Where Would Music Be Without Tori Amos?

Amos pushed the envelope for musical innovation and confessional lyrics. Why didn’t we notice?

Frank Micelotta / Getty

For a certain variety of ’90s-raised, formerly goth-dabbling nerd-woman, Taylor Swift’s rendition of her Red ballad “All Too Well” at this year’s Grammys was a strikingly weird experience. As I watched the much praised performance, I kept feeling a twinge of déjà vu: The piercing stare into the camera. The casual but sassy hair flip/side-eye combination. The look-at-me-no-don’t-look-at-me games she was playing, delicately inclining her face away lest we witness a moment too intimate for intrusion, then flipping over-the-shoulder glances at people in the seats. And then she started in with the headbanging. And it hit me: Tori Amos. The Taylor Swift performance everyone is talking about is Taylor Swift imitating Tori Amos.

I shouldn’t have been surprised: Everywhere you look, people are stepping into the territory that Amos carved out. That flaming grand piano bit Gaga did at the AMAs a few years back? That’s a Tori thing. (And so was trapping the piano in a transparent box.) Joanna Newsom records nine-minute free-form orchestral jams about convoluted personal mythology on an archaic classical instrument? Hey, I liked “Yes, Anastasia” too. St. Vincent’s coupling of intensely pretty vocals and lush orchestral landscapes with harsh guitar dissonance? See From the Choirgirl Hotel.

The list goes on, and the influence isn’t confined to ladies. Try to subtract Tori Amos from Antony & the Johnsons, for example, and you’ll be surprised how much you lose. A couple years ago, when asked point-blank whether she thought she got too little credit for influencing the direction of music, Amos responded with good-natured resignation: “All I know is that there are a lot more piano players than there were in 1992.”

Not all of the acts I’ve listed above are necessarily Amos fans. But they don’t need to like Amos to owe their careers to her. By throwing out so many hitherto-unheard-of mutations of pop music, she effectively taught audiences how to hear Joanna Newsom’s odd, alternate-universe fairy tales, or Swift’s defiantly personal, everything-but-his-phone-number lyrics, before they happened.

Tori Amos in concert, 1998. Frank Micelotta / Getty

Laying out a path this broad, however, required Amos to take a startling amount of personal and professional risks — the kind of risks that an artist who wants to maintain a consistent fan base, let alone consistent critical approval or Swift-level sales, can scarcely afford. That risk-taking has resulted in both uniquely great albums and some shockingly bad ones. Which may be why, these days, we scarcely talk about Amos. And, when we do, it’s usually to mock her: Sean O’Neal at The A.V. Club, for example, has dubbed her a “walking, talking Tarot card” and a “singing incense stick,” ultimately turning the adjective “Tori-Amos-y” into its own insult, inviting comments on the level of “I’d bang that back in 1995” and “she is a hero of The Internet’s Greatest Greasy Lesbians.”

If it’s easy to pick up traces of Amos in the artists that came after her, it’s remarkably difficult to pin down what kind of music she actually makes. In the early ’90s, her raw approach and uncomfortable subjects — masturbation, menstruation, suicide, sexual assault — got her pegged as “alternative rock.” But her operatic, melodramatically earnest vocal delivery is more Whitney Houston than Kim Gordon, and she started her career in full-on corporate pop, submitting songs for consideration to Cher. Tori has clear influences of her own — Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, and the Cocteau Twins. And while Taylor Swift might spend her early twenties doing obvious Tori Amos impressions, it’s only fair to note that Tori Amos spent her twenties doing obvious impressions of Kate Bush — albeit blurred through a heavy filter of her own distinctive lyrical strangeness.

It’d be possible to peg Amos as a writer of pretty, sentimental ballads. But even her Celine Dion-esque work tends to warp into weird structures, switch genres abruptly, or bait a conventional torch-song hook with explicit information about the narrator’s vaginal dryness. Her songs are littered with distorted quotes: “Hey Jupiter” stops in mid-heartbreak, gathers itself, and launches into the coda of “Purple Rain”; “Spark” takes chunks of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and purees them into a mix of shifting time signatures and sparkly guitar-pedal effects. “Blood Roses” sounds like a Bach harpsichord concerto, as played by a woman who just dumped your clothes onto the lawn and set them on fire.

And then there’s the genuinely weird material: “Datura” is a spoken-word chant over a piano riff played in a jagged, asymmetric time signature that no human being has used before or since. It’s punctuated with chopped-up wailing and bits where the piano is distorted through a guitar amp, and that’s before it turns into an entirely different song, which sounds like slowly freezing to death in space whilst picking up radio transmissions from an elven funeral ceremony. So, you know. Regular Tori Amos stuff.

There have been notable misfires — 2005’s The Beekeeper is as bland and tacky as pink Franzia box wine — but it all comes down to the fact that Tori Amos is either great or terrible. She’s always operating so far out on a limb that she risks breaking it, crashing down into unlistenable self-indulgence. But when her dangerous choices pay off, it’s uniquely thrilling: 1996’s Boys for Pele is an 18-song concept album about traveling to hell to get over a breakup, scored to harpsichord, harmonium, and brass band. On paper, it sounds like something from Tim Burton’s dream journal, but somehow it’s fantastic, perhaps her best work to date.

When men display Amos’ brand of unpredictable, reckless ambition, we call them geniuses. Think of Jack White, or how very strange Radiohead’s Kid A sounded when it was first released but how enthusiastically that strangeness was greeted. Look outside of music, too, at how we adore the formal experimentation and/or self-indulgence of David Foster Wallace, or Charlie Kaufman, or Community creator Dan Harmon. Spike Jonze just got an Oscar for writing about his imaginary girlfriend! For a guy, doing strange things with form and pulling up bizarre visions from the core of his own personal torment is proof that he’s a capital-A Artist. But we scarcely mention it when we talk (or don’t talk) about Amos.

I hate to pull a “because the patriarchy” here, but I can think of no other reason why so many people have worked, so hard, to avoid engaging with her work — or why they so often do it by way of trivializing Amos herself. When a woman claims the freedom to experiment that’s necessary to approach “genius” territory — the freedom to disregard or flaunt expectations, to alienate people, to fall flat on her face, to produce something that it might take more than one or two casual listens to penetrate — she’s grabbing at a traditionally male prerogative. When that happens, rather than admitting that a woman might intentionally release unusual work because she’s got some new ideas, most of us decide that she’s letting weird stuff leak out by accident, instead of applauding her sense of purpose.

Tori Amos at Madison Square Garden, 2007. Amy Sussman / Getty

Even in her ’90s heyday, most press coverage treated Amos as a freak rather than a talent. “Of course, the real news about Tori Amos is that she’s genuine article, platinum-plated, 100 percent crazy,” ran the opening sentence of one early profile. She was written as Tori Amos the Whacked-Out Star Child: The woman who would divulge more about her miscarriage in a 15-minute phone interview than some close friends would tell you in a year, one who once informed a Rolling Stone reporter, to his face, that if he didn’t believe in fairies, he was “no different from Hitler, as far as I’m concerned.”

In turn, some of Amos’ most popularly beloved albums have been greeted with shocking amounts of condescension, and not all those who dismissed her were men. In Rolling Stone, Evelyn McDonnell spent a large chunk of her Boys for Pele review railing against Amos’ personality (her “war on religion,” her “mushy New Age feministspeak”) before finally getting to the music itself, which it seemed the critic might not have actually listened to. About an album where Amos shrieks about slit throats and cannibalism as a way of expressing her sexual discontent, devotes songs to Satan and strychnine, and at one point just plain instructs a man to kill himself like she’s Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, Rolling Stone’s conclusion was that Amos “doesn’t seem to know how to rage.” McDonnell may be a lady, but her obvious discomfort with “feministspeak” and Amos’ girlish, high-femme musical presentation is precisely the kind of self-defeating viciousness women are trained to aim at one another, in order to vouch for exceptionalist “cool girl” status within a male-dominated culture. (Like, say, the culture of music writing.)

For all its ambition, it’s only to be expected that some critics would find Boys for Pele “mystifying.” But Amos’ 1994 album Under the Pink, the one with some of her most accessible, mainstream pop hits, got the same treatment: In Entertainment Weekly, Greg Sandow posited that Amos might be “the most annoyingly precious artist who ever lived … screeching off into the most light-headed regions of outer space,” before arguing that she might not be “focused on anything deep enough to support her exhausting intensity.” (So, she’s too intense, but doesn’t know how to sound angry? OK!) In their review of 1998’s Choirgirl Hotel, a relatively straight-ahead techno/rock album, The A.V. Club sounded happily surprised that Amos wasn’t “being, well, laughed at” more. (Maybe The A.V. Club wasn’t actually reading her reviews?)

Tori Amos at Radio City Music Hall, 2009. Astrid Staqwiarz / Getty

Yes, Tori Amos believes some very weird things. But she also believes lots of sensible ones: For the most part, all the fairy talk was ornamentation on points about fundamentalism being oppressive, women and queer people being shamed for their sexuality, and the value of emotional honesty. Before Tumblr made her brand of confessional, confrontational feminism commonplace, it was all too easy to use that, too, as evidence that Amos was “crazy.”

Amos is also a woman who’s aged in public, while maintaining the audacity to seek out mainstream attention. In her 2005 autobiography, Piece by Piece, Amos spoke about the fact that her first label’s plan for dealing with disputes was to bury her until she was “too old” to get signed again. These days, people often refer to her in the past tense.

2014’s music industry is increasingly dependent on discovery algorithms and fresh talent. In a world where 12-year-old girls are put into sessions with adult songwriters so that they can launch quick-burning pop careers before they’re old enough to drive, there’s not a well-beaten path for fiftysomething women to walk, as they sing about about raising teenage children or trying to keep a 16-year marriage intact. The best they can hope for is to be legacy artists, accepted because of the importance of their early work; Stevie Nicks can release all the new albums she wants, but no matter how much we love her, we’re always going to define her as the lady who sang “Rhiannon.” But all of today’s big-name teenagers and twentysomethings will (one hopes) hit 50 someday. Many of them will probably want to release music, and to have that music treated as current and relevant. If they’re able to do so, that may be one more thing they owe to Tori Amos.

Because she’s still working. She didn’t quietly disappear and wait to become a historical figure; she’s never stopped experimenting. Last fall, she debuted a well-reviewed musical, The Light Princess, and she has an album coming out in May, which she will tour behind. I will buy that album, because I’m certain it will be something new.

For more than two decades, Tori Amos has been a relentless innovator, paving the way for pop that sounds like Grimes’ reverb-heavy alien dreamscapes or Fiona Apple’s stripped-down, borderline ugly Idler Wheel. (Apple is probably the easiest artist to compare to Amos — they have shared an instrument, similar traumas and, “crazy lady” reputations, and even worked with the same drummer for many years — but she’s also the one that Amos has most enthusiastically endorsed on her own merits.) Amos proved that the seemingly basic equation of “girl + piano = ballad” could produce theatrical, genre-blending camp like “Edge of Glory,” or the small-scale intimacy of Natasha Khan singing to the moon. And sometimes, Joanna Newsom would just show up in a Renaissance Faire outfit and sing about melting bears and their cruelly patriarchal monkey overlords for 10 minutes straight, and that was OK too. For just about anyone who sits down at a keyboard — and, in particular, any woman who’s essaying the dangerous task of selling her inner life to music — it’s hard to avoid stepping into Tori Amos’ shadow.

If there’s one Amos song that I hope Taylor Swift listens to, it’s “Curtain Call.” It was written after Amos’ second label dropped her, and tackles what it’s like to be the It girl of 20 years ago. The song is bleak and heartbreaking, a rare moment in which Amos seems to profoundly doubt herself. Even as she struggles to provide a triumphant conclusion about music being its own reward — “This is not business / It’s more like spiritual,” she sings — she stops short, unable to buy it: “Is that what it is?” And then she’s back on a chorus about how hard she worked, and how much she accomplished, and how everyone’s telling her to disappear anyway.

Note: The context of a quote from The A.V. Club’s review of From the Choirgirl Hotel has been clarified. (h/t @anniezaleski)

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