find out that the twists your songs go through are not cubist ballet, they are the pathways of the invisible mazes you traverse to reach hidden dimensions. They never understood that Confucius does his crossword with a pen not because he doesn't make mistakes, but because his mistakes are the most precious thing he can think to fill the squares with. But just let them go. They are in a hurry, and the less we delay them, the sooner they'll quit complaining and depart.
2:03am, eighth repetition.
The thing they're surest not to get, and perhaps the thing that summarizes this album, and your world, most succinctly for me, is your Middle-Earth-esque map of it, on the frontispiece of the booklet. I can't quite decide whether the essential brilliance of the map is how much of your private realm it reveals or how much of it becomes even more impenetrable as I study what ought to be an explanation. I can easily imagine the outline of a long story about how the "Oh Jeez" Tower comes to stand where Rivendell ought to be, for example, the dream-logic of locating a scooter-rental stand in the vacant lot in back of Sauron's stronghold is unassailable, and I love the fact that you've replaced the useless Iron Hills with something that looks suspiciously like Eeyore's House, but the motivation for peopling Shelob's lair with "Ballerinas that just wander around endlessly shoeless" eludes me, and the outpost you've established in Isengard's spot I can't even read ("She-Arms Trading"? "She-Armatrading"?). But the point is that your albums have always had the character, for me, of ancient maps, made before aerial photography and proper surveying methodology, so that they are as much narratives of their terrain as measurements of it, and it's rarely clear, even when you're holding the map in your hand, whether it describes the country you're walking through or some other place altogether. "Is that my life you're charting, too?" I ask myself, over and over again, as I make my way through your songs. And if it is, where is the dot for "You Are Here", and which way is North? And if I make it back to Pudding Dungeon, at the end of my long quest, will I find Mr. Ed's Cadillac up on blocks in the front yard?
2:57am, ninth repetition.
And so, in the end, although I always comb through art that affects me deeply looking for stray answers, you have done something even better for me, which is to suggest some new questions. Maybe these are my problems, not the familiar ones I've been working on for so long; that would explain why I've so rarely felt much sense of progress. I've been relying on too much logic, and not enough instinct. Too much reserve, and not enough immersion. "I learn what black magic can do", you say, and to my chagrin I realize I don't know a single spell. And yes, some of these songs are nominally about women, but maybe the segregation of problems by gender is part of the problem, and if Dar Williams and Jane Siberry can do "When I Was a Boy", then I should be able to draw on a female self. I rarely phrase my problems in sexual terms, but perhaps it would help. Lip gloss seems like an unlikely panacea, but again, how would I know?
3:51am, last time before sleep.
I don't want to let you go, don't want to resign myself to a stretch of hours away from this record, but I am starting to fade. Are you still with me? Were you ever with me? To be honest, I don't know how you could possibly deal with all of this. The emotions involved are far too intense for real people. How could I ever say all this to you, in person, and how could you listen to it? These are not compliments, they are religious transport, where religion is the process of stripping the mortal component out of human works. It is not you I'm losing myself in, it is the immortal part of you, for which you are only a vessel. Trying to have a conversation about it, in tired human voices, backstage after a concert, would be like waiting for the chimneys of Paris to speak their gratitude to the turrets of the liberating tanks. I would fight for you; I don't know if you can understand that, and I don't know why you'd want to. I am fighting for you, every muscle clenched, as I try to hold myself still in one of the postures from which I see the world through your eyes, so I can understand which parts of it are wrong to you. There is kinship, when you feel like someone is fighting your fight with you, and there is sympathy, when you think you understand the passions of a fight you don't share, and there is empathy, when you feel them, but this is none of those, this is conversion, when it stops mattering how your own convictions relate, or even if you had any. Surely this devotion wasn't what you were ever after. Surely nobody could ever want to be transfixed by such rapture. I believe things about you that you can't afford to believe about yourself, or you would disappear into the air, unable to hold your own cells close to each other any more. So I write you a letter you can't read, on behalf of all the starving souls that gather at your gates, and the gates in your mind, and keep your husband awake at night twice. Ignore us, we are lost causes. Pay no mind; live your life. We haven't the power to even touch you, to even see you. We lie down where you've been, curled up against ghosts of you for warmth. Let us alone, we mean you no harm. All we want is to hear your voice. In our secret lives we dissolve into the sound of it. Sing. I am privileged to be alive at the right time to listen. I am privileged to watch your songs go by, as they pass on their way to wind themselves around the heart of the world, lending it the strength, as periodically somebody must, to beat.