The Anniversary

Little Earthquakes Turns 20

By Tom Breihan / January 13, 2012

Last year, the eminently lovable hardcore pro-wrestling legend Mick Foley wrote a weirdly fascinating Slate article about how he came to become a Tori Amos superfan. In the piece, Foley writes how a wrestling colleague named Maxx Payne first played Little Earthquakes, Amos’s solo debut and watershed moment, for him in 1993. And he also goes on about how he’d psych himself up for excessively gory Japanese death matches, in which he and Terry Funk would tear each other to shreds with barbed wire and thumbtacks, by playing “Winter” over and over. It’s an indelible image: This gigantic scraggly-bearded motherfucker sitting in a fetal position in the locker room, rocking back and forth, getting ready to bleed buckets by losing himself in this quietly gorgeous confessional. And it also strikes somewhere near the heart of Little Earthquakes: These are, after all, absorbingly beautiful songs about wracked, devastated emotional states.

Foley might be one of the most interesting and famous Tori superfans, but she has many, and most of them were pulled in, in one way or another, by Little Earthquakes. The simple existence of the album is something of marvel. Her previous band, Y Kant Tori Read, existed on some cultural continuum between Richard Marx synth-sweep and Lita Ford poodle-metal, and their “The Big Picture” video, ridiculously entertaining though it may be, doesn’t exactly announce the arrival of a major talent. But three years after that band released its one album and a year after it dissolved for good, Amos reemerged with this stunningly still album, one that takes the melodic gifts she’s already displayed with Y Kant Tori Read (Iet’s be honest, “The Big Picture” is catchy as fuck) and marries it to a previously-undiscovered gift for translating trauma into poetry.

I can’t remember Little Earthquakes causing any cultural tidal-waves upon its release, which was 20 years ago today in the UK and about a month later over here. The first time I can remember hearing her name was when she lost a bunch of times to Nirvana at the 1992 VMAs. The album’s sharp, shivery piano-based pop was, after all, about a million miles removed from the grunge zeitgeist; she wouldn’t really integrate alt-rock clangor until her later albums. But for those who did hear it, Little Earthquakes sunk its hooks in deep. I bought my copy sometime in 1993; it was one of the six CDs I got for free by subscribing to the BMG Music Club, and I don’t remember being all that amped about it before listening. But when I did dig into it, I got lost. It was the first time I really pored over a lyric sheet.

God knows how I made sense of any of it. Amos was 28 when she released the album, twice my age, and the album has a whole lot to say about that particular stage of life, when you’ve been through absolute awfulness that you’re only then starting to piece together and understand. A lot of the album is about attempts to shake off the bullshit you grew up accepting as true, and more of it is about processing the horrible things that might’ve happened to you since then. A few of her lines — “Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon” — only make sense once you’ve had your first pregnancy scare. On the album’s centerpiece, the harrowing a cappella story-song “Me And A Gun,” Amos describes a rape with a scarily dead-eyed calm that I’m sure I’ll never fully grasp. But the basic idea — heavy shit, rendered with quiet beauty — still resonated.

In the years after Little Earthquakes, Amos largely left behind the cruel concrete realities of her own personal experience to explore a larger sense of feminine mysticism. And she’s been good at that, too; Under The Pink and From The Choirgirl Hotel are powerful albums. But Little Earthquakes is, for my money, still Tori’s masterpiece, and we music critics should probably pay more attention to its impact on the music that would follow. It’s tough to imagine Fiona Apple having the impact that she did if Little Earthquakes hadn’t come first, and Sarah MacLachlan sure owes Amos a whole lot as well. And more recently, I’ve heard echoes in people like Florence And The Machine and Bat For Lashes.

So, as Little Earthquakes turns 20, what memories does it conjure? What’s your favorite song from it, or your favorite memory that it conjures? Let us know in the comments section.