“The songs don’t spring whole into existence; they are built.”
– Tori Amos
“The best songs come in very fast and manic bursts.”
– Amanda Palmer
Amanda Palmer and Tori Amos are very different animals. Both may be American pianists and singer/songwriters, both may be associated with Dark Master of the Twittersphere Neil Gaiman, yet in many ways they couldn’t be more different. While Tori rose to fame in the early nineties, Amanda’s debut came ten years later and she is yet to become a household name outside of homes in which people know what Kickstarter is and take the ukulele seriously. This is starting to change, in part because she has formed an unholy (and awesome) alliance with the aforementioned Gaiman.
Tori has been nominated for ten Grammy awards, and although she has never won, has nevertheless sold over 12 million albums in her career, which has spanned two decades. She has a tribute album dedicated to her, a comic book based on her most famous songs and is founder of RAINN, an American organisation for rape survivors.
Amanda is much more grass roots, ditching her record company in 2008 to blaze her own trail, breaking records on Kickstarter, tweeting several times a day about her personal life and blogging on everything from the nature of fame to the nature of PMS. Despite their obvious differences, there is some crossover between the two artists, other than the fact that Amanda is married to Tori’s closest friend. One of these similarities, and the different ways it manifests itself in the work of each lady, is catharsis, the focus of this two-part essay.
Amos and Palmer both make use of catharsis to work through their frustrations and to help their fans do the same. They are both feminists – in her memoir Amos says she was “born a feminist” while one only has to look at Palmer’s unruly underarms, frequent public nudity and refusal to be anyone but herself to work out that she’s all about female empowerment. However, they are two very different kinds of feminist.
While Amos’ tendency to use metaphor and symbolism in her music to create a safe space for her personal truths is certainly the act of a feminist, it is more in line with the second wavers of the 1970s who felt that women must reject the tools of the patriarchy in order to express themselves authentically.
Conversely, the more third wave Palmer has a more postmodern style, unclouded by this need to retreat into the feminine and away from patriarchal oppression. Tori’s method is, by its very nature, obscure and potentially exclusionary while Amanda’s work is transparent and universal.
The question I pose then, as I begin, is – does Amanda Palmer’s literal method of catharsis make her a more effective feminist than Tori Amos, who favours metaphor?
“What’s hidden behind the heart fascinates me, I’m fascinated by everything that isn’t said.”
– Tori Amos
One of the most taboo subjects in our society is masturbation. Put female masturbation on the table and we find that it is swiftly knocked on the floor, swept under the carpet and replaced with a nice bowl of flowers. Statistics on the subject vary wildly and are almost useless, as they can only tell us how many women admit it.
Two women who do are Amanda Palmer and Tori Amos. In 1994 Amos’ second album Under The Pink featured ‘Icicle’, a quiet song about her experiences of teenage masturbation in a Christian household. Twelve years later Palmer, still a Dresden Doll also on her second album, released ‘First Orgasm’, a quiet song about her experiences as a single woman with an itch to scratch.
Both artists, then, have made a feminist’s leap into the no-go area of female masturbation. By addressing the subject they aim for the two types of catharsis – psychological in letting their voice out, theatrical in allowing their listeners to feel emotions attached to the subject in the safety of somebody else’s song. It is how each of them handles the subject and her methods that sets them apart. In Palmer’s song there is no way to mistake her meaning.
After painting a picture of a modern single woman waking up alone and checking her emails she sings “The first orgasm of the morning is cold and hard as hell”. Amos’ lyrics are more subtle and require some decoding – and biographical knowledge – to be understood. She also cleverly hides the song behind an almost two minute long piano solo, an introduction that ensures that only the very patient listener will actually hear her confession.
Conversely, Palmer begins to sing before the first note of piano is even played. In ‘Icicle’ the repeated line “Gonna lay down” suggests a sexual theme but references to “Easter dresses”, “the good book” and the eponymous “icicle” cloud the subject. Those who study her, her adoring fans, will know that “the monster” is her judgemental grandmother and that “Father” is a double meaning, the patriarch of her family being a church minister.
A casual listener, however, by the time the song attempts to spell things out for her with “And when my hand touches myself I can finally rest my head” is confused and only catches Amos’ meaning when the line “Getting off, Getting off, While they’re all downstairs” is uttered. A second listen is required in order to confirm that the subject is self-love.
If our casual listener had read Amos’ memoir Piece by Piece, she would know that an adolescent Tori, already the rebel of the family for her obsession with Mary Magdalene, attempted to talk to her older sister about masturbation. Her sister told her to “stop thinking about it and stop doing it.” In the book Amos describes making a conscious choice at this point in her life “”Everything went into the music then, after that conversation. … hiding it in my sonic paintings.” Her songs then, became abstract hiding places for her unacceptable urges and emotions.
Our casual listener has no idea from ‘Icicle’ that the “He” she imagines is “in her pumpkin PJs” is Jesus Christ, on whom she had a crush from the age of five because Amos, who was punished for expressing this feeling, has hidden it from us. This, while very understandable, is a choice that makes Amos’ catharsis only half effective. She is able to express her repressed sexuality in a safe space and therefore to feel better, but what of her audience? How can they feel better if they do not know what she is talking about?
Amos has become an unintentional exclusionist and, like the French feminists of the ’70s, she writes from her white middle class perspective and provides no path for those who are not these things to reach her work.
‘First Orgasm’ requires no such prerequisite knowledge for full comprehension. The casual listener may find herself blushing as Palmer sings “I barely notice that I am cumming” but the setting and sentiment is clear and simple. Simile, rather than Amos’ favoured metaphor, is used – “The first orgasm of the morning is like a fire drill” – as well as the play on words “taking matters into my own hands.” Palmer’s audience can understand and relate to every word.
The song also has an added advantage over Amos’ in that it is more complex in its meaning. While Amos simply aims to state “I masturbated and you made me feel guilty but I did it anyway”, Palmer’s song has a more contradictory position on its subject. On one level it shows us a woman who is “taking matters into her own hands”, an evolved woman who uses masturbation as an every day tool without shame and makes a feminist declaration about the fundamental nature of the practice.
However, with its downbeat tone and references to the unsatisfying nature of the orgasm and her lack of time for friends or a lover, Palmer also highlights the loneliness of such a lifestyle, most poignantly when she sings the sad crescendo, “I think I could last at least a week without someone to hold me/Won’t you hold me?” This penchant for contradiction is a theme that runs throughout Palmer’s life and works, described by her in her blog thusly;
“I love the feminine power of “I CAN MAKE YOU ORGASM WITH MY HIGH HEELS,” and I love the feminine power of “YOU CANNOT TELL ME WHAT TO SHAVE, YOU FUCKER.”
This position puts Palmer firmly on the side of the third wavers, who perhaps because they lack an overarching philosophy have been greatly criticised by the second wavers for contradiction and indecisiveness. The two women, it seems, are exemplary of two very different types of feminism and while they both achieve catharsis of their own emotions, it is only Palmer who also provides this function for her audience.
Stay tuned for Part Two, in which I look at Palmer and Amos’ treatments of trauma.