On Scarlet’s Walk and artistic evolution.

“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.


5 thoughts on “On Scarlet’s Walk and artistic evolution.

  1. I’m really excited!

    And I totally agree with all you say. And I miss the internet being the province of the weird. I’ve been reading my old LJs and I’d forgotten how much of a community there was, and how safe it felt, and how supported I was in a way that doesn’t feel the same now. I have more friends ‘IRL’ but, actually, having a ready-made network that’s there whenever you turn on your computer is in many ways more ‘real’ than juggling time with everyone’s commitments and life stress and trying to cobble together a cohesive relationship in the actual world with all its distractions. People always said online friends weren’t ‘real’ or they weren’t as good or they were just a prop until I managed to find some local friends, and I suppose to a certain extent that’s proved to be true in that my online network has been superceded by ‘real’ people (albeit that the closest of these were originally online), but I mourn the loss of my distinct online world too. It was frustrating being separated by land and oceans and not being able to see people, but it was also kind of nice to be connected in a different way, for it to be special to meet people from the internet rather than totally commonplace as it is now. I’ve made new friends online in the last few years but not in the same way, not in that life-long friendship, overcoming-all-obstacles kind of way or with the same intensity. I loved the enclaves of LJ and @forums and the NG but I know that even if I went back and started posting in all those places again it wouldn’t be the same because the whole way people use the internet is different now. The internet used to be like Glastonbury, small and alternative and mostly populated by like-minded people who were looking for community. Somehow it’s expanded into this unwieldy supercity, and although people don’t look at me like I’ve got three heads when I say I travelled to Canada to meet online friends at the age of 14 any more, the price seems to be that I no longer meet people that I form such powerful connections with that make flying half way around the world an entirely natural development of the friendship.

    Although I don’t mean to suggest that I’m unhappy that my closest online friendships have transcended the digital realm, of course! And I love that we’re going to see Tori together :)

    (Sorry… I’ve been brewing a blog about this so I’ve spouted off a little!)

    1. Spout all you want! It all makes sense to me. I’m glad we’re seeing Tori together too. I don’t think we ever did it! We were both at the Union Chapel gig but with different people I think.

      Your Glastonbury comparison is a good one. It’s difficult to articulate what it meant to me and why it’s almost disappointing that the internet has opened up in the way that it has. My offline and online worlds NEVER collided and were NEVER meant to…there was a very clear line between the two, whereas now they merge all the time – before, that would have been terrifying. I still post to LJ occasionally but it is nowhere near what it used to be. People do still look at me weirdly when I explain where I met, say, you! But it’s not as embarrassing now and I no longer have to steel myself in the same way for their reaction, haha. Probably because I don’t really care. Who cares where I met you? People get married to people they met in a club, and yet meeting someone off the internet is still a bit weird? I remember when it was REALLY odd though, and now I find it so weird now that almost everyone I know dates people that they met on the internet, because it still feels like this massive taboo. We were obviously trendsetters…!

      I always felt that my internet friendships at the time were, hrm, not more special, but more intimate perhaps, than my real life ones. I absolutely adored my friends and still do, but the internet allowed me to have parts of myself, that weren’t understood by the people in my life at the time, accepted. It wasn’t that they didn’t love me but they didn’t get it and the fact that other people did was very validating. I now have offline friends who have all those qualities, they understand and hold me when I cry and do not judge my stupid decisions, they are almost unconditionally loving, and it’s so lovely to have that in person rather than over a screen. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, then. Or that if you’re fucked up as a teenager it’s more difficult to connect with people in your actual, living breathing world, because there’s more to lose in a way, more to risk. When you’re behind a screen you have that ability to turn it off, or erase what you have written. Not so if you spill your guts out to someone who has the ability to reject you there and then, a rejection which has huge consequences when your confidence can be shattered so easily. Online, it was obvious that we were all carrying around our various scars, because it was there in black and white, and it was nice to be able to share and compare experiences. IRL people’s masks are more prevalent, and it’s only when you really get to know someone that they come off a bit. It’s more stripped down when the only way that you can reveal who you really are is through your words.

      I think that’s why I’m so open about my experiences and how they’ve shaped me, and who I am (and I get told that I’m open, a lot). Everyone has these demons, flaws, whatever you want to call them, and it’s reassuring to know that other people have them. We shouldn’t be ashamed of them, they help make us who we are and as long as we’re not using them to intentionally hurt people then what’s so bad about them? Maybe it’s through my online experiences that I’ve been able to cultivate that ability.

      I think that some people still have now what we had then. I know from doing research on online communities for my course, that they still exist like they did for us, they’re just a bit different. For people with cancer, say. They have all that connection. Maybe now it’s that you need a specific reason, because the internet’s so large that you almost need a map to find what you want, whereas before it was just there, because there were so few of us. Too many fields now, there was just the one before! :)

      Not sure if any of that made any sense, and I think I just really went off on a tangent! But it’s interesting to talk about, especially with someone who experienced it with me.

      1. It’s funny, isn’t it… it’s sort of like I want there to be a one-way flow between my online world and my ‘real’ world – I want to be able to bring people from the digital realm into ‘reality’ but I don’t necessarily want reality to intrude on the web.

        It’s strange that there’s still a stigma attached to meeting partners online, even when online dating is so prevalent. That idea that somehow it’s easier to form a relationship online, that it’s the last recourse for those who ‘can’t’ get a boy/girlfriend any other way. It seems a strangely archaic way of thinking about it considering that no-one would expect to find a job or a place to live or whatever without actually looking for it, and we wouldn’t characterise people as sad or desperate for using the internet to find it (or for accidentally finding it online)! On the one hand people use the internet for EVERYTHING now and it’s a very tangible, real part of our daily lives, and yet on the other people still do seem to have this ‘it’s only the internet’ way of thinking and a tendency to hide behind their screens. Though, having said that, I don’t use forums any more so I’m not sure if there’s still as much flaming as there used to be.

        I suppose to a certain extent it’s an age thing, because teenagers are pretty horrible in general! Or at least completely unable to hold and contain the kind of shit that a lot of people go through. Reading back thorugh my journals it’s really apparent to me that most of my peers simply didn’t know how to deal with me andmy issues, and of course they all had their own as well. It takes more maturity and experience than most people have at that age to really be there for someone else, to handle their darkness, to not freak out as they display an array of weird and terrifying behaviour. So I guess that’s maybe why it becomes easier to find that IRL as we get older. But also it’s true that it is harder to share that stuff with people who are really there, and that’s the same whatever age you are. You could see it as cowardly to avoid doing that in favour of doingit online, but then you could also see it as taking care of yourself and making sure you only share in safe places. That changes over time, too, I suppose. When I was using LJ I very much did not want people IRL to know what was going on, broadly speaking. I took it to the internet to get it away from the rest of my life, to contain it. Nowadays I spew a lot online but in a very public way, and that’s not because I actively want people to know – I just don’t care if they do any more. If they’re interested they can read it and if they’re not they don’t have to. Now I put it out there, non-specifically towards everybody, because I would never assume that anyone would be interested in me sitting down and actually saying it to their face. PEople have enough going on and my need to express myself is far greater than the amount of time or energy people have to receive my expressions. I need to express this stuff to an audience but it can be a theoretical one; just knowing that someone could read it is enough now.

        It did make sense )

    2. Just another thing to add, because it just came into my head. I think the whole online experience has so much to do with writing, emotions and expression. Being able to express how you feel through the medium of words, because you have nothing else. The people that I connected with weren’t necessarily great writers but they all had that ability to convey what they were feeling by writing about it; they had the drive to do it. Now that everybody uses the internet it’s a bit different because that need for expression is not something that is shared by everyone and so that sense of understanding can be lost. People might form friendships and attachments but that level of intimacy isn’t necessarily there when the written word isn’t that important to people. I think that it’s about that need to express, to be understood, and to understand, rather than the ability to do it and how good a writer you are. Does that make sense?

      1. That’s a really good point. And actually it articulates something that I’ve been struggling with without being able to put a finger on it. People so often comment on how open I am, especially online, and how much I put out there, and always ask why it’s public and why I do it. I don’t really have an adequate answer for them, but what you say here makes a lot of sense…. that was what drove people, back then. It’s like that’s what attracted people to the internet, because it was the perfect platform for that. Especially in the days when we all had dial-up and html was the only code and the internet was almost entirely text-based because images took so long to load and video was non-existent. The tori.com newsgroup, where I met most of my best online friends, was just a feed of text. There were no threads, you couldn’t use code, you just wrote in a box and whatever you wrote appeared below whatever the last person wrote. We only had words so the internet attracted people who wanted, needed, were compelled to use them and had an urge for exression.

        Now the internet has become like everywhere else and it’s weird to use it for that. Eww,putting yourthoughts and feelings in the public arena, and how very dare you think anyone cares or is interested? Of course, thewonderful thing about the internet is that it’s democratic in that respect – no-one’s making anyone read anything (except adverts…). But now it’s like, hey, keep that for the therapy room. Don’t spill your guts on my MacBook Pro. As you say, the understanding is lost to a large extent – the understanding of even why one might want to express and be understood is lost, let alone an understanding of the actual expression. In some ways it makes it more valuable when someone does understand, when someone posts a favourable comment, when someone unlikely tells me they read and enjoy my blog… but I don’t like this feeling of being a weirdo again, of it being unusual in the place that was once the place I found acceptance in the escape from being a weirdo IRL.

        All things change, I guess, and you have to move with the times… but I do still miss it. I miss being wholly accepted and valued and loved and understood and supported. I miss the amount of time people had for each other despite being thousands of miles apart and having never met. I miss the community and intimacy. But then I’m also probably getting a lot of this mixed up with being 16 and having few responsibilities and plenty of hours to fritter on the internet and how much slower and simpler life was and the capacity and space and time I had to be kind to a seemingly boundless array of people. I was so much more caring and tolerant and forgiving back then, and I hated myself. I think I’m probably blaming the internet’s changes for my increased cynicism rather than laying blame where it’s due: at my feet!

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