The lyrics of Tori Amos

Tori uses highly personal and idiosyncratic language in her lyrics that makes the songs often difficult to decipher and open to multiple interpretations. We don’t always know exactly what she’s talking about, but her choice of words and imagery convey an underlying emotional state that we understand. The ambiguity of meaning helps keep the songs interesting and engaging. A good example of the challenge of interpretation is “Caught A Lite Sneeze” from her third solo album, “Boys for Pele.”

A common interpretation is that the song is about her relationship with Trent Reznor, supposedly evidenced by her reference to “made my own pretty hate machine,” the title of one of his CDs. I don’t think the rest of the song supports this interpretation, although it’s possible that elements of that relationship provided her with ideas for the lyrics.

The song is clearly about a pregnant young woman who has been abandoned by her boyfriend. She’s caught a “lightning seed” but is “hiding it well.” She is surrounded by “boys on my left side, boys on my right side,” which I take to mean sons, and the “boys in the middle” may refer to the baby developing in her womb. All of this male energy, especially in the context of the boyfriend who is not coming through for her (“and you’re not here”), prompts her to cry out for a balancing energy, a “big loan from the girl zone.” Whether this is invoking the Goddess, as someone claims Tori explained the lyrics to mean, or more generally the feminine aspect of the human spirit, I don’t think makes a difference. In any event, the relationship she spent time building is tumbling down, and the topsy-turvy effect on her world is heightened when Tori sings “building” with a descending melody and “tumbling down” with an ascending melody, the opposite of what you would expect. The bottom line is she “didn’t know our love was so small,” so insignificant.

There is a lot of religious imagery in the lyrics, particularly Catholic imagery: a spire, Sister Ernestine, a Belle (which ambiguously could be a beautiful woman or a church bell). The person she calls Mr. St. John could be the father of her boyfriend, or perhaps he is St. John the Baptist and the “son” is Jesus. Is it a church spire or a phallic image — or perhaps both? I suspect that Tori deliberately leaves some of these references ambiguous so there are multiple layers of meaning, a stream of consciousness.

When she sings “made my own pretty hate machine,” though, I feel she’s referring either to her own anger against the boyfriend or how her anger has seeped over to influence the attitudes of her sons — not to Reznor. The evidence that these are her sons is clinched for me when she adds this line toward the end: “boys in their dresses.” That image recalls how baby boys in my grandfather’s day were clothed in dresses for photos and special occasions. So perhaps this character is someone from an earlier day and age. The use of the word “Belle,” which is an older southern expression not much heard these days, favors this interpretation, too.

The title, as Tori herself alluded, is a reference to a relationship that turned out to be insubstantial, hence the spelling “lite.” She uses the imagery of sickness — catching something that’s just a sneeze, not the full-on flu — in an ironic way. After all, wouldn’t it be better NOT to have the flu? Yet having nothing, only a simple sneeze, is why the young woman is distraught. The complexity of that image is a fine example of Tori’s lyrical genius.

I almost get the impression that Tori is singing about a specific person but keeping it obscure. After all, why a reference to a specific nun, Sister Ernestine? And why the use of imagery and terms that were prevalent from a past time? Many of Tori’s lyrics have this same quality of suggesting real experiences, not necessarily her own, that are obscure for us. She doesn’t give us all the details because she is more interested in what the experience represents or symbolizes.

She often uses masculine imagery of guns, violence, invasion — clearly emerging from her own rape experience — but also imagery that criticizes orthodox religious beliefs in favor of the feminine aspect of the divine. Such contrasting references, for example, are scattered all throughout the CD “The Beekeeper,” which, with its garden theme, recalls the Garden of Eden. Tori sees this contrast between masculinity and femininity as being at the heart of both the relationships she sings about and the larger societal/spiritual context of our culture. Like any great artist, her insightful comments are worth paying attention to.

6 Comments

  1. Wow…this is impressive! Thanks for the comment on my site. Caught a Lite Sneeze is definitely one of the most interesting for any avid song interpretation enthusiast. I do get aggravated when fans get so fixated on the whole Reznor thing. Yeah, there may be one or two references but every BFP song? Nope. T’s more multidimensional than that!

    This is an amazing site, btw. What a great idea…

  2. It is very hard to interpret Tori Amos songs, because not everyone IS Tori Amos. Most of us just do not know what she is really referencing in her lyrics because we don’t know the reality of her personal life. There are clues here and there, but there’s no way we can really know everything. All art really is subjective, so you can’t necessarily always prove it’s meant to have one meaning or another.

    But the truth is, most of her songs are written with a very clear general theme in mind. She just adds so many other personal elements and layers to it that listeners can get confused about the general message or theme. This can happen with any great artist. Take Mulholland Drive for example by Lynch. That movie definitely has a broad theme, although half of us just don’t get the references. There are many layers to things that happen in life – many symbolic messages, metaphors, etc. The more you read the lyrics and try and see the overall theme of the story, the more you will understand the song. It doesn’t matter if it’s about pregnancy, or her having a near death experience, or AIDS, or whatever other thing I’ve heard people say. Because even if it’s about those things, that’s not the core message of the whole song.

    When trying to figure out meanings of songs, it helps a bit to know more about the artist themselves, the more you have a better grasp on what particular songs are about. Again, this is hard with Tori because she’s private. However, there are many clues out there though.

    Case in point – Tori was never pregnant at this time in her life. That’s obviously arguable (maybe she was just creating that imagery for the song itself) but someone like Tori Amos would definitely speak out the truth about something like that, and she’s never mentioned pregnancy when talking about this song. She has a book out where she talks about her rape, and each of the times she really did get pregnant and lost the babies. This era was not around that time.

    You did mention Sister Ernestine as well. Tori has mentioned in a few places who she is. Obviously, she may be just a nun in a story somewhere. However, Tori has said, “I went to a conservatory until I was 11 then I got booted out because I wasn’t pulling my weight. They only wanted me to learn classical pieces and I was being taught piano by a Catholic nun called Sister Ernestine who would snore through the whole lesson”

    It is well known that Tori has always tried to hide meanings of her songs behind a beautiful piano sound – that is what she is all about. She would try and outfox the Catholics listening when she was writing songs against the Catholic beliefs. She learned at a very early age how to disagree with the church – through her music – because no one had any idea what she was saying. She found she could disguise her true feelings through music and lyrics. To me, Caught a Lite Sneeze is definitely a song where she’s using that same power she learned about when she was young. To disguise the names of people who hurt her – thought not entirely. She wanted them to know she was talking about them, and to give them a bit of a smack in the face for putting her through this struggle.

    It is well known that Tori had a relationship with Trent Reznor and it did not end well due to Courtney Love. There are many lines in the song that refer to this idea.

    This would explain why Tori would often open, ”Caught a Lite Sneeze” with an improv of “Hurt”, where she says, “You hurt YOURSELF sweet boy”. It is obvious that she is directly saying to Trent, yes, you’re right…you DID hurt YOURSELF.

    She also references Trent two other times in the same song. “….right on time, you get closer, and Closer”… is a reference to “Closer”. Then she says, “Use that Fame…rent your wife and kids today”. Well, she’s saying, “Go ahead Trent, I know you’re only dating a widow with a child because you want to get more famous for dating the widow of Kurt Cobain.”

    The spire is hot = has two meanings – a sharp, hot object has seemingly stabbed her it hurts that bad, and Churches have spires (a lot of energy creates heat)
    And my cells can’t feed = Tori has mentioned this song is about deciding whether she wants to be a vampire (take energy from people) or not be a vampire (be fine on her own) There are experiments that have been done that show microbial cells create power by feeding on the glucose in human blood. This basically means, she cant decided whether she needs someone to bleed for what they did for her to live on, or not.
    And you still got that Belle dragging your foots = you still have that girl bringing you down
    I’m hiding it well Sister Ernestine = I’m disguising my pain in this song
    But I still got that Belle Dragging my foots = But I still have that girl bringing me down

    However, that aside – I personally think the overall lesson of this song is about a woman who sees herself in an emotional/mental tug of war with her own psyche because of this relationship gone wrong. Part of her knows the person she had this relationship with was a waste of her time, however, she still finds herself struggling with trying to keep a sinking ship from sinking. She knows there are men all over the place who would love to date her, but she is still struggling with this one person that she knows is useless. The woman who “won” this man is also still bothering her. She feels she needs help from another source to get out of it – that she’s so hurt she can’t pull herself out of this on her own fast enough.

  3. Oh, and “Mr. St. John” is a refererence to Jane Eyre.

    Tori considers herself to be like Jane Eyre – Jane is an intelligent, honest, plain-featured young girl forced to contend with oppression, inequality, and hardship. Although she meets with a series of individuals who threaten her autonomy, Jane repeatedly succeeds at asserting herself and maintains her principles of justice, human dignity, and morality. She also values intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Her strong belief in gender and social equality challenges the Victorian prejudices against women and the poor.

    St John is a kind man, yet, he is cold, reserved, and also always trying to control people. He cannot win the love of Jane. This explains the no son situation.

    Jane Eyre is not only a love story: It is also a plea for the recognition of the individual’s worth. Throughout the book, Jane demands to be treated as an independent human being, a person with her own needs and talents.

    Check it out.

  4. Tara brings some great insights about the more obscure references in Caught a Lite Sneeze. I especially like her interpretation of Tori’s reference to “spire.” Yes, the song’s basic theme is clear: a woman who has been abandoned by her beloved and is suffering as a result. But we all have different ideas about the details, and the details are what make it interesting. I still fail to find any convincing evidence in the lyrics that the song is about Trent Reznor, although it’s very possible that her experience with him inspired her to create a story about a woman who experiences something similar. Tori is too smart and multi-faceted to be a strictly autobiographical writer.

  5. I get all the “celebrity gossip ” that makes her song seem that it means she is referring to her heartbreak so to speak…she was raised in a Catholic school yes, alter boys wore robes”dresses”, boys on her left,right and middle and YOU aren’t here…..hmmmmm….all boys?,?! I believe this is referring to a girl whom she was in a somewhat relationship. The nun sister erinstine was obviously the disciplinarian that gave her or person she’s referring a separation. Maybe kicked out of the school or who knows. The spire is her yearnings for this other person…cells cant feed between two females,she wants to “rent your wife”…the dragging her foot is a ball and chain so to speak according to catholsim discipline. I could be way off but Tori doesn’t seem to be one to put dumb celebrity bs in her music. Just my opinion

  6. I’m still learning from you, but I’m making my way to the top as well. I absolutely love reading all that is written on your site.Keep the information coming. I enjoyed it!

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