Boys For Pele Turns 20
This past Monday, I lightly moderated a conversation between two young, outspoken female musicians that I admire greatly — one a friend of a few years, one I’ve been a fan of for nearly as long. Both of these women have been on the receiving end of the sort of online misogyny that makes the internet seem like on a dream best left unrealized, both have spoken openly about surviving abusive relationships, and both told me stories about having to give every venue they play names and photos of men who can’t be allowed in for safety reasons.
The sort of men they described are, of course, just one particularly vicious representation of a suffocating masculine toxicity that you and I both see every day. The reasons why this exists as a sociological plague go beyond the boundaries of this piece, but I often wonder how these guys came to be so locked into a curdled idea of what it is to be a man that clearly makes them miserable, and if I could have ever ended up that way.
Some days, I like to flatter myself that I could have never ended up so bitter and terrified, that something in me would have known better. Perhaps not, though. I sometimes wonder what I would have become if I hadn’t made a few crucial friendships and had a few life-changing experiences when I was a teenager that opened my eyes, and helped me to see women as human beings, and not as the sex objects and sex deniers that patriarchal society was training a lonely and terrified adolescent to see them as. It now terrifies me to think of how I could have turned out if a few people didn’t show me the right path, and one of those people was Tori Amos, starting with her third album Boys For Pele, which turns 20 years old tomorrow.
Seeing as how I’m admitting embarrassing things about myself, I may as well go all-in and admit that the first time I ever heard a Tori Amos song, it was on the Escape From L.A. soundtrack. My metalhead best friend in high school bought the album because there was a new White Zombie song on it, wherein Rob Zombie helpfully plugs the movie’s title with the refrain “Run baby run baby/ Get away/ Run baby run baby/ Escape L.A.” My friend made a “who farted” face when Amos’ “Professional Widow” showed up between Gravity Kills and Ministry songs, which is such a mid-’90s sentence that it also counts as a vote for Bob Dole. “I don’t know, this is pretty cool,” I offered, the connectivity synapses in my young music writer brain firing to life. “It’s kind of like Nine Inch Nails.” I suspect Amos would have been thrilled by that response.
Though my prototypical teenage-boy ass was too busy reading comic books and listening to Weezer to realize it at the time, by 1996 the former Myra Ellen Amos was in the middle of yet another reinvention. A born piano prodigy, by age 5 she was the youngest person to attend the Peabody Institute, by age 11 she had been kicked out for preferring rock music and pushing to write her own material, by 13 she was, no doubt, the most adorable pianist one could hope to find on the Maryland gay cabaret scene, by her mid 20s she was a washed-up would be hair-metal balladeer, and by her mid 30s her debut, 1992’s Little Earthquakes, and the follow-up, 1994’s Under The Pink, had earned her one of the most rabid cult followings of the ’90s, modest alternative rock radio success right before the era where Clear Channel and the Telecommunications Act Of 1996 banished women from rock radio and no small amount of brickbats from those who found her to be just a bit much.
A classicist in many senses of the term, Amos decided to make her status-enforcing third album and (clearly inevitable) wildly ambitious may-as-well-be-a-double album (Pele is 18 songs and 70 minutes long) at the same time. Though she’s too respectful and supportive of her peers to admit this out loud, looking at it now Boys For Pele certainly feels like Amos’ bid to shed the girl-with-a-piano box that many wanted to slot her in and prove that: a) she was just as innovative as PJ Harvey and Björk, then and forever the ne plus ultras of female alt-geniuses and b) for lack of a better way to put it, she could rock just as hard as any of the dudes headlining Lollapalooza. Mission accomplished. Boys For Pele is an album only a rock star would make. It’s way too long, often wildly self-indulgent, and designed to dazzle you with its virtuosity. This, of course, is also what makes it great. It’s also an album that finds Amos leaving nothing in the reserve tanks, wildly flouting any preconceived notion of what “a Tori Amos album” could sound like.
Amos self-produced the album, much of which deals with the fallout of her breakup with producer Eric Rosse, who worked with her on her previous albums. Of course, Amos can’t just make a breakup album. She’s never made an album in her life that doesn’t have some kind of grand concept behind it, and bless her for never backing down on her essential Tori-ness.
In this instance, Boys For Pele is an exploration of the ways religion has, for nearly the entire history of humanity, acted as a way to slut-shame women and keep them in their place. In 1996, this was a bold statement. Today, it’s conventional wisdom to a wide swath of the population, and I think Amos deserves, at least, a morsel of credit for that. Amos is the daughter of a reverend, and by the time her career caught fire her spiritual beliefs were … difficult to encapsulate. (Her Rolling Stone cover story legendarily ended with her saying that people who don’t respect the world of the faerie are “no different from Hitler, as far as I’m concerned.”) She was brought up in this shit, and she was on a mission to eliminate the membrane between the sacred and the profane, and steal the gods’ power for herself.
Throughout the album, some of which was recorded in an Irish church, Amos reappropriates religious iconography to her own end. She flirts with “Father Lucifer,” shout outs the titular volcano goddess and on “Muhammad My Friend,” she urges her good buddy to tell the world “we both know it was a girl, back in Bethlehem.” Listening to the song now, it’s impossible not to wonder, if it were released today, what Twitter would think of a song in which a white woman lectures The Prophet about how he’s doing his faith wrong. No doubt someone would find it problematic, but you can see what she’s going for.
While challenging religion, Amos also challenged herself and what she was capable of. “Talula” found her venturing into the dance club for the first time, riding a wave of insistent bass and whirling keyboard lines with help from remixer BT. On “Caught A Lite Sneeze” she says she “made my own Pretty Hate Machine” (the second Nine Inch Nails lyrical shout-out of her career; she and Reznor were friends and duet partners), and the song feels like her version of industrial, wherein insistent clanging beats compete with serrated longing. Opener “Horses” is Amos at her rawest, almost uncomfortably stripped bare, bruised, and defiant.
And then there’s “Professional Widow.” Supplemented by throbbing beats, Amos employed a harpsichord here for a rougher sound that was basically her version of heavy metal. This is almost certainly the most savage takedown of Courtney Love that anyone has ever recorded, and probably the most unhinged Amos has ever sounded. (For a feminist icon that empowered many, Amos had no problem airing out the less charitable parts of herself.) I had no idea what to make of this song when I first heard, but I refused to let my friend skip it whenever the album hit the CD player. (This is neither here nor there, but there’s also a really good Deftones song on the album. Just saying.)
Eventually, I bought a used copy of Boys For Pele. The fact that she was cool with Trent Reznor and duetted with Tool’s Maynard James Keenan made it easier for my teenage boy mind to accept that it was okay to like her. (I know. Boys.) Not that I had any particular problems with female artists at the time, mind you, they just weren’t on my radar at all, and I probably felt like they weren’t for me. Like many boys my age, women seemed terrifying and unknowable and I had no earthly idea how to talk to them, except for a vague sense that I probably shouldn’t start droning on about X-Men plotlines. (Which, of course, limited my conversation options.) I think the problem many men have is they never move past this stage. There were some unrequited crushes, and if the term “friendzone” existed back then, I would have used it unironically, I’m sad to say. So while I bought Boys For Pele for “Professional Widow,” I stayed for “Hey Jupiter.” Listening, again and again, to this depiction of feeling empty on a galactic scale, I though I understood Tori, and I thought that she understood me. Maybe that’s lame to say, but a big part of liking the music of Tori Amos is not caring about “lame.”
I don’t want to make it sound like becoming a Tori Amos fan magically changed everything. I still say and do things that I’m later embarrassed by, after all, and it’s not like this album suddenly made me less shy and weird. Time did that. But it did help to know there was someone out there who felt as weird as I did, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became a fan of hers around the time I started having meaningful platonic friendship with a few women I still cherish to this day. I truly believe that becoming a fan of Tori made it easier for me to see woman as not The Other, but as people. She helped free me from a trap many people fall into, and made me a better man. For that, I will always thank her.