Throughout my life, there have been all kinds of falling: the kind that starts faintly and deepens in shades, until you can’t tell when it stopped being one thing and started being love; then there’s the kind that happens like cataclysm, sudden and irrevocable, so that the moment becomes history: a December 26 tsunami, a 9/11 explosion, a June 20 walk from a bar, the birthday I turned 20, the birthday I turned 18. You remember where you are, what you’re doing, when the world changes.
I’ll pause for a while, to say that I’m talking about Tori Amos here, about her new album The Beekeeper. It’s taking some courage to do that, as one would about past loves they can’t quite get over, and don’t really want to talk about. (“Shame shame,” as Tori and Damien Rice admonish, on “The Power of Orange Knickers.” “For letting me think that I would be the one.”)
Let me tell you something about me and Tori. I remember taking a ride in Bob’s car, heading out of the Ateneo gates, and being told, “Here’s something I think you’ll like.” The first song (it was a cassette) wasn’t a minute in when I demanded to be driven to the nearest record shop (we ended up at Robinson’s Galleria) to get my own copy of Little Earthquakes. It was beautiful, and I would listen to little else for months afterwards, up until the summer of 1993 when, listening to the album for the million billionth time in my room, I had an epiphany of sorts. I can’t quite explain exactly what it was that I learned, but it was like, well, losing my virginity.
Something about the music made me aware of my body, and no, Mr. Filthybrains, it wasn’t like that. Something about the edge in her voice, something about the pain and the longing all coiled up inside everyone, something about how hot it was that summer: I stopped living in my head that year, and became so comfortable with the power of this skin and these bones that I surprised even my fencing teammates. (That was the year I stopped being everyone’s little whipping girl; a year later, I was team captain, and the coach would only let me practice with the boys’ team because it was the only way I could get a good workout.) So you see how her music--and here I cringe because I know exactly how floopy that sounds--has become such a part of my life in a way that even the music from my favorite bands haven't.
I’ve loved Tori more (From the Choirgirl Hotel) and less (Boys for Pele), but just last week I surprised myself when someone suggested that I looked like a Tori fan. “What, do I look like someone who draws unicorns in my friggin’ notebook?!” I huffed. And anyone who’s ever read the articles or seen the documentary DVDs about Tori fans know what a frighteningly geeky bunch of freaks they are. This is, after all, a woman who talks in verbal pretzels when she’s being eloquent; a woman in a mutually referential relationship with Neil Gaiman; a woman who, for God’s sake, named her daughter after Tolkien’s Lothlorien. So…what? Me? No, no, I never liked Tori that much.
But here I am, listening to The Beekeeper, and for all its faults-—it’s boring in parts, underproduced, missing the insanely rich layers of music or the painfully spare melodies that made her best work so deeply crazy and so deeply affecting—-my heart is again in my throat, my hands shaky, my stomach in knots. I can’t explain it.
It was easier to figure out what I felt about Tori Amos’ music when she was making the relatively sparse but emotionally gutting Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, or the deep and intricate From the Choirgirl Hotel and To Venus and Back. The lines were drawn then: because Tori’s music demands such a huge and deeply visceral investment, you either buy into it, or you don’t. I bought into it, big-time.
Now this may have marked me for life, because, like any lover (or cult member) I may see why I shouldn’t invest so much emotionally into The Beekeeper, but I can’t stop myself. I'm trying to tell myself that I can't be this personal with an album, not after spending six years pounding out hundreds (!) of reviews, and certainly not after growing up to be, well, me (and not, for example, Peach). But maybe it's too late for that now. Tori requires a personal response because, producing greatly personal music, that's the way she's asked to be let in, and that's how I've let her in. I realize that this is gushing. It is not what I could sanely claim to be a "conventional critical response." But so what? Tori Amos isn't what I would call a conventional musician either, and she'll never produce conventional music, and we'll never have a conventional relationship.