by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 5, 2020


It's always fascinating when an artist allows the audience a glimpse behind the curtain — from how they engage with the creative process and the evolution of their aesthetic approaches; to inspiration and where it comes from, and how it imbues their work with substance and meaning. Essentially, this is the manifesto behind Tori Amos' new book "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage."

A singular artist, Amos possesses a keen sense of self-awareness, once humorously acknowledging, "I know I'm an acquired taste — I'm anchovies. And not everybody wants those hairy little things."

In these pages, Amos breaks down select original songs, in some cases elaborating on highly complex and nuanced references that have often led casual listeners to describe her work as quirky. In the past, she's been reluctant to divulge specifics meanings of her songs, often launching into extended monologues that suggest possible interpretations of a given lyric. Just as it is with David Bowie's work, it becomes pertinent to surrender faulty ideas that meaning can only be made by the artist — that we can only relate to a song if its intended message parallels our experience. Only then might we find mutual and common verisimilitudes in Amos' work, namely in the intertwining of the personal and political, a notion she has reiterated from the outset of her career.

Amos first emerged in the late 1980s fronting the band Y Kant Tori Read, releasing one album and a few videos that, more or less, adhered to the hair-sprayed, leather-clad, money-making corporate rock of the day. But such descriptions essentialize a noble failure of an album where Amos — unlike many of her corporate rock peers at the time, who were saddled with shlock by professional songwriters — wrote or co-wrote each of the band's songs. Hardly her finest work, it suggested a potential she would very soon exceed. What followed was an atypical artistic leap forward: Her 1991 landmark debut solo album "Little Earthquakes."

Instead of repeating herself, over the course of fifteen albums (and revealing in this book that her sixteenth will arrive by the end of 2020), Amos has fearlessly explored a wide, piano-centered musical terrain based in rock and classical music, augmented by elements of jazz, blues, gospel, electronic, folk, and world music. In these pages, however, Amos' aesthetic discussions elaborate on the intersection of the personal, social, and political in her work's messaging.

Repurposing songs in concert allows their meanings to shift, reflect, and respond to current socio-political conditions of the world. Amos elaborates on her setlists, which are renowned for drastically changing from one night to the next. In all her years touring, no Tori Amos concert has ever been identically replicated (Pearl Jam might be Amos' only peers to do the same thing). Song selections for a show are based on pre-soundcheck conversations with fans at meet-and-greets, reading letters passed to her backstage prior to a show, and gauging the "frequency" (a common term in Tori's rhetoric) of "what is going on that matters to the people in that city that day." The setlist then serves as a reference for "historical context and not a whitewashed past."

What's astounding isn't just that she writes her setlist only an hour and a half before showtime, but that she will often make changes as she's taking the stage, communicating those changes with her longtime crew via headset. This reflects the generosity with which she has treated her fans, providing a specifically tailored experience never to be repeated exactly again. It also provokes a sense of awe at how such an approach would only strengthen Amos' musicianship.

Amos is also one of the more prolific artists of our day, which is why her setlists can be switched-up so easily. Discussions often return to how questions, themes, and concepts in her new works are informed by listening to peoples' stories and engaging in active research prior to songwriting. Regarding the private act of composing, she describes herself as a "co-creator" who works in tandem with the Muses, often referring to her songs as living, breathing entities. Other prolific artists such as Neil Young and the late Prince have also subscribed to similar ideas about the nature of creativity, both agnostic (Young) and divine (Prince). These perspectives differ from artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Aimee Mann, all of whom attribute study, practice, and hard work to their musical proficiencies. However, Amos acknowledges that every artist's creative process differs from hers.

With all of this in mind, the structure of "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage" presents over 30 specific sets of song lyrics, each followed by an essay. Amos sometimes explains the conditions that compelled that particular song, and some of the experiences and observations that imbue her work. For instance, the song "Girl" (from "Little Earthquakes") looks at the ramifications of living up to everyone else's expectations instead of becoming oneself. In the essay that follows, Amos recounts her record company's concern over commercial viability, pushing for more guitars (trendy in 1991) and less piano (not trendy) on the album. It was an early lesson at navigating patriarchal industry politics while maintaining her distinct artistic identity. Needless to say, "Little Earthquakes" would remain a piano-based album.

Elsewhere, Amos details shifts toward more overtly political songwriting with her sprawling masterwork "Scarlet's Walk" (2002), which drew from observations and interactions on her "Strange Little Girls" tour of the US immediately after 9/11/01. Similarly, her most recent album, the haunting "Native Invader" (2017), documents her 2016 research travels through the Smokey Mountains and discourse surrounding the political landscape of the U.S. and the impending presidential election.

Amos' wry political observations are often informed by her upbringing in Baltimore, playing DC-area gigs at age thirteen — her first being the gay bar Mr. Henry's, thanks to the persistence of her Methodist minister father, who insisted there was "no safer place" for his teenage daughter. In ensuing years behind a piano with a tip jar, she would regularly interact with political insiders and politicians (she recounts here an amusing experience with former Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill). Ultimately, Amos contends that these initial years of exposure to the political machine instilled in her the value of listening and vigilant awareness.

Intriguing as the politically-focused content is, the book becomes more interesting when Amos veers into issues pertaining to gender inequality (confronting patriarchal dominance is a thread that runs through her recorded work). Amos elaborates on her signature song "Cornflake Girl" in even more depth here than in the past — drawing from literature on female genital mutilation to explore the ways in which women can be misogynistic and uphold the patriarchy. Equally as compelling, Amos at times turns toward the personal, with moving accounts about the passing of her father-in-law in 1999 (resulting in the heartbreaking "1000 Oceans"); and then last year losing a dear friend and her mother within days of one another. Amos' candor here is moving, probing the emotional gut-punch of such profound loss and the struggle to move forward.

Thankfully, there is very little overlap with her previous memoir, "Tori Amos: Piece by Piece" (2005), co-written with NPR music journalist Ann Powers, where the music-related passages focused more specifically on songs from her then-current album, "The Beekeeper." As a result, there is only minimal discussion here of songs from that album (the title track and "Barons of Suburbia" are fleshed out in more detail this time around). Many of the songs for thematic focus here come from her more politically-oriented albums "Scarlet's Walk" (2002), "American Doll Posse" (2007), and "Native Invader" (2017), and at least one from each of her remaining albums (except the 2001 all-covers collection "Strange Little Girls").

Admittedly, as a longtime admirer of her work, there are any number of songs not discussed here that could've made for compelling discussion — for instance, music industry ageism and misogyny in "Curtain Call" (from 2009's under-appreciated "Abnormally Attracted to Sin") and "Teenage Hustling" (from "American Doll Posse," with its withering line "you've been skanking around with your talentless trash, you always shoot blanks at your cocksure best"). Or the more recent "Up the Creek" and "Benjamin" (both from "Native Invader"), addressing the consequences of climate change and environmental destruction. These are minor quibbles, though, as Amos' catalog is rife for discussion and analysis.

Nonetheless, "Resistance: A Songwriter's Story of Hope, Change, and Courage" succeeds at allowing us to observe, through Amos' reflections, the experiences, events, stories, and feelings that resulted in some of her most beloved works and, to a small extent, her upcoming album. And if we only want more, then it bears remembering: With an abundance of songs providing the basis for discussion here, this book is already a generous offering into the workings of one of the rock era's most aware, engaged, and challenging artists.

"Resistance: A Songwriter's story of Hope, Change, and Courage"

by Tori Amos

$26 (hardcover)

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.