I’m very much a 90s child; I careened through my tween and teenage years in the last decade of the 20th century. Grunge and alternative music ruled the radio back then, which I now nostalgically regard as the backdrop of my adolescence. But in my heart, I was more of a Lilith Fair and Tori Amos fan.
What I continue enjoy about Amos’s music, 26 years after Little Earthquakes was released and lovingly shattered my young brain, is the poetic quality it has. Her lyrics have often been startling and brutal and at times, confusing – which is what art should be. (I’m not a big fan of creating works that merely pacify, but that’s my bias.) But I think what attaches me the most to Amos’s music is its lasting quality – I can listen to the same songs over and over, and find new meaning in them at different points in my life. (And that’s part of what good art should provoke – continuous new discovery.)
Her talent has provided fans with an extensive catalog of gems, including a lot of songs only performed live. My favorite of these is an improv from Boston, MA, Oct 19, 2007 called “he has a well, you have an ocean” – the ‘you’ here being a feminine presence that Amos addresses as Caroline. “This is your beginning,” she tells Caroline, “but not with him…I am right about this.”
Those who know me in real life know that “Yes, Anastasia” – a B-side from ‘Under the Pink’ – is one of my personal favorites. So much so that I’ve got a tattoo of one of the lines from that song: We’ll see how brave you are. (I take it as a personal challenge.) That song has intrigued me for years – its mix of history and poetry and shifting perspectives, all wrapped up in a strange, 9 1/2 minute piano-driven, strings-enhanced package. It includes the line, “It’s funny, the things that you find in the rain,” which is both tongue-in-cheek and eerie at the same time. Amos has that ability to make me smile yet unnerve me simultaneously.
Of course, I have a super soft squishy spot for Amos’s literary side, which she invokes a bit heavy-handedly in “Ophelia” on ‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin’ (which, honestly, may be one of my most favorite album titles ever.) Ophelia is, of course, a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Amos confirms with the line “some girls will get their way / some fathers will control from the grave.” Ophelia is a tragic figure – she goes mad and dies, and later inspired a small hoard of Romantic and Pre-Raphaelite artists, because the art and literary world has long had a fetish for young, beautiful dead white girls. (The American media still does.)
“Ophelia” also invokes a John Keats poem called “The Eve of St. Agnes,” which I always wondered at a bit, since its admittedly beautiful language conceals a fairly bland narrative. It’s about lovers who have a happy ending. There’s some dream-enchantment in the middle. The characters are a bit flat and stereotypical. But Madeline, the medieval damsel of this poem, may be the girl who gets her way – she undertakes a ritual on the Eve of St. Agnes, hoping to dream of the man she will marry. She has a specific man in mind and – lo and behold! – he appears in her bedroom, sweeps her off her feet, and they run away together into the night.
Perhaps Amos is setting Madeline and Ophelia up as a contrast – one girl gets her lover and (it is assumed) a happy ending. The other gets madness, a broken tree branch, and a long, lifeless float down a river.
I keep coming back to this song time and again because the narrative voice of the song – maybe it’s Amos, maybe it’s one of the many characters she sometimes embodies – repeatedly implores the Ophelia character to “break the chain.” She also states that “The Eve of St. Agnes” is “a poem he can’t reach you in.” I’m not sure who ‘he’ is – her father? Her would-be lover? And why can’t she be reached in that poem? Because, perhaps, it doesn’t end tragically?
But I think the line that gets me the most is toward the end, where Amos sings, “Ophelia, you know how to lose / But when will you learn to choose?”
It’s a very small, very powerful moment. I think Amos is probably speaking to women in general, but I hear it in a much more personal way. I’ve had the misfortune of internalizing the idea that “nothing good will come of this,” and accepting negative people, energy, and events as inevitable and permanent instead of realizing that I do have a choice. I do have autonomy. I can choose to walk away. I can choose to remove some of these elements from my life.
And I have, which in the twilight years of my 30s, brings me much comfort. I’ve learned to choose, which is such a simple yet such an exquisitely difficult thing to do.
All of this came out of my ruminating on how art can be therapy. Music, poetry, visual arts, theater, film – it can be cathartic. But in order to achieve catharsis, some disruption must occur as well. Ultimately, that’s why I continue to love Amos’s music with the same enthusiasm that my teenage self once did – because of those small, disruptive moments in her songs, be they instrumental or lyrical.
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“You have the ocean, Caroline, waiting for you to swim in, to be born in, to begin again. I’m right about this.”