Words Like Violence
Tori Amos' Powerful Strange Little Girls

At one point in her new album Strange Little Girls, Tori Amos rewrites the lyrics of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” singing, “Words are meaningless and unforgettable.” This is as much a mission statement as you’re likely to get for this experimental and largely effective collection. Amos has taken issue with the current idea that no one has ever been hurt by the words in a song, and has set out to prove that while we may not assign much immediate meaning to the violent and misogynist lyrics that permeate our pop music, they do have a potentially destructive effect.

Amos may very well be our most earnest and personal performer. The closest she’s ever come to acknowledging the concept of satire is “The Waitress,” a cautionary tale on her second album, Under the Pink. Otherwise, her songs are either first-person or third-person accounts of the emotional stress of life. Up to this point, she’s existed in an hermetically sealed self-absorbed musical environment, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This has allowed her to give us some of the most honest and reflective works of the past decade, among them “Precious Things,” “Me and a Gun,” “Icicle,” “Professional Widow,” “Putting the Damage On” and, I grudgingly admit, “Jackie’s Strength.” Her fans are often privy to performances that must come from Amos’ very core. There’s just no way such powerful delivery can be faked.

This, of course, made the announcement of Strange Little Girls’ strange little concept all the more interesting. For the first time, Amos would release the floodgates and deliver a Big Statement. Could such a personal songwriter be as effective in the role of social critic, especially with other artists’ songs? Whatever the outcome, the latest chapter in Amos’ idiosyncratic career was a great risk, and in and of itself, that’s exciting.

Even more interesting is that Strange Little Girls fails in its stated purpose.

But that’s okay, because it’s stunningly successful at something even better.

Here’s the concept: Amos took 12 songs from the last 40 years, all penned and originally performed by men. She then endeavored to bring the female point of view into play, setting each of these numbers in strikingly different contexts to bring out the hidden violence in the lyrics. She even constructed alter egos for herself, women who either took part in the original songs yet had no voice in them, or women who were somehow affected by the events described. The idea seemed to be to deliver an indictment of the subtle misogyny that we hear every day and pay little attention to.

This is a great idea. Highlighting the masked destructive power of songs that exist in the cultural lexicon is an admirable notion, a marvelous strike back at the likes of Eminem, and it will probably be the basis for a great record one day. (Ideas for song selections: Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Matchbox 20’s “Push.”) That’s just not the record Amos made here.

Instead of taking from the national radio consciousness, Amos has mainly selected obscure cuts from marginal artists, ones you’re not likely to have had the chance to dismiss as harmless. Her alter egos, pictured and described in the CD jacket, often have nothing but the thinnest tether connecting them to the original song. (What, for instance, is gained by adding another character to the already large and heartbreaking cast of “I Don’t Like Mondays”?)

Adding to the mess is Amos’ Irony Deficiency Syndrome. The two glaring cases of IDS here are her treatments of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” Eminem’s tune is a full-out satire, casting hip-hop violence in a frighteningly real setting and treating it as a pop single. It’s not funny, and he knows it. Should anyone take it seriously, they need only to refer to “Stan,” his masterful response to his own work, to see the truth. Similarly, only the most irony deficient would fail to recognize that the protagonist of “I’m Not in Love” actually is in love, and is trying to convince himself otherwise. Amos tackles both these numbers head-on, believing every word.

The implication here is that the record-buying public is just as irony-deficient, which I don’t believe is true. Satire does make several assumptions of its audience, however. First, it assumes familiarity with the material being satired. One needs a working knowledge of the last 10 years of gangsta rap to fully appreciate Eminem, for instance. Second, the satirist trusts his audience’s ability to discern his true intentions. Some people are, unfortunately, incapable of this. The best satire is often only effective when there are people who miss the point entirely.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to consider Amos one of those people, her work comes from a place of inviolable honesty. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine her assuming that all artists come from the same place. The unfortunate implication of delivering Eminem’s words irony-free is that all satire should be dumbed-down to the extent that even the most irony-deficient among us can understand it. Needless to say, this would kill the satirist’s art form. A side effect of good satire has always been that it can be taken seriously and out of context to extol the very thing the satirist wishes to condemn.

And Amos must be aware of this, because she’s taking Eminem’s words and claiming them as her own on this record. Should you look at Strange Little Girls as a work of satire, you’d have to admit that it makes some assumptions itself. It assumes that you’re familiar with the original works to a degree, or at least that they were all written and performed by men. In some cases, such as “I Don’t Like Mondays,” it makes the same assumption as the original – that you’re familiar with the school shooting it describes, and the answer given by the young perpetrator when asked for a reason: “I don’t like Mondays.” You’re also expected to have some knowledge of Amos and where she’s coming from.

And that’s where the true essence of the record comes out. Despite what she wants you to believe, these other points of view she’s purporting to express are all her own. Even though the CD booklet goes to great lengths to convince you that these are 12 separate experiences, each belonging to a different woman, Strange Little Girls works best as a progression of experience from one woman’s perspective. My advice, then, is to throw away the CD booklet without even looking at it, and immerse yourself in one of Tori Amos’ most effective song cycles.

One of Amos’ greatest skills is as an interpreter, placing songs we know by heart into perception-altering contexts. This album is all context. Every song reflects upon the ones surrounding it, almost as if they were meant to trace one person’s life. Much like the soundtracks to our own lives are made up of the songs we hear at certain points, these are the songs that express the effect violence has had on one woman’s life. While musically Amos’ renditions are either depressingly faithful or maddeningly unfaithful to the originals, she creates a mood and a sense of story with these songs. The result packs more emotional wallop than anything she’s done since Boys for Pele.

Lou Reed’s “New Age” sets the scene, describing what may be the protagonist’s parents in a shaky romance surrounded by lost souls. Amos begins delicately, with her electric piano shrouded in Adrian Belew’s lovely guitar swirls. As the song builds in intensity, she wails, “I’ll come running to you now, baby, if you want me.”

This somewhat hopeful serenade descends into “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” which retains all the horror of the original. The song is a first-person account of a father killing his young daughter’s mother, all the while explaining his actions to his daughter. Amos intones the lyrics in a decidedly creepy manner, setting the tale against dramatic synth strings. The effect is like hearing the song for the first time again. If nothing else, Amos has effectively highlighted just how scary this song is.

It’s easy to imagine the daughter in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” growing up into the “Strange Little Girl” of the Stranglers song Amos does next: “She didn’t know how to make it in a town that was rough, it didn’t take long before she’d had enough.” This deeply scarred soul spends the next few songs looking for love, and finding only a lack of communication in Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence” and a lack of emotional connection in “I’m Not in Love.” “Silence” is almost entirely piano and vocals, while “Love” is a complete departure. Amos retains the sing-song melody of the original atop a bed of spooky electronics that add a murderous edge to the song.

As obvious as it was that the protagonist of the original was secretly in love, it’s equally obvious that Amos wants us to believe the lyrics completely here. In the original, the singer refuses to give his love’s picture back, offering up the lame excuse that “it hides a nasty stain” on the wall. Considering the emphasis she places on these lines, Amos wants us to consider what that stain may be, and how it got there. This song can be seen as sung to or sung by the album’s subject, and either way, it adds to the sense of emotional collapse she goes through.

Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” finds our girl hardened and bitter. “A girl needs a gun these days,” she sings, “on account of those rattlesnakes.” This song is one of the album’s highlights, performed on electric piano with full band backup. “Her neverborn child haunts her now as she speeds down the freeway,” Amos sings, perhaps reflecting upon her own miscarriage. Whether or not our protagonist is Amos herself, it’s easy to see why this song was selected.

The album glides nicely into the sad, perfect “Time,” originally by Tom Waits. Death is the subject here, and the glorious pain of loss permeates a sublime piano-vocal performance. In direct contrast, Amos should be flogged for her mistreatment of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” the album’s one true disaster. She abandons the original melody completely, settling on a three-note stomp that gets quite old quite fast. Above this, she screeches the lyrics, highlighting perhaps the damage that has been done. Our girl is, the lyrics assure us, still searching for a heart of gold, but it’s becoming more futile and dangerous.

The album concludes with a trilogy that exponentially increases the violence we’ve seen so far. The school shooting of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” leads into the widespread death hinted at by the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which in turn descends into the apocalyptic horror of Slayer’s “Raining Blood.” While “Mondays” remains close to Bob Geldof’s original, the other two all but shed the definition of “cover version.” “Warm Gun” has been turned into a beats-and-bass extravaganza, while “Raining Blood” is a powerful meander on piano and fuzzed-out bass.

The centerpiece of the trilogy comes in “Warm Gun” when Amos repeats the line, “She’s not a girl who misses much.” We’re reminded in the midst of all this violent-sounding chaos that our protagonist is watching and taking it all in. Amos’ voice effectively renders the shattering effect present in the words. It’s easy to imagine “Raining Blood,” a tale of souls trapped in purgatory and of red rain seeping through “lacerated skies,” as the end destination of violence. Because of the song sequencing, it’s also horrifyingly easy to trace that destination back to the smallest of causes.

The album caps off with Joe Jackson’s “Real Men,” a perfect bookend. Jackson has long been underrated as a songwriter and a satirist. “Real Men” is a song that sticks with you even in its original version, which Amos stays faithful to. It touches on every subject covered thus far, and on the origins of interpersonal and interracial violence. It even hearkens back to the original idea: the “real men” are not necessarily men. The impact of the final four songs will leave you sad and shaken, largely because of the context suggested by placing them together.

In the final analysis, while Amos may have set out to make a Big Statement, she only succeeded in doing what she’s been best at all along. Strange Little Girls is another highly personal effort. It’s Amos watching the world, taking in all the violence inherent in our daily lives, and detailing its effect on her. In all the important ways, the protagonist of SLG is Amos herself: damaged at an early age, hardened by experience and aware of the collective consequences of giving in to the violence in her heart. This is as big a statement as we’re likely to get from her, and its resonance is undeniable.

I mentioned throughout this review that context shades meaning. The original artists provided context, which Amos reshaped, both in the way she approached the songs and the sequence in which she approached them. Similarly, the context of the tragedies of September 11 adds new meaning and depth to this album. Though it could not have been intentional, Tori Amos has delivered an examination of violence and a plea to refrain from it at a time when the country needs it most. Everything is connected, she’s saying, from the smallest act of maliciousness to the largest act of terrorism. We’ve all seen up close the tragic effects of this cycle, and as the last four songs on Strange Little Girls indicate, there is only one end to it.

So yes, Strange Little Girls is a success, but not in its original intention. As a cover album by a talented artist, it’s hit and miss. As a satire, it’s a trifle. As a real dissection of our culture’s violent tendencies, it works. As a personal statement, it shines. It takes a special kind of artist to use the songs of others to open a window to one’s soul. Amos continues to be our most honest performer, even when the sentiments are not her own.

Whew. Next week, a MUCH shorter column about the new Lost Dogs, Real Men Cry.

See you in line Tuesday morning.