Monday night, me and Melissa made the trek up to DC to see my favorite musician, Tori Amos, perform at DAR Constitution Hall. Though I wish she could have joined us, Leanne was too sick to go. But, as expected, the show was amazing. The opening performer, Thomas Dybdhal, hails from coastal Norway and had a folky, expressive style. I liked him!
The string quartet that played with Tori on “Night of Hunters,” her latest release, opened her set with a brief piece. Then Tori took the stage, to thunderous applause, squeals and screams. She began with “Shattering Sea,” the opening piece from “Night of Hunters,” which is a 21st century classical song cycle dealing with the fracturing of a relationship and the dark night of the soul that the main character, Tori, finds herself in. From there, typical of Tori, her setlist ran the gamut from solo piano pieces (“Crucify,” “Pretty Good Year” and “Ophelia,” as well as beloved b-sides “Cooling” and “Seaside”) to works from her back catalogue rearranged for the string quartet, including the electro-vibed “Suede,” a tear-jerking “Winter” and a rousing “Cruel” complete with a headbanging string section. Interspersed throughout were songs from the new album as well, like “Fearlessness” (my favorite!), the mostly instrumental “Star Whisperer” and “Edge of the Moon.” As has always been her stock in trade, Tori couldn’t forget the covers, namely the oft-compared Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and a warm and inviting version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” The show definitely had a certain vibe – namely a big middle finger to “the establishment,” whoever they might be. I don’t think it was coincidence that she played songs like “The Wrong Band,” “Seaside,” “Spring Haze,” “Imagine” and “Big Wheel” at a show in DC, the seat of American political power. With lyrics like “Heard from the tv of the latest bombing… shells fired out, flowers mowed down. Innocence targeted. Whose god is this?” and “Senator, let’s be sincere, as much as we can,” she was calling out those in power, and it was obvious her fans were with her.
All in all, the night was amazing. I’ve seen Tori many times, and each time it’s like seeing her for the first time all over again. Her setlists vary so much night to night that every show stands on its own as an artistic work and as a message for her fans in whatever city she happens to be. I was still on my post-Tori-show high the next day, when I came across this review of the show: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/click-track/post/in-concert-tori-amos-at-dar-constitution-hall/2011/12/06/gIQAzKLpZO_blog.html. Now I’ve been a Tori fan long enough to know to pretty much dismiss most reviews of her shows. The standard, canned line on Tori in the mainstream media is that she’s a weirdo, new-agey sparkly fairy-loving fluffball or that she’s a shrew who’s railing loudly against the patriarchy and male-dominated religion. Unfortunately, reviewers who stick to this canned storyline and base their reviews on articles they may have read about her in the mid-1990’s miss the point entirely and, in my opinion, aren’t earning any journalistic cred. First and foremost, simple fact-checking and research would help ensure that your review doesn’t include blatant misinformation. Saying she “spent the first three-quarters of the nearly two-hour set on the ambitious and largely hook-free new material” is just untrue. She played 6 songs from the new album. The other 17 songs were from her tremendous back catalogue ranging back 20 years. And quoting lyrics from the wrong song is just unforgiveable. The reviewer quotes lines from “Spark,” a single from her 1998 album “From the Choirgirl Hotel” that deals with one of her miscarriages, as being from “Big Wheel,” a single from her 2007 “American Doll Posse” album that chides the male-dominated music industry. Any music reviewer who has access to the internet has no excuse for getting artist-related research wrong, especially not with an artist like Tori, whose rabid fanbase has spawned a plethora of websites detailing every song, every album, every lyric, every interview and every song meaning for every work she’s ever done.
But more than those relatively minor gaffes, my biggest problem is with the general tone of the review. I don’t think it hurts to mention here that the reviewer is a man. I’m not trying to paint him as a misogynist, just giving the context as I’ve seen reviews before that repeat the same standard drivel about Tori’s shows. Rather than digging into the multitude of promotional material available related to Tori’s new album, in which she describes in detail exactly how the project came about, what its major themes are and how she has reinterpreted the works of male composers, he instead takes the easy way out, saying the album is “a collection of tunes she wrote based on classical compositions by the likes of Schubert and Mendelssohn, united by a lyrical concept allegedly having something to do with the sea.” You see what he did there? Richard Wagner composes operas about fairies, valkyries and King Arthur and he is hailed as a musical genius. Yet when a woman composes a work based on classical themes and containing mythical characters, she’s brushed off.
The reviewer also seemed to be irked that her music is hard to label and pin down. Saying, “Record execs aren’t the only ones who can’t hear a single on it” and that the new album is “largely hook-free” is dumbing down her music. True music fans don’t give a shit about singles and hooks, and neither should good music reviewers. Besides, what the fuck does he think “Big Wheel” is about. Oh wait, he got that confused with “Spark.” And actually, for a work that was released ON A CLASSICAL FUCKING MUSIC LABEL (note to Mr. music reviewer – classical albums typically don’t have “singles”), Tori managed to chart in the top 40 of US charts, as well as breaking a record for charting in the Top 10 of the Classical, Alternative and Rock charts simultaneously. It would have been nice to have that information in the review. But of course, there’s always the standard “compare her to Kate Bush” trick, saying Tori is using her voice “to sound almost exactly like Kate Bush.” Saying Tori is basically Kate’s vocal understudy is basically saying “all female voices sound the same to me.” Both women play piano and sing soprano, but come on, the ‘ole Kate Bush comparison is so tired.
And then the reviewer writes off most of her lyrics as “religious-ish mumbo jumbo.” Yes, he actually said that. The Who can write a song about God being asleep before the big bang, The Rolling Stones can write a song about the devil in the first person, Michael Stipe can write about “losing his religion” and Jim Morrison can write poetry about all sorts of spiritual and religious themes. Musical heavies all around – sheer genius! But coming from a woman, religious lyrics and themes are so much “mumbo jumbo.” Maybe I’m just missing the point here, but could someone please tell me how “Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste” is any different from “God sometimes you just don’t come through. Do you need a woman to look after you”? How are Jethro Tull’s lyrics “People — what have you done —
locked Him in His golden cage.” any different from “trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin”? Why is it that when male artists use hyperbole, metaphor and religious and mythological imagery, they are artistic geniuses, but when Tori does it she’s a loon? And while we’re on the subject, how is Ziggy Fucking Stardust any different than American Doll Posse? As a woman and longtime Tori fan, it always bothers me to see her musical works brushed off because a) she’s a woman and b) she doesn’t fit into a nice, neat box with an easy label on it. Maybe I just shouldn’t expect more from a culture that seems to have lost its ability to comprehend any meaning below a surface one.
For those who may not know, Tori Amos is an anomaly in the world of disposable female pop stars. Though she began her career on a major label, she learned along the way how important it is to stand on your own two feet as an artist. She built her own recording studio and management team, including lawyers and tour booking pros. This has allowed her, 20 years into her career, to leave the world of major labels and record contracts behind and pick and choose the projects she works on. Because of her large worldwide fanbase, she has the ability to do work for art’s sake, not just for a paycheck. She has full creative control of her musical empire. At 48 years old, she controls her musical destiny. Even if you don’t care for her music, you have to admit that’s impressive.
At least while I was at the show, I could imagine what the world would be like if it were populated only by Tori fans. I mentioned to Melissa how cool it would be to live in a society of Ears With Feet (Tori’s chosen name for her fans). It’s rare to see such a varied yet accepting group of people. And then it hit me. We aren’t just fans. That term is way to casual and small for what the people who are so deeply moved by Tori’s music are. We are her tribe. We are a ragtag group, a motley army of weirdos, artists, outcasts, singers, nerds, musicians and poets. We are moms and dads (I saw more children at this show than I’ve ever seen before), daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, lovers and warriors. But most importantly, we are the dreamers of dreams. We are the creative ones, the accepting and compassionate ones, the readers and the thinkers and the imaginers. Often, those who don’t quite understand the devotion of Tori fans compare us to a religious cult, with Tori as our goddess. But really, she’s our tribal elder. Like an older sister or aunt, Tori is our way-shower. As in one of the pictures from the “Night of Hunters” tour program, she literally carries the torch in front of us to show us the way. She travels the world like a nomad, bringing her magical message to those who need to hear it, those who can then go out into the world and live it. In her latest album, she tells us directly what we need to do now:
“There is a grid of disempowerment
All forces are being called to dismantle this
as job’s coffin looks down…
to see what mankind is gonna do”
“I can see I must activate the force of which
I am made”
“you must out-create, it’s the only way”
“the children’s dreams
must now be reclaimed”
Albert Einstein said that our problems won’t be solved by the same mindset that created them. Tori is telling us that we must “change the frequency.” I hear you loud and clear, Tori: ground yourself spiritually, through whatever means is right for you, and get busy creating. Write a book. Paint a painting. Play a song. Raise your child in love and compassion. Start a charity or business that helps others. Reach out your hand to someone who looks like they need it. Open other’s eyes to injustice. Let those who are different know they are valued. Occupy everywhere. Start a Mother Revolution, a Velvet Revolution. But don’t just sit idly by and listen. We’re Ears With Feet for a reason – so that when we leave a Tori concert, we can go out into the world, stand proudly in our truth and change the world for the better.
P.S. While I didn’t agree with your words, I do appreciate the beautiful pictures of Tori that were in your review, Mr. Music Reviewer