Truth or Dare | Amanda Palmer, Tori Amos and Methods of Feminist Catharsis #2

Tori Amos

Tori Amos

In Part One I talked about alternative goddess Tori Amos and interweb darling Amanda Palmer and their differing methods of catharsis. I suggested that Tori tends to hide her meaning inside carefully crafted metaphor, while Amanda lets hers hang out like her famous underarm hair. In this part I will continue to analyse their lyrics for evidence to support my theory, this time turning my attention to their approaches to writing about trauma.

 

Trauma

“I think deliberate intrigue is not my forte. I’ll leave that to PJ Harvey.”
– Amanda Palmer

Here Palmer notes the difference between herself and the type of songwriter who purposely occludes their meaning. Harvey, like Amos and Palmer, is at her most viscerally effecting when addressing trauma. This is not surprising, since catharsis is in its purest form when used to purge trauma.

In Greek tragedy, the darker emotions of the audience are released when they witness the horrors endured by the players. Here I choose to look, not at songs on identical subjects, but at subjects which are two sides of a coin.

Amos’ 1999 album From The Choirgirl Hotel began with ‘Spark’ which deals with a series of miscarriages she suffered, while Palmer’s 2008 solo debut Who Killed Amanda Palmer? included ‘Oasis’ a fictionalised and humorous story about date rape and abortion, based on her own experiences. In her book, talking more about her choice to hide her meaning, Amos writes, ” I started making songs that people couldn’t just walk into” and ‘Spark’ is a perfect example of this in practice. It is well-documented that the song’s subject is miscarriage and that it is autobiographical, dealing with a series of still births suffered by the artist.

 

 

The lyrics themselves, however, give us no clues. The song begins with the line, “She’s addicted to nicotine patches” and later includes lines like “Trusting my soul to the ice cream assassin”. The language Amos uses in this song – and in a long list of others such as ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Space Dog’, ‘Mr Zebra’, ‘Talula’ and ‘Raspberry Swirl’ to name only a fraction – can be described as anything but literal. The only line in ‘Spark’ which betrays its subject “But she couldn’t keep baby alive” is indicative of the guilt she feels as a woman unable to carry a child.

This guilt stated literally would be too much to bear, opening her to the judgement from which she began to hide her meaning as a young minister’s daughter in the 1960’s. The meaning is in there but it is not just lying there in plain sight, waiting for the approval of society.

Unfortunately, in terms of providing a cathartic experience for her audience, the song’s lyrics fail. A casual listener probably would not have the biographical knowledge of Amos’ struggles to have a child. The song, for her, would be nonsensical, a string of evocative and beautifully sung random lines, like someone singing a game of consequences.

What makes the song so popular is Amos’ emphatic and impassioned tone, building to the crescendo of “say you don’t want it, say you don’t want it, say you don’t want it again and again, but you don’t really mean it, Say you don’t want it” It is the musical and emotional elements of the song that make it cathartic for listeners, but this is a one-size-fits-all catharsis.

The lyrics are meaningless within the parameters of accepted language and thus the song is meaningless. It has no subject and can therefore only provide a very basic form of catharsis. No feminist commentary is made on the experience of miscarriage and the song fails to pose any discernible questions.

 

 

Palmer’s ‘Oasis’ is the antithesis of this. As literal as it could possibly be, the song begins with the line “When I got the party they gave me a forty, and I must have been thirsty cos I drank it so quickly”. The song is narrative, providing the audience which a linear storyline, supplemented by a chorus in which she proclaims her nonchalant attitude to her tragic circumstances in light of a letter received from her favourite band.

The story is not true and did not happen to Palmer but she was raped and she did have an abortion, at two separate times and under very different circumstances to the ones in the song. Interestingly, it is a fictionalised story that has the edge over Amos’ confessional one, because of its method. While Amos made her subject impossible to discern with the use of impenetrable metaphor, Palmer makes her semi-autobiographical song so frank as to be comical. When she opens the second verse with the line “When I got my abortion, I brought along my boyfriend” to a chorus of Beach Boys inspired backing vocals, the effect is sharply comedic.

Interestingly here the actual musical style of the song serves as an aid to the meaning, providing another layer, as opposed to simply standing alone as in Amos’ song. Palmer has had to strongly defend the song – and its very literal video – against much criticism since its release. In her blog explaining her motives and process for the song she wrote, “I’m sure there’s a part of me (it seems obvious) that was processing my pain, coming to terms with my experiences through the song. that’s what I do. I’m a songwriter who writes about personal shit.”

In her own words then, she identifies the song as cathartic. It is also, because it is written in logical and rational language, able to provide catharsis for the casual listener. Through very cerebral, irreverent humour she allows the audience to find the silliness in a tragic and horrifying series of events, purging their emotions in peels of laughter, thus proving that a woman, and a feminist, does not have to be speak in riddles to be herself.

 

Amanda Palmer

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, a few words about the motives behind the methods.

Amos’ fans are hungry. In an article in Spin Magazine in 1999, the journalist wrote “The more impenetrable her lyrics become, the more distance she puts between herself and her cult, the more obsessed fans become with cracking her code.” Her lyrics were less cryptic in the early days. You could discern the topic, if not understand every line, of every song on the first album and many on the second, third and fourth.

The most symbolism-laden albums were written after the birth of Amos’ daughter, perhaps suggesting that she fears even more than ever the reproach of society now that is somebody’s mother. Or perhaps she is protecting her daughter from the prying gaze of her audience and their need for her to define them. In that same Spin interview, she said “sometimes people want me to give them what their human value is. I can’t do that; it’s a bottomless pit. And I’m not going to start opening up my veins and bleeding until they cry enough – because they may never cry enough!” She has drawn a line between herself and her audience. It may be relevant to note here that the man who raped her at knife-point when she was twenty two was an early fan.

Palmer was, she has said in numerous interviews (here I quote from Buzzine) “raised in a household where it was really frowned upon to look for attention” and craved an audience as a result. “I wanted people to see me”, she goes on to say, “I wanted to touch them”. Palmer’s creative drive then is for acceptance and intimacy. In order to achieve this bond with her audience she is required to write songs that strike chords and speak uncomfortable truths, to be the loud, contradictory and frustrated voice of the Third Wave, of the women and men of this milennium, who believe in gender equality and ask for it directly, in terms we can all understand.

While Amos uses her songs as private and hidden catharsis to retreat from the Establishment’s disapproval and even the expectations of her fans and into a blueprint of her own invention where goddesses are real and women are all-powerful, Palmer uses hers as public and open catharsis to vent her frustrations and put them on show in order to achieve a ‘trade-off’ with her audience: disclosure for attention and acceptance.

Francesca Lewis

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3 Comments

  • Mitholas says:

    I’m a dude. I’m a feminist. Tori, over the years, had indeed taught me a lot on that topic and has – apart from that – provided me with tonnes of catharsis. The thing with Tori’s music is that you latch on to certain bits of lyrics you can relate to and you start to interpret to song according to your own context.

    Besides, Spark is cryptic, but it’s not like its meaning doesn’t shine through. “6:58, are you sure where my Spark is” can be taken literally or not, but it’s immediately clear this song deals with loss. “Say you don’t want it again and again,” inverts saying you’re fine with it. Meaning she didn’t want what she lost in the first place. And she doesn’t really mean that.

    The Judas verse questions God in the light of this loss, but in the end she still trusts her soul to him.

    I will give you that some of the lyrics are strange (like half of the bridge), but there’s always a follow-up lyric that goes straight back to the meaning of the song.

    If this requires some research into Tori’s past to see what a song was about when she wrote it, or that it takes some time to interpret doesn’t make it less good. Aren’t some of the greatest works of fiction, of music, of poetry, … big on metaphores and hidden meanings?

    That said, I also love Amanda Palmer’s music and agree that Oasis sends a great message to rape victims/girls who’ve had abortions. “You can get through this, the world didn’t end because this happened.” Her songwriting style is less cryptical and therefore it’s probably easier to relate to her lyrics instantly, but her work not “better art” or “worse art” than Tori’s for that reason. Not on an artistic level, not on a feminist level. Tori’s work might just take a bit more time to understand.

  • Zippa says:

    Did the author of this piece consider, you know, the entirety of any one of Amos’ albums? Because I’m pretty sure she’s got at least a FEW songs that are pretty overtly about rape/domestic violence/abuse in the collection…

  • Mike says:

    Two good essays, albeit it with one clear problem. I think the compare and contrast is a great method for talking about these two artists, but to call Palmer’s method necessarily more successful or “better” than Tori’s is a mistake. Doing so treats a song as a polemic; trying to convey one specific and narrow concept. I think songs do far more than this.

    Yes, Palmer’s songs are more direct, but I don’t think that necessarily means that they are better. On the contrary, songs which are more oblique allow for more varied input from the listener. Reaching for biographical material is just one way a listener can try to scratch the itch of “what does this mean?”. Another way would be an autobiographical approach, namely, “what does this mean to me?”. The more oblique the lyrics are, the more easily these personal or imagined situations they lend themselves to, actually granting them more meaning to a wider swath of people. The oblique actually makes it a bit more universal. There’s more to discover in a song that doesn’t give away every bit of meaning in its first listen.

    That said, I do think the suggestion that Tori’s approach is more second wave and Amanda’s is more third wave to be spot on. That said, whereas the waves of feminism may be seen as a progression of thought, I think it’s a very reductive mistake to approach art in the same fashion.

    In short, the fact that Palmer is more simple and direct with her lyrics does not make her better. In my opinion, it makes her worse. Lyrics which reward multiple listenings with new revealings are lasting, direct lyrics are more easily disposable.