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‘Under The Pink’: Why Tori Amos’ Second Album Still Gets Under The Skin
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In Depth

‘Under The Pink’: Why Tori Amos’ Second Album Still Gets Under The Skin

‘You have to go through it to understand it,’ Tori Amos said of ‘Under The Pink’, an album that stays in the mind long after it’s over.

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After the success of her explosive debut solo album, Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos confronted a challenge many artists have faced before and since: what to do next? “Once your stories have gone out to the world and the people have responded, it’s never the same again for you as a writer,” she told this author in 2015. “What’s key is Little Earthquakes was written alone in a tiny room, behind a church in Hollywood, when I was still playing a piano bar to pay my rent, and Under The Pink was written while I realised my life had changed, but still grappling with some of [the same] subjects and exploring others that I hadn’t really talked about.”

Listen to ‘Under The Pink’ here.

“If you ripped everybody’s skin off, we’re all pink”

If the raw, confessional Little Earthquakes was a diary, Amos considered Under The Pink, which was released on 31 January 1994, to be closer to an impressionistic painting. Or, in another analogy she used, if she offered herself “naked” to the world in Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink involved putting on some clothes. That’s not to say her second album – which went on to hit the top spot in the UK charts and has sold more than two million copies – is not deeply personal. “If you ripped everybody’s skin off, we’re all pink, the way I see it,” Tori told Performing Songwriter in 1994. “And this is about what’s going on inside of that. That’s what I’m really interested in, not the outer world but the inner world.”

To tap into the inner world, Tori and Eric Rosse – her then producer and partner – headed to New Mexico to record the album, where they set up in an old hacienda they called The Fishhouse. “Thanks to Bösendorfer for making the best pianos in the world, for sending one special ‘girl’ out to us in the desert,” Amos wrote in the album credits.

“You have to go through it to understand it”

While Little Earthquakes found Amos wearing her heart on her sleeve, listeners might have to work harder to deduce the meaning of Under The Pink. In a liner note for the 2015 deluxe release, Noah Michelson writes about the songs’ “intimately coded and sonically experimental mazes”. As Amos explained to Keyboard magazine: “I had this whole thing going where I liked codes and going with your senses. It was a bit of a maze, and you as a listener had to work to find out where we were going. Little Earthquakes was a bit more voyeuristic. You could sit back and watch this girl go through this stuff. You can’t on Under The Pink; you have to go through it to understand it.”

Cornflake Girl – the album’s biggest hit – is a case in point. With its catchy chorus, the earwormy track might sound deceptively cheerful, but it was born from a conversation about female genital mutilation. “How women behave toward each other within the global culture of patriarchy is the discussion that the song Cornflake Girl wanted to take part in,” Amos wrote in her book Resistance. “My friend Karen Binns and I were talking about the idea of betrayal,” she explained in a liner note to Under The Pink’s reissue. “Raisin girls were the girls that wouldn’t let you down. Cornflake girls were the mean girls.” Released as Under The Pink’s first single, in 1994, and featuring gospel singer Merry Clayton on backing vocals, the track reached No.4 on the UK singles chart, establishing itself as one of the best Tori Amos songs in the process.

“You don’t really know what my role is… I found that really fun”

Amos’ second Top 10 hit in the UK, Pretty Good Year was another multi-layered song with enigmatic references to Lucy – the skeleton discovered in 1974 who became a household name – and Greg “who writes letters and burns his CDs”. Speaking to The Baltimore Sun in 1994, Amos recalled how the song was inspired by a missive from a fan in the UK: “It was a pencil drawing. Greg has kind of scrawny hair and glasses, and he’s very skinny and he held this great big flower. Greg is 23, lives in the North of England, and his life is over, in his mind. I found this a reoccurrence in every country that I went. In that early-20s age, with so many of the guys – more than the girls, they were a bit more, ‘Ah, things are just beginning to happen.’ The guys, it was finished. The best parts of their life were done. The tragedy of that for me, just seeing that over and over again, got to me so much that I wrote Pretty Good Year.”

It’s a song that starts demurely, with the cascading crystal-clear notes of Amos’ Bösendorfer piano, but transforms, as so many of Under The Pink’s songs do, into something angrier and more personal when Amos sings: “Well, hey/What’s it gonna take/’Til my baby’s all right?” “You don’t really know what my role is,” the artist mused. “Am I Lucy, or am I that eight bars of grunge that comes out near the end where I express, and then nothing, everything else is Greg’s story? I found that kind of really fun.”

“Though I can’t change what has happened, I can choose how to react”

While her first album took on the patriarchy, Under The Pink turns its attention to the way women betray each other – not only in Cornflake Girl, but on songs such as The Waitress and Bells For Her. “So I want to kill this waitress,” begins the former, unequivocally. “She’s worked here a year longer than I.” Amos is too interesting an artist to ever be one-note, though; there’s humour in the almost-shrieked chorus: “But I believe in peace/I believe in peace, bitch.”

In Bells For Her, Amos reassesses a female friendship: “And now I speak to you, are you in there?/You have her face and her eyes/But you are not her.” In an interview with the Dutch music magazine OOR, Amos said the song marked “one of the most emotional moments on the record, because it handles the end of a friendship”. The track was, as Amos revealed to Creem, “written and recorded exactly as you hear it. The lyrics came in that moment. It was almost like a trance, how that song came.” It was also the only song on Under The Pink not to be recorded on the Bösendorfer, but instead “an old upright that Phil [Shenale, string arranger] and Eric [Rosse] demolished or made better, I’m not sure,” Amos noted in an album credit.

She explores female pleasure, too, in songs such as Icicle, another track with a seemingly-innocent opening that explodes into something else entirely: “And when they say, ‘Take of his body’/I think I’ll take from mine instead/Getting off, getting off/While they’re all downstairs/Singing prayers…” It’s not the only song on the album that sees the daughter of a Methodist minister return to challenging the religion of her childhood. Famously, the single God garnered plenty of controversy with its shrieking guitars and rat-filled video, but Amos’ lyrics are almost friendly when she sings: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?”

The video for Past The Mission – another of the album’s singles, featuring backing vocals from Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails – followed Amos and two young girls walking along a dirt road. As they progress through a town, they pick up more female followers, attracting the gaze and attention of the men. When their path is blocked by a priest, they lie before him so he can pass, before returning to their feet and travelling defiantly on.

“Past The Mission refers to a personal experience with sexual violence, which I had a song about on Little Earthquakes also,” Amos told the St Louis Dispatch. “So, the remark ‘I once knew a hot girl’ is painful. Where’s she gone? On this record there are songs about the healing from that experience, like Baker Baker (‘Make me whole again’), Past The Mission, Yes, Anastasia. The idea is to rescue myself from the role of a victim. That I have a choice left. Though I can’t change what has happened, I can choose how to react. And I don’t want to spend the rest of my life being bitter and locked up. That’s also the thought behind the phrase ‘Past the mission/I smell the roses’.”

“What do you need to become whole again when something is broken inside?”

With its nod to the children’s nursery rhyme Pat-A-Cake, Pat-A-Cake, Baker Baker is one of the album’s most straightforward – and heart-wrenching – songs, feeling almost like eavesdropping on a prayer. As Amos later put it: “What ingredients do you need to become whole again when something is broken inside?”

The song deals “with a man that truly loved me, but that I wasn’t emotionally available for,” Amos told The Baltimore Sun in 1994. Tellingly, the same year, she split with Rosse, her partner and co-producer on her first two albums, and would go on to produce her next – wildly inventive – album, Boys For Pele, on her own.

“The line ‘We’ll see how brave you are’ walks with me every day,” the artist has said of Yes, Anastasia, Under The Pink’s epic closing track, inspired by Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. It’s a lyric that gets stuck in the head of the listener long after the album is over. Confronting patriarchal religion and sexual violence on an album of such artistry, Amos is, as always, brave indeed.

Check out the best Tori Amos songs to find out which ‘Under The Pink songs’ still come out on top.

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