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Brian Ward

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Volume 1, May 1996

Tori Amos: The Performer

Tori Amos is a composer of beautiful music, a talented pianist, and a unique singer; listening to her music is a emotional experience. The beauty of he music and its emotional intensity can perhaps be understood as thc product of Tori's personality, the talent she appear to be naturally gifted with, and her individual experiences. In this short piece I will examine Tori's image and sexual persona, especially in relation to her live performances. My views are based or seeing Tori perform live in Perth, Australia during her 1992 Little Earthquakes and 1994 Under The Pink tours. Issues of gender impact on criticisms of Tori's music and persona because her performance suggests a persona deeply involved in constructing a new image of female sexuality and a strong female voice.

Tori's stage presence is close and intimate, and this is achieved in an apparently 'natural' or spontaneous manner. In her first performance in Perth, at the University of Western Australia's Octagon Theatre in November 1992, a young girl in the audience walked on stage at the end of the performance and gave Tori a bunch of red roses. The atmosphere owed more to an operatic or theatrical performance, where the singer or actor is praised and admired by an audience that is appreciative yet restrained. No one screamed or tried to run onstage and hug her or tear her clothes off. During her second appearance in Perth, at The Concert Hall in December 1994, the larger size of the venue in comparison to the Octagon Theatre lessened the intimacy of Tori's performance to the extent that her immediate physical presence was more distant.

This time, security guards could be seen beside the stage. No little girl was able to offer flowers, and although the behaviour of the crowd was more raucous, it was no less respectful or genuinely appreciative. Tori made up for this environmental reduction in intimacy by talking at length with the audience about her music and especially her love of pianos. Tori told he audience that she had threatened to boycott The Concert Hall if they had disposed of a particular piano (a Bosendorfer I think) she knew they possessed before her concert. She wanted to play this particular piano as it was old and mellow in tone. Thankfully the Concert Hall administration saved it for her. Tori caresses her piano in live performances like it is a favourite horse she rides every day.

Some mention can be made of Tori's seating position at the piano. She sits at the piano with her right side facing the audience, twisting toward them. At the same time, her right leg is often hanging off the edge of the piano stool, her knee bent. During parts of her performance Tori grinds on the stool in this position, simulating masturbation. Tori's presence on the stage at this time is stunning; the audience is almost silent, willing her to achieve a musical climax - Tori invariably writhes in this way during tense, aggressive passages over the piano without singing. Her sexual persona onstage is a combination of defiance of established sexual roles for women and recognition of her own self-consciousness at being the object of the gaze of others.

Feminist theory engages with the notion of the gaze in a number of ways. Specifically, it considers who is looking at who, at what the effects of the gaze are. The theory of the gaze appears extremely relevant to discussions of the image and lyrics of Tori Amos, a female rock or pop star whose physical appearance and sexuality are often commented on. I choose to place this discussion in the context of he numerous World Wide Web pages which deal with the music, image and persona of Tori Amos.1 Most of these pages are maintained by men, and are probably accessed by men more than women, if not or the musical, biographical, and discographical data they contain but for access to pictures of Tori. These pictures of Tori Amos have gained a distinct status as pictures of a woman as opposed to pictures of a pop star. One such site deal only in pictures; it disassociates the context of the pictures from being related to the admiration of Tori, the performer or musician, to signifying the admiration of Tori as woman.2

In the song 'Leather' from her first album Little Earthquakes, Tori addresses the line "Don't you want more than my sex?" to an unknown audience. From this we can perceive a recognition that she is considered a sex symbol in the public arena. It can be argued that all famous musicians have a public sexual image and persona that is accessed by many people not all of them actual fans of the star in question. The Beatles, for example attained huge sexual status with their female fans. Madonna consciously manipulates her sexual image in the public arena, reproducing herself as a sexual commodity for men and women. Unlike Madonna, Tori Amos does not appear to do this to any great extent, and neither does her record company or her official publicity.

The image of Tori as a sexual being is made more complex to members of her audience due to what we read from the image we see on television and live on stage. The male viewer is presented with the image of a young woman that conforms to many standards of what would be considered attractive.3 The images of Tori Amos as woman cannot be distanced from the images of Tori as artist, as pop star, as rape survivor. However, Tori distinguishes herself from all of these images. In her song 'Girl' from Little Earthquakes, she describes identifying herself as an individual distinct from the images and expectations others have of her.

The recognition of the gaze in Tori's music is most apparent in her performance of 'Me and a Gun', a song describing her experience of being raped. Without musical accompaniment, Tori wrenches the audience with the desperation of her experience, invoking tears from many. It is also from this song that many fans adopt a sympathetic perception of Tori, believing that she needs emotional support. While a female audience member at her 1994 Perth concert commented that she appears "pretty screwed up", most of her fans would appreciate that her subtly exaggerated sexual persona onstage is the product of her own experience. This sexual posturing onstage, say the amateur psychologists in the audience, is her attempt to deal with the knowledge that she is being watched by numerous men, just as she was watched by the man who raped her years ago.

Tori's song 'BakerBaker' from her second album, Under the Pink, suggests that she is aware of the psychological healing process that must take place for survivors of rape and sexual assault to cope with life. Tori Amos understands this to the extent that she founded a telephone counselling hotline in the US called Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network or RAINN. It is interesting to see that on the cover of her new album Boys for Pele Tori sits holding a real gun, as if she is deciding to present a more aggressive image.

Tori constructs in her performance of 'Me and a Gun' and all her songs a sexually charged stage presence which suggests a strong, vibrant female sexuality that cannot be contained by conventional notions of the female performer or artist. In this way she shares something with her contemporaries Miki Berenyi of Lush and Madonna. What is new in Tori's approach is that she is often considered very much in classical or folk music tradition rather than a rock tradition. An aggressive female sexual persona seems more acceptable in the realm of aggressive guitar music - just look at Courtney Love!

The world of guitar-based rock is not Tori's chosen medium. Hers is a more varied musical genre incorporating such elements of classical piano and pop sensibilities absorbed from a childhood spent listening to sixties music. It is within this area of musical performance that Tori Amos identifies herself as a musician and as a sexual being.


Notes

1. For those interested in pursuing Tori Amos sites on the WWW, start at one of these three places: Tori's record company's official Tori site at http://www.tori.com/; Kevin Hawkin's Tori Amos links page at: http://ncsa.uiuc.edu/khawkins/tori.html and Cory Wagner's Tori Amos: Hammer of the Goddess page at: http://www.iac.net/~cdwagner/torimain.html. All WWW references as at 29/3/96.

2. See the Tori Thumbnail Archive at: http://www.csv.warwick.ac.uk/-psucj/toripics.html.

3. The question of how women view the image of Tori Amos is equally complex, but will not be addressed here. As a man l feel it would be too difficult to comment on with any success.


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