“You say there’s not a lot of me left anymore, just leave it alone”.
Over the last few years, in particular the last year, music has become a significant part of my life again. Music has always been a pretty big deal to me; when I was nine years old I got a piano. In the years that followed I would play and compose through all the trauma that occurred, so it featured pretty heavily in keeping me as sane as it could (which is not very, but that’s for another time). My taste in music left a lot to be desired. I was a classical baby on the one hand, drinking in all that my favourites (Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Elgar etc) had to offer, trying to learn their pieces on the piano. On the other hand I had the non-classical stuff, which I don’t think I really ‘got’ in the same way as I do now. I was a teenager in the 90s and there were so many amazing bands around that I love now, but completely missed first time around, partly because I was oblivious and partly because I was so obsessed with my classical shiz that I didn’t have much capacity for more. I loved Alanis Morisette, Oasis, No Doubt, Symposium, Alisha’s Attic – and still do – but mostly listened to bad chart stuff, and didn’t have a passion for many bands/artists. It’s a bit gutting when I could have been listening to the stuff that I love now that I was actually around for at its inception! Radiohead being a biggie. For GOD’S SAKE. It’s also different to where I am now, where music is always around me, where I listen to something I love every day, discover new bands and frequently go to gigs. I have many favourites now. And I become easily obsessed – if a song means something to me or I just really love it I have no problems playing it on repeat for hours. Days, even. My ex ended up hating Zebra by Beach House because I could listen to it for hours on end, and apparently that’s not normal, plus if you don’t really care for the song, it’s also irritating. Whoops. It almost has a meditative quality, though, listening to something on repeat for that long. It changes how you experience the song.
So. Recently I had an urge to listen to the album Scarlet’s Walk by Tori Amos. In many ways Tori was my first true non-classical musical love. I was obsessed. Not stalking obsessed, but her music made me feel something that nothing else had done before. It connected with a part of me that nobody, possibly not even myself, had ever understood. The lyrics, oh my god. And the piano. Being a piano aficionado endeared me to her so much; I really knew what she meant when she said that her piano was her best friend. And so she became mine, or at least her music did. The internet was Not Cool at that point in time – but then, neither was I – and I was on it. A lot. Through it I met people who I am still friends with, twelve years later, and also joined a forum that was basically a Tori Amos fan site. A haven to discuss the weird, poetic lyrics, to get excited over new albums, share photos, how we interpreted the songs, what it all meant. It was an important thing for me to have at that moment in my life. I knew nobody in my offline world who understood it all, and by extension me, so it was a pivotal experience for me to have found something of a flock after feeling so alone and misunderstood, as you often do when you’re a teenager.
Scarlet’s Walk is, to me, the last good album that Tori Amos made before she turned into a plastic-faced weirdo. That might seem harsh, but I will argue my case. This woman turned out album after album and despite being an acquired taste, they were consistently good and did something different every time, pushing the boundaries of what she had done before. I am not alone in these thoughts. It is profoundly disappointing to have someone who was such an inspiration, who made such beautiful music, fall down so far in your estimations and start producing what mostly amounts to bland, uninspiring filler. There have been many discussions over the last ten years about the decline of her musical output, with previous hardcore fans like myself turning away because what attracted us to her in the first place is no longer there. This is a woman who was truly radiant, who exuded sexuality without pandering to the stereotypical patriarchal ideal of it, and who gave a lot of inspiration and hope to those of us who were a bit weird, who didn’t fit in. That wasn’t her job, or her responsibility, so that’s not really what I have issues with, but I am going somewhere with this. She appeared very real, if a bit nuts. Definitely nuts. I find her more nuts now though. I obviously can’t ever claim to have known her, but her persona at least has gone from something genuine to something so utterly contrived that I can’t believe it’s the same person. Of course, if we’re talking personas, they’re all contrived to a certain extent, but what I mean is that she was, well, normal. She was a normal woman who had been through some shit and was a bit ‘kooky’ (ugh) but expressed that through well-crafted music and touched other people through that. It was simple. It wasn’t dressed up, and neither was she. And even if you didn’t get the emotional stuff and thought it was all bullshit, like many did, there was still an incredible talent there that produced some cracking music.
Since Scarlet’s Walk, the focus has shifted from the music onto a seemingly carefully constructed image, fripperies like seed packets and stickers and other shit that nobody cares about. Gimmicks. And what I never got from Tori before was gimmicks; I got raw, blow-your-socks-off, emotional music. It still exists through some of her songs, but I think that for me, and many others, what made Tori’s music so different, so beautiful, was that rawness. It was stripped bare. And when you wrap that up in layers of fluff, it becomes diminished, how can it not? That is without mentioning the nasal voice, the magazine shoots, the plastic surgery, the constant references to designer stuff, ‘Husband’, confusing rambling interviews that don’t appear to convey anything about the music at all, the samey quality to a lot of her current output. Tori was a package to me, but if she had done all the image stuff and still churned out amazing music, I could deal with that. Go mad for Jimmy Choo (his shoes are amazing, let’s be fair) and dress like a doll all you want as long as your music is still good. But it’s all been a steady decline, which is why it matters. She used to be political without making it all about politics. Her references to sexual violence, healing from that and co-founding RAINN (The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) are some of the most political things that she’s done, especially brave at the time, when it wasn’t as widely publicised (and dare I say it, popular) as it is now. Although she has always mentioned politics and religion, it was never quite the overt crusade that it has been in recent years, rambling on about America and Bush and even about being a ‘lioness’, a ‘strong woman’, ‘bringing home the bacon’. It doesn’t translate through the music, it all falls flat. That’s why it seems contrived. It’s all talk and no trousers, all this bumf that runs alongside her current albums, whereas before you felt it even if you knew nothing about her. It was just there, shining out like a light to those that needed it. It’s the difference between Past the Mission and Hoochie Woman, as perfectly illustrated by these two live performances:
In a couple of months it will be a decade since Scarlet’s Walk came out. So much has changed in that time. When it came out, I had also just come out. I was discovering more about who I was, how I saw the world, how I related to it. I remember being at uni when it was released and checking the forums constantly, playing the album over and over, this new record by this fabulous woman who had played such a part in the last three years of my life. I didn’t love it like I loved her other albums (some fans see the decline starting from this album, and I can see why). I didn’t like the way that most of the songs ended the same, there was less focus on the piano, musically there was nothing as outstanding for me as there were on her previous records. But there are absolute gems on there, and some brilliant lyrics, Carbon especially. I remember before the album came out as well, running through the tracklisting, with everyone going, “Is A Sorta Fairytale a joke? Really?” Good times. Little did we know that we’d eventually get a song called Fat Slut. Hah.
The album isn’t my favourite of hers by any means, and due to the rubbish that she’s put out recently, it’s no longer my least favourite either. I haven’t listened to her newest couple of albums and don’t even care what she releases anymore, which is sad. I am not invested in her anymore as an artist. I don’t want her to produce the same music as before, though, that’s not what I’m after. She’s changed, grown up; so have I, so it’s not that want her to recreate the past. But out of all the artists/bands I love, she is the one that hasn’t continued to evolve positively, musically. Or more accurately, the one who has had the furthest fall from grace. It’s not about the angst, as lots of die-hard fans still think, although of course that’s part of why I love her older stuff, although I listen to it a lot less, because hey! Less angst! Take Polly Harvey and Bjork; the three women famously graced a magazine cover together in the 90s, being the most prominent female artists at that time. Polly and Bjork have still grown up, they have evolved, but their music still has that undeniable and unmistakeable artistic spark. That’s what’s missing from Tori’s music now. She’s lost it. There is no spark and no fire, for me and for a lot of people like me.
Of course, having written all this, I have just decided to see her live for the first time since 2005 with one of my closest friends, one who I shared that Tori devotion with, first over a screen, and then in the flesh. It’s an orchestral tour and after much umming and ahhing I decided to go for it because the Tori + orchestra thing is one that I have wanted to see for years. If it’s not great (fully expecting this, based on the last time I saw her and all her recent stuff) it will serve as some sort of funeral to all of this, perhaps, and I can do some angsty teenage weeping into my hip flask.
I will leave you with one of the best songs on Scarlet’s Walk, Gold Dust. It’s a poignant song about love, and loss, and important moments in life that have become cherished memories. Beautiful and apt, given the content of this post.