Tori Amos’ “Strange Little Girls” is a discreetly triumphant collection of blankets that endures 20 years later
Tori Amos has always been a connoisseur of covers. Early in her career, she garnered praise for her careful, piano-oriented renditions of Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” and Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”. On tour, she is known for having covered a wide variety of artists, including George Michael, INXS, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles and Kansas.
On September 18, 2001, Amos released his most ambitious cover picks to date: a full-length album, “Strange Little Girls,” featuring his renditions of songs written by men. More than that, however, the collection offers an intriguing premise: What if some very famous songs from very famous men were more about and about women?
This premise could easily have gotten quite fanciful. However, Amos’ empathy for the subjects of writing makes “Strange Little Girls” a low-key and subtle triumph. This is most evident on a superlative cover of “Rattlesnakes” by Lloyd Cole & The Commotions. The song features a main character named Jodie, who “wears a hat even though it hasn’t rained for six days” and carries a gun “because of all the rattlesnakes.”
Cole is an empathetic writer himself, and so his character sketch of Jodie offers revealing details (“her never-born child still haunts her”) that explain her behavior. Always insightful, Amos understands Jodie’s grief; her voice is dripping with sadness and understanding, ensuring that the cover ends up being deeply touching.
In terms of vibe, however, “Strange Little Girls” felt like a continuation of her 1999 double album, “To Venus and Back,” which was heavy with atmospheric electronic elements. His version of The Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” features short stories and sampled keyboards that resemble experimental electronic compositions, as well as guitarist Adrian Belew adding the occasional jerky riff.
Belew is more effective, however, on Amos’ languid cover of “New Age” from the Velvet Underground, when her jagged electric bolts emerge as she sings the line “I’ll run.” This shade appears everywhere in “Strange Little Girls” offers many moods. “I don’t like Mondays” is sparse and haunting; 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” is menacing and disturbing, playing the obsessive side of the song; and on “Enjoy The Silence” she doubles her vocals, making the song feel more like a heart-to-heart conversation.
The namesake song from the album – and the most upbeat and simplest musical moment, as it features tumbleweed keyboards – is “Strange Little Girl”. The 1982 single Stranglers featuring a figuratively lost protagonist and trying to find her place in the world: “Strange little girl / Where are you going?” / Do you know where you could go? The word “strange” is interesting to describe a person. The term is not always used as a compliment; in fact, it’s a verbal detour from convention. “Strange” is a close relationship with “particular,” another vaguely ancient sounding word that evokes someone who is quirky and different. Even more telling is that Amos called the album “Strange Little Girls” – plural – it’s a collection of quirky people who don’t fit any sort of tidy mold.
Fittingly, for every song on “Strange Little Girls”, Amos portrays a different woman. The cover notes even show her photographed in costume, disguised as these characters. The “Rattlesnakes” Tori has straight blonde hair and a KISS jacket. “New Age” Tori looks like a hip librarian, with black hair rolled back to the ends and cat-eye glasses, while the main character has dramatic eye makeup, a shag cut, and a shirt that says “Satin Worship” . And “Real Men” Tori is a provocative tomboy, in a powerful outfit: a white suit and a wide belt.
In a 2001 interview with the Rolling Stone website, Amos explained how the characters on the album were born. “I knew that when I started to deconstruct each male song, a different woman seemed to have access to me,” she said. “There was an exchange; there was an exchange. If I had to take that into account and deconstruct it, get into these men and stay in their heads, then a woman had access to me, and it really got to me. surprised.”
Elsewhere in the conversation, she reflected on who these women were and where they came from. “Are they the anima of the writers? I don’t know. Are they the girls themselves personified? Not in all cases. Every woman has a very different relationship to her song. Some women are implied, some women are clearly there, written in the song of the male writer. “
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Unsurprisingly, “Strange Little Girls” connects most strongly to songs where women are involved, as the blur allows Amos’ creativity to soar. On a roaring “Heart of Gold,” as loud as Young’s guitar hurricanes, Amos saw twins – or “economic spy girls,” as she tells Alternative Press – who “infiltrate businesses and gain access to information and send it somewhere else. Good or bad, it depends on which side you’re on. ” This backstory is certainly not evident from listening to Neil Young’s song, which is a loose and weary meditation on finding meaning in life and in oneself. However, Amos’ vision certainly complicates what the song’s reference to a “heart of gold” might mean.
Then there’s Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” a song about a person mired in purgatory after being cast out of the sky; the implication is that it’s somewhere he doesn’t want to be. Amos takes a different point of view: instead, she sees Purgatory as a place of safety, a refuge for a badass with supernatural tendencies. “She is a French resistance fighter whose sister was killed”, she declared. Alternative press about the character from “Raining Blood”, who wears a casual beret and holds an ashy cigarette. The woman “knows the myths and appeals to power and works on alchemy” in response, however: “She went underground after the deaths of everyone she knew.”
Amos has spent much of his career after “Strange Little Girls” writing songs about forgotten real-life women or historical figures. There is something so poignant about Amos bringing life and dignity to these fictional women by fleshing out their personalities and portraying them as three-dimensional characters. In countless classic songs, women are more like unfilled outlines, known only as “she” or “she”. In addition to being anonymous, these women are pristine and ghostly vessels onto which emotions are projected. Life happens to them; they are not people with their own agency. On “Strange Little Girls,” Amos features intricate personalities and intricate plot details – expanding musical history narratives that are often male-centric and frustrating.
This does not mean that “Strange Little Girls” follows a strict binary. For example, Amos associates Joe Jackson’s “Real Men”, a song with sharp observations on gender, sexuality and stereotypes, with a deliberately androgynous character; his solemn and relatively straightforward reading of the song asks questions rather than providing answers.
But nowhere is Amos’ point of view clearer than his portrayal of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde”. This particular blanket received the most attention at the time; lyrically, it’s a graphic song in which the rapper describes laying out his wife’s body in front of his little girl. (Notably, the dead woman is only called “Mama.”) Amos, however, recovers the song and its violence from Eminem. With a whispered, hoarse voice, she tells the song from a mother’s perspective, while dramatic, string-heavy music that resembles silent film music revolves around her. The murdered woman’s life is centered and important; she gave a voice to foreshadow the consequences of the crime.
Ultimately, Amos sees the main character as the girl who witnessed the crime, only “any adult, having to face the fact that she was an accomplice in the murder,” she said. Alternative press. “She’s a dichotomy of things because she’s divided.” The “strange little girl” here is (understandably) left confused and helpless. Still, Amos’ delivery on the song feels like a soft landing, or rather a solace for the girl. Of course, Tori deeply protects all of the “Strange Little Girls” on this album – and that’s why it’s a collection of covers that endures.