Birth of the Uncool
Illustration by Rebecca Green
Tori Amos is not cool. Even now, as we find ourselves in the midst of ’90s alt-nostalgia—Pavement has reunited, Weezer is putting on a tour devoted entirely to its first two albums, the cool kids are all going to Courtney Love’s shows to see how out of control she’ll get (heck, Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando are touring)—the love of Tori Amos records remains a forbidden and dorky love. People often confess to it in the same way they confess to having once played Dungeons and Dragons: shyly, or with a self-deprecating smirk and shrug. Which is entirely understandable; even when she was at her most successful, there was a stigma surrounding Tori Amos fans.
It’s the nature of that stigma that’s interesting. Though our memories of the 1990s may be misty and selective, I’d argue that Amos’s popularity was connected to some of the key cultural moments of that decade. Her early mythos—burnt-out hair-metal escapee turns earnest singer-songwriter in attempt to regain her bruised integrity—was a perfect fit in the early ’90s, as power-ballad fatigue set in and the MTV generation searched for “authenticity” in music. Her much-mocked New Age belief system tied into the pop-Jungian mysticism of the mid-’90s—think Women Who Run with the Wolves, The Celestine Prophecy, Robert Bly, even The Craft—for which Amos, always willing to talk about faerie aid, could be seen as a high-profile representative. Her large, early-adopting online fandom was tied to the late ’90s and the rise of the Internet. But in particular, the public persona of Tori Amos was tied, whether by coincidence or intent, to the emergence of third-wave feminism, and the struggles around gender and sexuality that characterized the decade of its rise.
Still, despite her reliable presence in a changing culture, Amos has just never been considered cool. And the reason for that has always been the same: Both her persona and her music played directly into some of the more widely reviled varieties of femininity. The real problem with liking Tori Amos is that it’s just too girly.
Amos defined her music, from the outset of her career, around feelings of social ostracism and the expression of a complex inner self that had trouble finding acceptance. Little Earthquakes, the solo album that made her name, brimmed with first-person, seemingly autobiographical confessions about rejection, self-doubt, and adolescence. “Every finger in the room is pointing at me,” began its first song; the album’s first single, “Me and a Gun,” was an a cappella recounting of Amos’s own rape. But though it could easily have turned into a paean to self-pity and victimization, Little Earthquakes was also full of defiance, as well as assertions that being true to oneself was its own reward. And then there was the implicit message of the music itself: All of this happened, and I’m still here.
Amos’s music and lyrics were pretty, emotionally expressive, vulnerable: in other words, stereotypically feminine. But they weren’t coy or girlish; they were laced with anger and sadness, and they addressed taboo topics. A song in which a little girl talked to an icicle could turn very quickly into a song about masturbation; a song about a miscarriage could contain lyrics about mermaids. Amos wasn’t connected with a feminist music scene like riot grrrl; she didn’t tour with Lilith Fair or perform at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. But her mouthy, brash style wasn’t easily assimilated outside of feminism, either.
In rock music, there tends to be two types of women granted the stage: tough girls and nice girls. Tough girls—Polly Jean Harvey, Patti Smith—get respect, albeit grudgingly, because they display traits we honor in men: They’re confrontational, direct, balls-out. Nice girls—Dusty Springfield, Sarah McLachlan—are admired for displaying the compliance and sweetness we associate with femininity. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy: No one is purely nice or purely strong. But Amos, who was both achingly, publicly vulnerable and openly defiant, fit most easily into a shadowy third category, feared by performers and lambasted by critics: the hysterical, shrieking female. It had claimed Sinead O’Connor before her, and would claim Fiona Apple after. But her fans loved the combination of public hurt and defiance. The story of the wounded ugly duckling turned rock-star swan spoke to women. It spoke to social outcasts. It spoke to survivors of sexual violence or abuse. And it spoke to LGBT people, especially young gay men, who had particular reason to connect with Amos’s recurring themes of religious repression and sexual shame, and who still constitute a large part of her fan base.
Derisive references to Tori Amos fans started to crop up in her press almost as soon as those fans came into existence. A 1994 article in the U.K.’s New Musical Express described them as a “a quivering gaggle of whey-faced young oddities,” and Amos as “mother of a thousand fuck-ups.” The word “obsessive” started to appear a lot, as did “cult.” By the late ’90s, everything written about Amos was seemingly obliged to mention her “fanatical” listeners, and the fan phenomenon soon eclipsed discussion of her music. This culminated in a 1999 Spin cover story, which (unflatteringly) profiled some of the fans and asserted that there’s “no such thing as a casual Tori fan. People either dismiss her music as pretentious and twee, or they cover their entire body in Tori tattoos.” Of course, Amos appealed to plenty of boys and men who wanted to cast her as their personal Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But as time went on, the deeply gendered narrative of the obsessive, hyper-emotional weirdo took over. The Spin article actually had to point out that “Amos has resonance for guys, too, although they’re often teased mercilessly for it.”
Close examination of any group of fans tends to reveal collectors, imitators, and overanalyzers. Amos’s fans stood out partly because she was one of the first artists to receive a substantial career boost due to the Internet, and to use it as a major promotional tool. (“Ms. Amos has such a widespread following in cyberspace that she is releasing one new song, ‘Merman,’ only as a computer download,” went one line in a New York Times article, which if nothing else points to the fact that 1998 was indeed a different time.) Her fans’ early, widespread adoption of websites, mailing lists, and message boards meant that outsiders could actually see how a particular fan subculture worked. But they also stood out because of what they obsessed over, and how uncomfortable their obsessions made others.
As a society, we encourage girls and women to be emotionally accessible, and in touch with their feelings; we say that it’s an innately feminine trait. We say it, that is, until they have feelings that make us uncomfortable, at which point we recast them as melodramatic harpies, shrieking banshees, and basket cases. The stereotype, for instance, of the good, sweet girl who thinks that getting a boyfriend is the most important thing in life is located directly next door to the stereotype of the pathetic, tear-soaked whiner who can’t just get over her breakup already; what matters is how they feel about the boy. Unsurprisingly, the girl who feels better about him is less likely to be seen as inappropriate or overly emotional by the general public.
And, though there was no shortage of girls who were drawn to Amos’s songs due to boy troubles—I myself maintain that 1996’s Boys for Pele is one of the best breakup albums ever made—lots of them had troubles that were far worse. In the NME article that described her fans as “oddities,” Amos estimated that “one in three women who comes to my shows [has been] raped or sexually abused.” Her numbers didn’t come from a formal study, but formal study apparently supports them: London School of Economics gender studies scholar Deborah Finding, who surveyed more than 2,000 Amos fans for her 2009 PhD thesis, found that the rate of sexual assault in Amos’s fanbase was “enough to support the statistic that one in four women has suffered sexual violence,” and that “98% of the respondents said that they used her music as a means of emotional support.”
There are few things more calculated to unsettle the patriarchal culture than a bunch of women coming together to discuss the effects of sexual violence on their lives. One of those things, as it happens, is men coming together to talk about being sexually violated or abused, discussions that also happen at Amos shows. Indeed, one of the queasy undercurrents in the diminishment of Amos’s fans is that, if they’re not girls, they’re viewed as being somehow too much like girls. Amos’s male fans may or may not be effeminate men, and they may or may not be gay or bisexual men, and they may or may not be assault or abuse survivors. But it’s hard to underestimate the role that homophobia and gender policing have played in the assessment of her fans. Consider the widespread laughter and surprise when pro wrestler Mick Foley recently announced that he’s a longtime fan of Amos’s music. In an article for Slate adapted from his memoir, Foley recalls hugging Amos, writing, “I felt like an innocent child in the arms of an angel.” The line was widely disseminated in the blogosphere, photos of the burly wrestler underscoring the cognitive dissonance of such a, well, manly man digging such girly stuff.
Even the experience of Amos’s music itself was, in some senses, stereotypically feminine. To go to a Tori Amos concert was to seek catharsis. Her performances were known for being unpredictable and hugely expressive. There were lots of tears, there was lots of screaming, and sometimes both of them were coming from the stage. To some degree, the passion around Amos was disquieting because her performances asked the audience to surrender control, to commit themselves to experiencing huge, sometimes scary emotions, to leave the realm of rational thought behind and make intuitive connections between the words, the noises, and the sheer physicality of the woman on the stage, who might be grinding herself orgasmically against her piano bench or angrily clawing herself. Of course it made people uncomfortable; it was about leaving comfort zones behind, about surrendering inhibitions. If you didn’t enjoy that sort of thing, it was hard to imagine why somebody else would. Poststructuralist feminist theorist Hélène Cixous, among other people, pointed out that the gender binary also tended to perpetuate itself in other divisions, such as “Head/Heart,” “Intelligible/Palpable,” and “Logos/Pathos.” The music of Tori Amos asks its fans to stand on the wrong side, the female side, of all those dichotomies.
So, Tori Amos had girls, she had queers, she had various gender nonconformists, and they were all being advised to take their feelings seriously, survive, and stand up for themselves. No wonder this stuff wasn’t hip. But it sold, and it continues to sell: All of her first seven albums (with the exception of her covers album, Strange Little Girls) have gone gold, and the first two, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, have gone multiplatinum. Amos still tours at least once every two years, and still meets with fans to take requests and hear their stories before nearly every show. The work stands; the fans remain.
And it stands because Amos—who’s not indie, not mainstream, not riot grrrl, not nice girl—occupies a more or less unique place in the culture. Be yourself was always the message of the work, and she’s been nothing but for almost 20 years. No, Tori Amos isn’t cool. But for the people who love her work, she’s irreplaceable, and she inspires and informs their resistance. As far as legacies go, that seems like one to envy.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown, and has written for magazines and blogs including The American Prospect, Salon, and The Atlantic’s Culture Channel.
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