I’m at a birthday party for a young, startlingly successful female writer. As I move through conversation in a huge Brooklyn loft, I keep trying to talk about Tori Amos. People sit on windowsills, all cigarettes and weed-smoke and fern-y, people lounge on velvet sofas and they all squint when I ask: Did you know that Tori Amos just came out with a new album? Did you know that Little Earthquakes was released 20 years ago? Ash-the-cigarette. No one cares. When I bring up Fiona Apple, people have more to say. They had heard about her being arrested for possession of hashish. People had read that profile a male journalist wrote about hanging out with Fiona, the one that had stuff about her reading books on child rearing and about how he got to smoke her hashish.
But there were things in my head that I wanted to say. Things like… this year Fiona put out an album that Pitchfork gave a 9.0. “Best New Music.” The site has never reviewed a Tori Amos album. When Fiona emerged in 1997 every music journalist had to mention Tori when writing about her. But I guess the Tori vs. Fiona debate is no longer relevant. And I want to ask questions like…What does it mean to age as a woman in the public eye? As an artist?
Why can’t Tori have the come-back that Fiona is enjoying?
Or maybe “enjoying.” I realize I might be going off on a tangent here but y’know. Fiona has been described as looking bony and miserable and all feral-deer-like on this tour. The same as when she first came out. Did you know that when Fiona was signed, she had never played a live show or even played with other musicians? The record company wasn’t even sure what she wanted to sound like. Her manager took her record shopping and she picked out Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and hip hop, things like Wu Tang, Biggie.
Fiona was 19 when Tidal was finished but before the album could come she needed a single. In order to please the record company, Fiona wrote “Criminal.” It took her five minutes. And then there was the video, Fiona is her underwear, underweight and pouty. She gave it to them.
Has Tori ever given them what they wanted? I have realized by talking with people at hip Brooklyn parties that the name Tori Amos elicits a specific cringe. A cringe that says if Fiona Apple is female self destruction glamorized (all anorexia and cutting) Tori Amos is closer to bulimia. The Courage to Heal. The things you are supposed to hide. Tori is a Survivor not a Victim. Tori is not sexualized.
On my 17th birthday my boyfriend took me to a Tori Amos concert. We drove three hours to a theater in St. Louis that was designed in the twenties and was all red and gold and looked like a mosque in India. I was in awe. “It’s all women” my boyfriend said. The theater was filled with grown women in prom dresses and glasses, teenage almost-women with lyrics on their arms, women by the thousands all swaying and buzzing and awaiting the fairy queen.
Tori Amos is associated with women. This is what makes her embarrassing. You see this show up in other places too. Like, I’ve been told that when you write for ladyblogs and ladymags that it is somehow lesser. Somehow the stories don’t really count.
I wonder how it’s fucked up Fiona, being the sexy girl in her underwear on MTV at age 19. Being the girl who can go on Howard Stern and be complimented on her music as well as her ‘flat as a board’ stomach. (Tori has never done Stern though he once did call her music something a ‘heartbroken lesbian might listen to.’)
In 1998 after being pressed by a reporter, Fiona did talk about it. She said, among other things… “Of course I have an eating disorder. Every girl in fucking America has an eating disorder. Every girl has an eating disorder because of videos like that. Exactly. Yes. But that’s exactly what the video is about. When I say, ‘I’ve been a bad bad girl, I’ve been careless with a delicate man’ — well, in a way I’ve been careless with a delicate audience, and I’ve gotten success that way, and I’ve lived in my ego that way, and I feel bad about it…”
When Little Earthquakes, Tori’s seminal and celebrated album, came out, Tori was 29 years old. I bet this was her real age too… which makes me feel good. She was older than I am now, by a little.
Last spring I was invited to lunch with some freelance producers who worked with companies like MTV, selling them pitches for reality shows. We were talking about pitching a show around me. Maybe it would be about a girl who writes about sex and her adventures, like a contemporary Reality Sex and the City. But maybe with more sex. Maybe it would be about a girl in Brooklyn who is trying to be a writer and her friends who are also creatives. Like a Reality Girls. But sexier. “I think we could present you as a guy’s girl, like both sexy and sort of one of the guys. I think you could appeal to guys as well as girls.” I was nodding, my chest feeling like it wanted to burst into a million heart-shaped confetti but then also dark and knotty.
What I was thinking was What you sell out is what you become known for. Is that true?
“Oh but how old are you?” They asked.
“Oh no, I think we should say you are 24,” and I nodded.
The idea for a show didn’t go anywhere but now I know about the concept of a ‘stage age.’ After talking with people at loft parties where people smoke out of windows, I have learned this is common, everyone has an actress friend who has knocked a few years off. And so now it doesn’t surprise me, say, when I read an early piece about Lana Del Rey that said she was 29… and a recent piece of press that said she’s 26. So I think about that and now I notice that my eyes crinkle when I smile and there is a little half moon wrinkle, a crescent fingernail near my mouth that is there even when I’m not smiling. I wonder if I look old instead of young when I’m not wearing make-up.
You hear that with writers, some of the most successful people didn’t make it until they are in their 40s or 50s or even later sometimes. That it isn’t like musicians who can have one hit wonders in their 20s. But I wonder what the internet is doing to writers. Standing out online is about persona. About “Personal Branding.” And there is value in coolness, in youth, in looks even.
When I think about persona, I think about Courtney and Tori and Fiona and Nicki and Lana. My idols have always been musicians. This is how I know that Tori Amos was 29 when Little Earthquakes came out. That as a teenager she played the piano at nightclubs, earning more than her preacher father. And that she moved to LA where she had a failed first band called Y Kant Tori Read. Whenever Tori is asked about this in interviews, she always brings up a review who called her a bimbo and she blushes. This is the last thing our ethereal fairy queen ever wanted to be seen as.
I am writing this piece on my birthday, a day I usually spend curled up with my journal looking back at the last few years trying to figure out how I got here.
Around this time a year ago the sun was pouring in my apartment and I was naked on a yogamat thinking that I was looking forward to being in my 30s. This was new. So much of my 20s had been grimy and miserable and I wanted to take care of myself, I wanted to plan more and think bigger. I wanted to do everything all at once. In that moment with my mind all chewed up with light and breath, it felt simple and possible.
But I should have realized that I would, of course, get dragged back down with the tide and do that thing where I walk around the apartment staring at things and surfing that black wave in my chest. Feeling some dark groin-level thing, the slick matted hair in the shower-drain.
I want to believe that my life could one day look at all close to the way I imagine Tori’s does with her house in England and her cellar of wine and the one glass of red she drinks a night. I want to believe Tori could have a come-back but maybe Fiona just fits a more comfortable narrative of ‘artist.’ While Tori kept on working, making songs about motherhood and even releasing a Christmas album, Fiona rarely released anything. She spent her time battling addiction and other demons. Fiona came back to us how we remembered her. And isn’t that always what we want from our pop stars? She didn’t grow up.
The fact that it has been 20 years since Little Earthquakes to me seems worthy of a long juicy magazine profile with Tori, one that has lingering sentences about her ‘marinara tendrils,’ careful notices of her wrinkles, blossoming answers about her views on God. Some websites I’d never heard of interviewed Tori about the album. In one such interview she said:
“The industry isn’t growing with its female artists, staying with them as far as new records, investing… Sure, there are those of us who have been able to retain and stay but if you think about the men and the male bands that are able to — I mean, I don’t have enough digits to count the guys who are touring out there!”
At age 17 at that Tori Amos concert, I saw her. It was before she went on and the lights were out and the theatre was buzzing with the glittered women shimmying in their seats. No one was getting up but, nervous, I decided to run to the restroom. Our seats were sloped up high, nosebleed, and I found a back entrance. And then there, out in the bright light of the hall I ran right into her. A cloud of creamy dior and copper hair that floated in the air. I looked into Tori’s face and she waited a moment, pausing… but I didn’t say anything and then she turned and was gone, white chiffon and cinnamon-y strands all trailing behind her. I think what I wanted to say was something like. “Help me. Teach me how to be a woman.”