My junior year in college I took a Women in Music class, where my final project was to create a 15 minute presentation on a female musician. I knew immediately that the subject of my presentation would be the one and only Tori Amos.
I feel a strong affiliation to Tori, and in my head I imagine we’d be friends, that Tori would be my mentor and I her protégé. Our upbringings are eerily similar in some regards and it makes her music, which sometimes can be so far out of the realm of reality, connect to me in a way that not very many artists can.
Like myself, Tori is the daughter of a minister and grew up in a strict religious household. At a very young age, she started playing piano and was later accepted to Peabody Institute at the age of five, making her the youngest person ever to be admitted into this prestigious conservatory. However, Tori was always a rebel, even at a young age. She had little interest in classical music and would rather play rock music instead. She also struggled with reading music, as she primarily played piano by ear. At the age of eleven, her scholarship was discontinued and she subsequently left the program. Somehow, her father allowed her to perform in local gay bars across the DC area as a teenager. Eventually, in her twenties she moves to LA to pursue a music career. Her first musical endeavor, Y Kant Tori Read, a joke off of Tori’s lack of interest in reading music, was not a success. Following the failure of this musical project, Tori released Little Earthquakes, one of the most prolific and artistic albums from the 90s.
Today, her career has spanned over 20 years, with dozens of albums of work to show for it. Little Earthquakes is a genius debut masterpiece, but a close second for me is Boys for Pele. In this album, she focuses on religion from a female prospective. In fact, Pele, is a Hawaiian volcano goddess, whom appears to represent the anger within Tori. Anger from failed relationships, anger from being raised in a patriarchal religion, and anger from a previous sexual assault.
For my presentation, I struggled to condense it down to 15 minutes. How do you spend only fifteen minutes talking about Tori’s upbringing, musical influences, and body of work? I struggled even more with deciding which song and video to show my classmates. It became even more difficult as I learned more and more about her story. I see a lot of myself in her. As I’ve said on other posts, my father is a pastor and I felt trapped in his religious ideologies. As a self taught musician, I felt honored when I was accepted into music school, but it was also difficult for me. I was bored with the repertoire my piano teacher gave to me and I had no interest in moving my wrists up and down on certain beats or using certain fingers for each note. In the practice room, instead of practicing my piano repertoire, I would learn how to play Enter Sandman or Man in the Box. And I’d much rather learn by ear than read through the sheet music. I’d rather improvise than follow exactly what’s on the page.
I ended up choosing one of my favorite songs, but also probably one of her more controversial pieces, Father Lucifer. Despite the title, this song is not about worshiping the devil, nor is it about her own father. After experimenting with psychedelic drugs in South America, Tori met with “the devil”, or rather the darkness within her. Hiding from the darkness, the depression, the anguish within does nothing in the long run. At some point, you have to face it head on. In her own words:
“The idea that Dark is not a scary thing if you go in there understanding there is a purity in Darkness. There’s also a lot of distortion in Darkness. It’s a choice where you want to go, and I wanted to get to the truth, not to the drama and to keeping me from the truth.”
In the bridge, we hear three layers of vocals singing completely different, almost nonsensical lyrics, like “girls that eat pizza never gain weight”, “I got a condo in Hoboken”, “everyday’s my wedding day”. But to me, this represents the cacophony of thoughts in her head that she’s hidden from herself for years.
Tori’s rendition of Father Lucifer on the Letterman show in 1996 is my absolute favorite live performance of this piece. First of all, going on national TV performing a song called Father Lucifer takes major balls. Then, she effortlessly incorporates The Exorcist theme music into the bridge. On national TV. When I showed this to my class, they were equally mesmerized as well as horrified. I believe that was probably her goal of this performance. Self discovery is not always a fairy tale and sometimes we must plunge into the depths of ourselves that we’ve buried inside.
Listen to Boys for Pele on: