20 Years Ago Today: Tori Amos' "Little Earthquakes"

(This is the second installment of my "20 Years Ago Today" series, where I write about a life-changing album on the exact date of its 20th anniversary. I cheated on the first one because I have no idea what the exact release date of Shelleyan Orphan's "Humroot" was. I'm going to cheat again today because Tori Amos' "Little Earthquakes" was actually released on February of 1992 and I only thought of the idea for this series last week. But I have to cheat. Since this series is all about life-changing albums, I have to include the most life-changing one of them all, at all cost. Even if it's five months too late.)

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I can say this now with a complete certainty only hindsight can give: falling in love with Tori Amos at age 13 was the beginning of the catastrophe of who I am.

For a teenaged boy just discovering his love of words and experiencing his first flurries of hormonal rush, Tori Amos circa 1992 was the perfect pubescent Molotov cocktail. She was profound, emotional, a little melodramatic, controversial, and most importantly, sexual in every way that was unfamiliar, strange, and exciting to me at the time. She sang songs about pain, silence, and finding one’s voice. And she sung them in this distinct sultry purr; I can still remember how her breathy voice felt like in my ear while listening to my “Little Earthquakes” tape inside our car at night, like soft fingers calming the arms of a newborn.

13 is simultaneously the perfect and most dangerous age to take pop culture way too seriously. With “Little Earthquakes”, I didn’t “listen” to Tori Amos; I had a very intense relationship with her. She told me her secrets in “Silent All These Years”, “Winter”, and “Mother”. She cried on my shoulders in “Me and Gun”. She comforted me in “Tear in Your Hand”.

Sometime in 1992, with money that was worth at least two weeks of my allowance, I bought an issue of Keyboard Magazine that had Tori Amos on the cover. For the next few years, that cover was my mini altar. Nothing in the history of mankind was more brimming with beauty, life, and promise than Tori Amos’ face in the September 1992 issue of Keyboard Magazine; bathed in yellow light, her eyes grinning with her lips, her left cheek seemingly pushing out from the glossy paper, her bright red hair half-hiding her eye on one side, then curled back to reveal the welcoming shape of her ear on the other.

It was about to get worse in 1994. The definitive Tori Amos magazine feature came out – “I Believe in Peace, Bitch”, written by Ben Edmonds for the March 1994 issue of Creem Magazine. The Tori Amos legend that was slowly growing inside me was now exploding in my head, a thousand infinitesimal shards of myth piercing through my impressionable psyche. Her photographs were stunning; in one page, they had her entire face blown up in all its ethereal glory. The rest of the pages showed her wearing quirky, hippie-meets-90s-alternachick clothing, jean shorts over winter type pants, knee-high brown boots, and a knitted blouse; it’s hard to explain how this was the coolest thing on planet Earth at the time, you need to be 16 and deliberately non-conformist in post-grunge, pre-Spice Girls Manila to fully understand.

She talked about religion, albeit the DIY kind, explaining that her lyrics, though seemingly blasphemous, were actually earnestly spiritual, and more spiritual than modern-day Catholicism, for that matter. She talked about how tapping into all aspects of the self – the violent side, the whore, the virgin – is the only true way to be complete. She talked about her songs as if they were actual people, quoting them, explaining songwriting as a process of “making friends as they come out of the piano.”

But what affected me most from that feature weren’t the things Tori Amos said, it was the things Ben Edmonds said. He didn’t just write about Tori Amos. As far as I was concerned, he defined her. He was the messianic prophet of everything I would begin to want from art and from life.

“Everybody is multilingual,” he began his piece. This cryptic lead-in was printed in large boldface, next to the one-page monument of Tori Amos’ face, staring right at me. He went on to summarize the myth of art and relationships that would seize me for years:

You learn a language to communicate with people. You learn a dream language to communicate with yourself. But the real language, the one that best communicates your essential nature and its relationship to the world around you, is one you don’t learn.

You find it.

He proceeded to weave his entire interview with Tori Amos around this concept, painting her as the modern day goddess of real art, one that comes from within, bares the soul, and by consequence, must be authentic. The early 90s pop landscape was pretty big on authenticity, or at least perceived authenticity, as evidenced by the sudden explosion of the “Alternative” music scene. But by 1994, with virtually the entire underground scene already co-opted by the record industry, as the rock-critic narrative goes, the “genuine” art of Nirvana, Bob Mould, and Paul Westerberg, were being cloned and watered-down by the likes of Bush and the Goo Goo Dolls. In fact, a month after this feature came out, Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head, lamenting his loss of passion for something that has lost its realness, declaring in his suicide note, “I can’t fool you, anyone of you…it won’t be fair to you or me.”

Months before Kurt Cobain killed himself I was already over Nirvana, over grunge, and over the so-called “Alternative” music scene. Thirsting for unsullied “real” music, I looked more and more towards British indie. In America, however, Tori Amos was the exception. In fact, she was the embodiment of “real”.

As a teenager I didn’t really know what “real” was; all I knew was how great it looked and felt like and that I wanted it. Tori Amos was the ultimate teenage wet dream for young aspiring male writers because her oblique, esoteric songs were ideal in the awkwardness of our pretentious bad-poetry phase. Of all her songs that I listened to from 1991 to 1998, I probably understood nine percent of them. Yet my incomprehension was never a deterrent; it was in fact the main attraction. The more buried in obscure metaphor her words were, the sexier, more fascinating she became. Boys usually go through puberty and adolescence idolizing abrasive male rock stars. That's their first relationship with music that actually counts. But while the rest of them were undergoing an informal training course on raw male sexuality, I was taking a PhD course on the mysterious, unfathomable nature of femininity and falling madly, irrevocably in love with it.

Ben Edmonds’ feature was so unforgettable because it hinted at a promise underneath all the mystery, that somehow, because I “get” what Tori Amos is about, I too, have a special voice. And I was convinced that I have already found it. Only someone as real as Tori Amos can truly understand it. She was the center of my mythical universe, where realness was vaguely profound and profoundly seductive, where realness was real and achievable.

By the turn of the century, I’d stopped listening to Tori Amos religiously. It was about time. I was in my 20s, mature (in theory), a salary-earner, more entrenched with practical concerns; the real real as opposed to the abstract real, and Tori Amos hadn’t put out a decent album since 1998. Still, when I saw her autobiography “Piece by Piece” at a Fully Booked store, I had to buy it. Although I was beginning to see her more as overwrought and occasionally comical, I couldn’t deny the impact she had on my life once upon a time. Buying her autobiography was nothing more than an observance of a tradition that had long been obsolete, much like how the Queen of England still has to knight somebody, even if he hasn’t touched a sword in his life.

Reading her autobiography, though, was a different thing altogether. It finally completed a disillusionment that had been going on gradually for years. Or rather, it provided me with the literal, big-bold-letter explanation of why the disillusionment was happening in the first place. In one of the rare lucid portions of the largely rambling, incomprehensible book, it was revealed how Tori Amos’ neo-hippie image was literally produced by an actual marketing/creative team, complete with a stylist who picked her clothes. This isn’t weird or unethical in and of itself. What was weird was my reaction to this new, yet obvious piece of information. Her image was manufactured? Those clothes that made her maddeningly cool in the early 90s weren’t reflections of her actual self? Those pictorials from all the magazines I worshipped were staged? What the fuck is going on?

I read this book in 2007, at which point I already had over five years experience in TV, public relations, and marketing. I knew and understood how these things were necessary. Yet a part of me was still unprepared to acknowledge that Tori Amos was ever part of that game. It was my last strand of naiveté and that book murdered it.

The joke on Tori Amos has always been that only weird angry women listen to her music. They don’t mock pretentious literary pubescent boys because they have no idea. You have no idea. The fact that “Little Earthquakes” came out when I was at that age, at that specific era, was a rare case of the universe being in perfect symmetry. For me, that album will always be about youth: its embarassing earnestness, its vague sadness, its promise. I’m already near my mid-30s and I don’t care about Tori Amos’ realness anymore. It doesn’t matter.

What will always be real were those early teen years when all I ever wanted from life were held by a smoking hot, hypnotically unusual, infinitely talented redhead whose fabricated image was my entire truth. If I trace my tracks over the last two decades – my passion for writing, my unrealistic wants, my disappointments – they all point back to that 13-year-old boy, head-over-heels in love with a 27-year-old woman he thinks he understands.




I write essays on pop culture and sports for various publications, yet remain an outsider, forever marooned in this blog I call home.

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