Tori Amos: the pop star who taught me how to be a woman on my terms

The outspoken piano powerhouse behind hits such as Cornflake Girl spoke frankly about religion, desire and gender

My childhood best friend introduced me to plenty of cool musicians: Nine Inch Nails, Shakespears Sister, Suzanne Vega. But I remain eternally grateful for the moment in the mid-90s when she slipped me a dubbed cassette of a Tori Amos album, its song titles spelled out in purple and green pen on the J-card in loopy handwriting.

I was certainly familiar with Tori: the pianist’s flame-red hair and inscrutable, mischievous singles such as Cornflake Girl were impossible to miss on MTV. Even during a decade in which musical weirdness bubbled to the surface, the way she contorted her voice around piano, synths and other keyboards – an anguished howl one moment, a knowing growl the next – were striking.

Before diving into her music, my listening tended to be framed from male perspectives (REM, the Smiths), or driven by aggressive, extroverted angst. I vividly remember blasting Nirvana’s Territorial Pissings, with its shearing noise and guttural screams, when I was upset. Connecting with Tori albums such as Under the Pink and Boys for Pele nurtured a more personal and introverted fandom experience; being a Tori fan became part of my identity.

And while her singles were everywhere, listening to her albums was an intense, deeply private experience. When I finally heard her debut, Little Earthquakes, I was floored by the way she paired brittle piano with thundering rock instrumentation and unsparing lyrics. I sobbed on the rust-coloured carpet of my bedroom floor as several lines from Winter (“When you gonna make up your mind? / When you gonna love you as much as I do?”) ripped through me.

Tori Amos: Raspberry Swirl – video

Tori seemed to be speaking directly to my teenage insecurities, crystallising hard truths about self-worth I wasn’t ready to face. I worried that a physical disability made me a burden and unlovable. As a result, I felt awkward, perfecting the art of pining instead of dating, and deeply uncomfortable trying to navigate womanhood. I physically couldn’t wear high heels or any other traditionally feminine shoes anyway, which only added to my feelings of alienation.

Luckily, I had Tori teaching me how to be a woman on my own terms. She was secure yet vulnerable, so connected to her feelings in ways I couldn’t yet articulate, and comfortable in her skin. Her interviews were funny and irreverent – she described creativity in wildly colourful terms, with casual references to muses and fairies – but could also be quite serious.

And Tori spoke frankly about religion and desire, and even discussed the impact of her own rape, which she had detailed in the single Me and a Gun. I knew about RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), a US hotline for survivors, because of her vocal support as spokesperson, and grew up knowing there was a resource there if I ever needed it. To an introvert like me, her willingness to be open about these heavy topics was revolutionary.

Amos playing two pianos in a 2005 live show.
Amos playing two pianos in a 2005 live show. Photograph: Martin Philbey/Redferns

This bravery extended to Tori’s expressions of desire and sexuality, which were also eye-opening to someone deeply insecure about this side of life. The throbbing remixes of Raspberry Swirl and Professional Widow were revelations that gave into the ecstatic, bold physicality of the dancefloor. Live, Tori was just as mesmerising, a pianist who threw her whole self into unselfconscious and unapologetic performances. Though the first time I saw her play live was in an arena, on her first tour with a full band, her power was clear: Tori was upfront, a bandleader steering a group of male musicians toward her vision.

But in interviews and lyrics, Tori also generously shared her creative space with other women. By elevating the stories of historical and religious figures I often didn’t hear about in school or at church, she cracked open a portal to interesting, undiscovered history. Understanding the many layers of her songs meant researching myths and characters, and maybe even unlearning conventional narratives. It opened my eyes to the complexities of gender dynamics and historical storytelling, and the ways power imbalances could flourish within them.

It took years of hindsight for me to understand the nuances of her message. I still look to her as something of an oracle I can check in on, one who keeps me grounded and curious. In the 90s, she created a safe and accepting universe where fans were allowed to discover who they were and fashion themselves into the kind of people they wanted to be. I see so clearly now how she viewed being different and intuitive as a gift, not something shameful or to be hidden. When I last saw her perform, in 2017, it was surprisingly emotional to be able to revisit these themes as an adult, in a space with other Tori fans. I marvel at how lucky I was to have had this aspirational role model: a woman fearless enough to speak all of her truths, so her fans could find their own.


Annie Zaleski

The GuardianTramp

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