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‘Strange Little Girls’: Understanding Tori Amos’ Bold Covers Album
In Depth

‘Strange Little Girls’: Understanding Tori Amos’ Bold Covers Album

A remarkable project that gives silenced women a voice, Tori Amos’ covers album, ‘Strange Little Girls’, is like no other record in history.

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“This is not just about songs that meant something to me when they came out,” Tori Amos said of her sixth solo album, 2001’s Strange Little Girls. “This is about how men say things and how a woman hears.”

Amos recorded the 12 songs that make up Strange Little Girls – all cover versions, all written by men – to find the women inside them. One of the most influential female musicians of her generation, Amos did not change the songs’ words; instead, it is through her voice, intonation, arrangements and emotion that those women were coaxed out. Some characters were intended by their male creators, while others were Amos’s own inventions.

Listen to ‘Strange Little Girls here.

The backstory: “It was a different male seed/vision that I was taking to put into my garden”

“Each woman approached me and said, ‘I have a point of view on this song, that you may want to know, that may change how you hear its meaning,’” Amos said of the songs that make up Strange Little Girls. Many of those women were demeaned, parodied or hated in these songs; they had been, to use an Amos phrase, silent all these years. To understand the points of view of the women in the songs, Amos said she tried to “crawl behind the corridors of men’s eyes, and hang in their heads”.

Yet Strange Little Girls isn’t a reductive or angry project; rather it’s an alternative history, a different story, a vision of these songs away from a patriarchal society. It also links with deeper ideas about songs that Tori Amos has long held – that they grow and change after they leave the writer’s pen, something she particularly explored on her 1998 album, from the choirgirl hotel.

“Yeah, I have pictures in my head when I hear my songs Winter and Professional Widow, but they are not going to be the same pictures that you see,” Amos said in 2001. “My personal experience with a song is just my personal experience. And a song goes beyond that. So, in this land of myth [Strange Little Girls] that you walk into in each song, it was a different male seed/vision that I was taking to put into my garden. What I didn’t realise, when I took their seed, is that I would also have to take a little egg back with me.”

Each song on Strange Little Girls was accompanied by a photograph of Amos as the woman whose character she inhabited, and these portraits have endured as some of Amos’ most arresting imagery. There is also a series of short stories, written by Neil Gaiman, to accompany each track. Every song had its own story and particular meaning.

‘Strange Little Girls’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

New Age

New Age was written by Lou Reed and recorded by The Velvet Underground. Later cited by Reed as being a personal favourite among his own songs, it was originally written about his then girlfriend, Shelley Albin, and performed live by the Velvets in a little-known version that Amos chose to cover. Later, Reed changed the lyrics to refer to a “fat blonde actress”, and the band recorded this better-known version of the song on their 1970 album, Loaded.

On New Age, Amos finds a magnetic yet inscrutable woman, bubbling with passion, as represented by the “balmy, undulating rhythm” that Amos has said she strove for. She went on to say that New Age’s woman is “a writer, an observer. She’s doing research; she’s documenting like an Encyclopedia Britannica of life and experience. Her big line is, ‘Well, I’m doing Research.’”

’97 Bonnie And Clyde

Strange Little Girls’ second track is a cover version of one of music’s most violently misogynistic songs. Written by Eminem as a fantasy of murdering his ex-wife, Kim Scott Mathers, ’97 Bonnie And Clyde struck Amos as being “a song that depicts domestic violence very accurately, right on the money”. In the original, Eminem – through pitch-black humour and dark imagination – narrates the journey to dispose of Kim’s body, via a monologue delivered to his very young daughter Hailie Jade.

Amos’ version is completely different – a whispered delivery that evokes profound grief for Kim. “I did not align with the character that he represents,” Amos said of Eminem’s narrator in ’97 Bonnie And Clyde. “There was one person who definitely wasn’t dancing to this thing, and that’s the woman in the trunk. And she spoke to me… [She] grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘You need to hear this how I heard it.’”

In the photo accompanying the song, Amos is dressed as Kim, holding a cake for her daughter. “This is her right before she was killed,” Amos said. “She’s deeply sad. She absolutely loves her daughter.”

Strange Little Girl

The Stranglers’ famed nihilism often found its targets in women. Their 1977 debut album, Rattus Norvegicus, is a particularly difficult listen, with a domestic-violence narrative on Sometimes and the over-the-top sexualization of women’s body parts on Peaches. Nevertheless, Amos has gone on record as a fan of The Stranglers, seeing their sexism as performance, and admiring the quality of their writing. “I was just drawn to them because… What a catalogue they’ve written,” she said.

Lending the Strange Little Girls album its title, Strange Little Girl, like Sometimes, was written about a girlfriend of Hugh Cornwell and, though originally demoed in 1974, the song was not released until 1982. In her mind, Amos created an explicit link between this song and ’97 Bonnie And Clyde: “This is the little girl whose father killed her mother in Eminem’s song,” she said, “all grown up, having to deal with the fact that she was an accomplice to the murder.”

Enjoy The Silence

“She’s a showgirl, and I call her Isis,” Tori Amos said of the woman at the heart of Enjoy The Silence. “She might moonlight over in Vegas. She’s the oldest of the showgirls there, and she’s been around a while. There’s a mothering quality in her; she sees the other women who come through the doors and get extorted. She sees who the puppeteers are, and she sees when they’re lying there, bleeding.”

Enjoy The Silence, written by Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, and an enormously successful single when released in 1990, is open to multiple interpretations. For some, it’s a thing of beauty, where the power of a relationship transcends the need for words; others hear suppression of a woman’s voice, the narrator holding the power to silence his “little girl”. Amos has said that the suggestion to cover this song came from a male friend of hers, “because he knew what I wanted to demonstrate with this album. The power of words and how they can get a different value if pronounced by the opposite sex.” For many fans, the cover has claimed a place among the best Tori Amos songs.

I’m Not In Love

There is a woman on 10cc’s original version of I’m Not In Love; it was Kathy Redfern, who whispered “big boys don’t cry” on the track. She was the recording studio’s secretary, and she absolutely loved the song. Redfern was reluctantly persuaded by the band to speak that famous hushed line – the only vocals she ever recorded.

Tori Amos creates a minimal, very slow version of the song, envisioning the woman as completely uninterested in the man who wrote the song for her. “The singer is really super-cynical, and the lyrics show a superiority complex that doesn’t know its equal in pop music,” Amos said of the 10cc original. “In my song it’s different. ‘You’re not in love? Well, I’m not in love either, sucker!’”

Rattlesnakes

“Certain women walked, after one listen, straight through the door into my head, gave me their whole story and their voice,” Tori Amos said of the characters who populate Strange Little Girls. “For others, I’ve had to wait longer. The woman on Rattlesnakes took so long that we almost had to drop the song.”

Lloyd Cole, who wrote and performed Rattlesnakes with his band The Commotions in 1984, was inspired by Joan Didion’s 1977 novel, A Book Of Common Prayer. He has said that he has thought his characters should look, as he writes in the song, “like Eva Marie Saint”, and have an aura of “beautiful fragility”.

Amos eventually found her inspiration. “On a day I was sitting in the garden and I saw a branch with many curves. The shape reminded me of a rattlesnake. And then, all of a sudden, she took possession of me,” she said. “I like her really much and, of all the girls, she probably has the most in common with myself.”

Time

“One day you will open your eyes and see her” is the text accompanying Tori Amos’ version of Time. Those words could be emblematic of all the tracks on Strange Little Girls. Yet, Time’s woman is more than mortal: she represents Death. “I think everybody gets to pick how they see Death,” Amos said. “So to me, she is the Grim Reaper, and I saw her.”

Written by Tom Waits for his 1985 album, Rain Dogs, the song deals with a cast of very Waitsian characters from society’s margins, and depicts the trials they face. Waits has not said too much about the song, other than, “Time is a precious commodity.” Amos echoed that when she saw the woman as Death and thought of her own version: “Time is ticking, Tori.”

Heart Of Gold

Perhaps the famous song on Strange Little Girls, Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold, originally released on his career-changing Harvest album, was inspired by the actor Carrie Snodgress and their blossoming love. “One day,” Snodgress has said, “there was a note on my dressing room table that said, ‘Call Neil Young.’” Apparently, she didn’t know who Neil Young was, but called him anyway. They soon fell in love.

Amos completely changes Heart Of Gold into a saga of twins who are “into economic espionage”, with a catchphrase: “It’s not glamorous, it’s just business”. Explaining further, and revealing that the women were mythic environmental warriors rather than film-noir dames, Amos said, “I found this song to be this desperate cry for something. These two banshees came to visit me, as if they were crying for the Earth and loading their water pistols, or like they’ve decided, ‘OK, you haven’t heard us, you haven’t heard the cry of the Valkyrie, and it’s war.’”

I Don’t Like Mondays

The song I Don’t Like Mondays is a response to a school shooting by a 16-year-old girl, Brenda Ann Spencer. In 1979, Spencer killed two adults and injured eight children. The teenager was not remorseful; instead she said, as a reason for the rampage: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

“The journalists interviewing her said, ‘Tell me why?’” The Boomtown Rats’ Bob Geldof said. “It was such a senseless act. It was the perfect senseless act and this was the perfect senseless reason for doing it. So perhaps I wrote the perfect senseless song to illustrate it. It wasn’t an attempt to exploit tragedy.”

Amos sings not from Spencer’s point of view (“I couldn’t hold the essence of the person who went and killed everybody”), but from the point of view of a police officer who went to the scene of the crime, and then shot Spencer to prevent further killing. In doing so, Amos implicitly adds her critique of North America’s gun laws to the tragedy of this song. “If kids can get a weapon so easily, who is responsible?” Amos asked. “It’s easier to get a weapon than to get your driving license.”

Happiness Is A Warm Gun

Very deliberately placed after I Don’t Like Mondays, this John Lennon-penned Beatles song begins with the news report of Lennon’s murder, and is punctuated with spoken-word clips of George W Bush and Amos’ own father, Edison Amos. The most experimental track on Strange Little Girls, Happiness Is A Warm Gun is more of a sound collage, with Amos’ vocals often indistinct, and the music drawing from electronica and ambient styles. Amos, both vocally and musically, powerfully represents the fractured, violent US society that warm guns (and people’s fanatical devotion to them) has created.

The woman in Happiness Is A Warm Gun is a sex worker – the one who spoke to Mark David Chapman just before he killed Lennon. “This one is so sweet,” Amos said of her character in this song. “If her customers want to shit on her, she speaks softly, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that, that is not your thing.’ She is the prototype of the abused woman who approaches assholes in an understanding way.”

Raining Blood

For casual Tori-watchers, her decision to cover Slayer was mystifying; what could Amos possibly be doing with their thrash-metal music, apart from mocking it? But – of course – Amos herself was knowledgeable about the genre, having fronted the metal-influenced synth band Y Kant Tori Read prior to her solo career.

In Raining Blood, she creates a very heavy-metal image – an enormous angry woman, with an equally enormous vagina, pouring down menstrual blood. Also within the song, she finds a Resistance fighter during the Nazi occupation of France, who is intent of having “ten orgasms a day, because chances were high she would be arrested and executed by the Nazis”.

Slayer initially found Amos’ version of the song impenetrable (“It took me a minute and a half to find a spot in the song where I knew where she was. It’s so weird. If she had never told us, we would have never known,” said the band’s guitarist Kerry King), yet then completely got her treatment of it. They sent her some Slayer T-shirts as a mark of appreciation, which were gratefully received by Amos.

Real Men

Closing Strange Little Girls is a song that feels elegiac for male identity: Joe Jackson’s Real Men. Describing the song around the time of its original release in 1982, Jackson said, “I think your average male has had his masculinity and supremacy threatened to the point where he’s not sure what it is he’s supposed to do. Intelligent, forward thinking, in the sexual arena, is being done by women. It’s all about the way stereotypes have reversed, turned upside down and become meaningless.” It’s also notably homoerotic and anti-war. At points, the lyrics seem progressive; at others, very reactionary.

“The girl in Real Men… She embodies both the male and the female,” Amos has said. “She makes true bridges between both sexes in her soul. Somebody with a lot of feeling for ethics.” The extraordinary contradictions of Real Men are a perfect end point for Strange Little Girls: Tori Amos’ beautiful, smart, classic exploration of how men see women, and of how women can gaze right back.

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