Power In Vulnerability: Tori Amos and the Art of the Feminine
It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since The Spice Girls first became household names, their emergence heralding their “girl power” tagline to the delight of teenagers the world over. The music industry would like us to believe things have come a long way since (perhaps in some ways they have). Yet for those of us who were around to witness the arrival of iconic 90s female singer/songwriters such as Tori Amos, Bjork and PJ Harvey, it feels like the industry has now somewhat regressed.
The most significant female artists in terms of commercial clout from the last decade are mostly consigned to the status of “performer” as opposed to “composer” or “singer/songwriter.” Albeit many are very talented vocalists, but most of the music is composed by a committee of (often largely male) songwriters. Rewind back to 1992 and singer/songwriter Tori Amos was having none of it.
When Amos hit the music scene in the early 90s, it was a breathe of fresh air to her audience to see a woman openly breaking down barriers through her art. Here was a woman challenging the confines placed on her and women the world over. In Amos we found an artist who could project anger like a war missile one moment, and have us feeling deep emotions over her motherhood and grief the next. She sang of every aspect of her life as a woman and held nothing back. She pulled everything apart for her audience; sex, religion, relationships, pain. Every authentic emotion was explored without filter.
Here I take a look at why Amos’s career made such an impact against the patriarchs of the music industry, and why we should appreciate every aspect of the feminine — for even in our vulnerability, there is power.
It was in January of 1992 that Tori Amos landed in the music scene with an album that changed everything — not only for her, but for an entire future generation of female singer/songwriters who would soon be empowered by her remarkable work. Her debut album, Little Earthquakes (Atlantic Records) pushed its way into the top 15, containing the hits that would become classics of her career and that era — Silent All These Years, Crucify, China and Winter.
Although Amos had spent her life studying and writing music (she was, in fact, one of the youngest ever students to be accepted into the Peabody Institute at the tender age of five), it was the release of Little Earthquakes that moved her into the orbit of the public eye and then into the charts.
It was magic. This creative, dynamic individual with fierce red hair and an even fiercer spirit soon became the face of empowerment to her legions of fans. Her lyrics were drenched with in-depth analysis of sexuality and womanhood, and her lyrics soon became like gospels to her growing audience, who found in the artist’s lyrics much strength and inspiration. There had been no one like her before — nor, in reality, has there been since.
Since Little Earthquakes, Amos has released a further 14 studio albums. Many of her earlier albums such as Boys For Pele (1996) and To Venus and Back (1999) are drenched in what many might view as masculine energy, with hints of aggression, combativeness, darkness and angst felt throughout. Instead, albums like Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and The Beekeeper (2005) have a distinctly different flavour. Yet they were all authentic tales from one woman’s enigmatic mind.
Her music remains as great today as always, however, to some, it seems almost irreconcilable that the woman behind From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998) wrote Scarlet’s Walk. Yet perhaps that’s where the beauty of Amos’ womanhood lies. That she has been an artist who has never shied away from expressing what it means to be a woman, to live under her skin — every layer stripped back and laid bare for us.
Perhaps it is the dual sides to her personality as an artist that makes Amos such an enigma and a hard artist to define. Could the woman who infamously sang the line “give me peace, love and a hard cock” from 1996’s withering takedown Professional Widow really be the same woman who duets with her daughter on the mother-daughter dialogue of 2014’s Promise? The answer is yes. Amos is all this and much more; every layer of womanhood.
Amos is living proof that a female artist can be made of both darkness and light, and that a woman shouldn’t feel like she is abandoning her femininity by having explored some of the more uncomfortable truths. Amos was never afraid to explore the totality of the female psyche and this is what’s made her such a trail-blazer throughout the years.
Many who have followed Amos’ music career will recall that she often spoke of “marrying the Marys.” In this, she explored the symbolic icons of the Virgin Mary and St Mary Magdalene (i.e, the Virgin Vs the Prostitute; the Sacred Vs the Profane) and how their differences could be united, those two aspects living within one being. Maybe that is exactly the same energy we need to bring to the table when looking at women as artists; to accept (and celebrate) a woman who is honest in both her darkness and light, in her strength and her weakness, her sexuality and through her maternal side. For each is valid, and each side has a story to tell that is worth hearing. There is power in truth.
Artistically, Amos has grown and she has changed, as we all do. Yet one can’t help but suspect that those who have trouble connecting and reconciling the artist of those earlier releases with her later albums are guilty of rejecting the more vulnerable aspects of what it means to be a woman. Why is this? Is there still a deep-rooted sexism in music that exists, even today, whereby we can only celebrate a woman owning her outward strength and perceived masculinity, but cannot embrace the other side of her — such as sexuality, sadness, insecurity and the journey of motherhood? Do we want to divide the female persona, making one more valuable or relatable than the other?
At the turn of the century, there appeared to be a marked shift in Amos’s output and through releases such as Scarlet’s Walk, The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse, another side to the prolific singer/songwriter was revealed to us. With the passing of years, as she has traversed her way though adulthood in the public eye, it appeared as if she had managed to exorcise some of the darker aspects of her psyche. Perhaps the more unsettling tones of her earlier albums served as a kind of outlet for the singer, who explored lyrically many emotional, deep-rooted issues she faced.
However, it seemed that once Amos embraced a more “softer” side through music and expressed themes of marriage, love, faithfulness, motherhood and her emotional life, a certain demographic of people incorrectly saw this as Amos “changing” who she is — whereas, in truth, she was expressing another side of who she is.
Though through the years, women have been expected to mould themselves to the expectations of others, and to subjugate themselves in order to be accepted, Amos has demonstrated the power of owning who she is — and sharing that through powerful music.
Many in society are still fearful of women who are unafraid to embrace completely who they are — each and every aspect of them. The parts that make them whole. It is evident through Amos’s music, through the beauty of her albums, that she was, and still is, the ultimate “girl power” artist — and she embraced this before “girl power” had became a 90s gimmick or popular slogan for the masses. Amos understood her validity in the world — no matter what place she was in, physically, mentally or emotionally.
The sonic landscapes may have changed, but the substance which drives her work remains. The vulnerability found on Choirgirl and Boys For Pele is still to be found in her later work. Whether it’s themes of trust and infidelity revealed in Jamaica Inn (The Beekeeper) or the harrowing aftermath of her mothers stroke in Mary’s Eyes (from 2017’s Native Invader) the raw emotions and explorations of the feminine are still there, we just saw them dressed differently.
One of the most valuable things we can do for women in 2021 is celebrate who we are — in every form and manifestation. To shed our masks and be comfortable in accepting who we are at any given time. Those who disconnect from women’s art that embraces marriage, love, sadness and loss are forgetting the fact that a powerful and strong woman can (and does) experience these things, that they are a valid facet of the human experience for many across the world.
True strength lives outside of the borders of our limited stereotypes, and it’s been a beautiful journey watching Tori Amos break down our preconceived notions with her art.