Horror and the supernatural in the music of Tori Amos

Tori Amos and the supernaturalIn her music, Tori Amos often uses images that evoke horror or the supernatural. Demons, witches, magic, legends, ghosts… But trying to discern the precise meaning of these lyrics poses a problem. The lyrics paint moods and images, unconcerned by their obscurity and resistance to threads of logic. I would even say she takes a magical approach to writing words, more interested in what they conjure than in being direct or realistic. Still, one seeks to understand what the songs mean. I’ve chosen five songs to explore how Tori uses the supernatural.

Happy Phantom

Tori’s debut album as a solo artist, Little Earthquakes, came out in 1992. Distinctive arrangements, eschewing the typical guitar-bass-drums-keyboard combo, set the songs apart from other music of the time. Some of the songs, like “Happy Phantom,” presented us with throwbacks to styles of music outside of existing trends. That song’s jumpy piano rhythm, like nothing else in pop music, reminded me of what The Beatles had done 25 years earlier with their evocation of the British musical hall genre (e.g., “When I’m Sixty-Four”). In this case, the jumpy rhythm makes me imagine a skeleton dancing. Despite a grim topic—every day bringing us closer to death—the music and lyrics are light and tongue-in-cheek. Even though she might die today, she’d become a happy phantom chasing nuns in the yard. A violin joins the piano during the instrumental break to play a jaunty, madcap tune.

Sister Janet

This song appeared as one of the B side outtakes from Under the Pink, released in 1994. Solo piano sets a somber mood, then Tori addresses the master shaman and describes coming from the shadow side with a demon and an Englishman. A strange pairing, which I confess eludes me. But other pairings of apparent opposites fill the song: angels and wizards, black and white. This represents the unity of opposites, coming together and “lighting candles in our hands.” Candles for a ritual? For a procession? To be able to see the truth, perhaps? And she can even see sweet Marianne, the spirit of someone who has died. (Tori later wrote a song titled “Marianne” and explained that Marianne was a much loved teenager who died from a drug overdose.) Tori sings how everyone “up there” makes it look so easy with their perfect wings, but wings can cover all sorts of things. What we think is perfect (like angels or beloved teens) are really not. All of us carry a demon and dwell in the shadow side. Who is Sister Janet? I don’t think Tori intends to reference the singing nun, Sister Janet Mead, who famously released rock versions of religious texts during the 70s. That doesn’t fit the song’s theme. But who knows.

Black Dove (January)

This is one of my all-time favorite Tori tracks. It appears on From the Choir Girl Hotel, released in 1998. The black dove might represent the quintessential outsider, like the black sheep or the cool raisin girls in “Cornflake Girl.” Alternatively, it could be an omen of death, or the opposite of the white dove of peace, meaning war. I favor the outsider interpretation since Tori references someone who metaphorically lives “on the other side of the galaxy.” This individual is a “January girl,” from the depths of bleak winter, bedeviled by storms. She never lets on how insane it was in “that tiny kinda scary house by the woods.” The music, with dramatic shifts in volume, tone, and chords, underscores this insanity and how the individual is really out there. The dissonant note in the opening piano melody serves the same purpose, but in a subtler way. Tori elicits an image of horror in the way she repeats “by the woods” eight times in a spooky, descending melody, letting the image of dark woods sink in.

Give

This number from Abnormally Attracted to Sin in 2009 uses vampire imagery. Tori sings how she crossed over the line but has no regrets. There are some who give blood, but she gives love. Soon, before the sun begins to rise, she knows that she must give so that she can live. The music is eerie and sepulchral. She doesn’t equate herself with the vampire, but rather on the one who sustains the vampire by making a sacrifice. Clearly this is a metaphor, but for what? Something personal that is unidentified? Or could it represent her relationship to the music industry? The lyrics don’t yield any additional clues. A verse referencing others who make mistakes in their giving, motivated by pain or perhaps shame, provides no help in untangling the meaning further.

Selkie

A gentle, flowing tune from Unrepentant Geraldines (2014), the song references female sea creatures from Irish and German legend. A selkie can shape-shift from seal to human form. In the song, Selkie “unzips her skin” and spies her beloved sitting alone by a window in the dark. He yearns for the return of his woman from the sea. The middle section introduces a contrasting melody that sounds like (and may be) an ancient air. Tori sings about the lorelei, mythic German water spirits that lure sailors to their death, singing about lovers who have been torn apart. The first melody returns, and Selkie has decided to put away her seal skin to join her beloved. The songs represents two individuals who are fundamentally different—one from the land, one from the sea—but who love one another despite these differences.

Honorable Mentions

  • “God” (Under the Pink, 1994): “A few witches burning, gets a little toasty.”
  • “Graveyard” (Boys for Pele, B side, 1996): I’m coming in the graveyard to sing you to sleep now.”
  • “ieeee” (From the Choir Girl Hotel, 1998): “We scream in cathedrals… why does there gotta be a sacrifice?”
  • “Suede” (Venus and Back, 1999): “Anybody knows you can conjure anything by the dark of the moon.”
  • “Devils and Gods” (Abnormally Attracted to Sin American Doll Posse, 2007 — thanks, Weep, for the correction!): “Cause devils and gods they are you and I.”

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