Pop Culture Bubbles

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Category: Music

Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #4: Tori Amos

My mom owned a Tori Amos tape before I did.  When I was ten, that fearless shrieking and those bizarre lyrics (“you think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! Well I think you’re a quee-ah”) scared the shit out of me.  But four years later I needed it.  And there were other things, now, to be afraid of.

                I bought Little Earthquakes and, like so many people, loved the album beyond all rationality.  I had never heard a harmony quite like the bridge from “Silent All These Years,” which seemed to speak to me, a redheaded outcast, in a way no one else would think to:  “Years go by if I’m stripped of my beauty I’m the orange clouds raining in my hand.”  Though it would be a long time before I saw any beauty to be recognized, I definitely felt like an orange cloud melting through my own fingers sometimes, stained with the natural auburn that I had always wished was blond, or, lately, black.

                While I was pouring over other women’s looks, wishing I could change mine, my best friend was garnering massive attention over long-distances with her wit that was sought-after in online chat rooms.  By the time she next visited me in New Orleans, she had an online boyfriend who lived in Tennessee. They had never met, and he had never seen her, so it was time for her to take some erotic-as-we-could-get-away-with photos to show off her wiles.  This is what friends are for.

                We closed the door to my bedroom, with its incongruous floral comforter, and I put Tori Amos’s “Leather” on repeat.  The CD player obeyed, and the song’s darkly playful, lascivious, old-time-honky-tonk sound filled the room as I photographed my best friend in various flattering positions and revealing outfits.  A gymnast from an early age, I had always envied her flexibility and, even more to the point, her mythically long legs.  She wore my favorite dress, a velvet number with black lace straps that shimmered all the colors of autumn, from dark brown to gold to deep, deep red. I don’t think anything was coming into question as I took those photographs.  I grew up enamored with pretty girls, after all, and none of it meant anything.  Even as she wore short shirts that showed off her model abs, and even as I noticed them and captured them on film, none of it seemed…consequential.  I was doing her, well, more pointedly him, a favor, and yes, our photosession successfully seduced the boy in Tennessee.  They hadn’t changed anything in me, though.

                I had a dream about Tori Amos.  No sexually-oriented questions had been asked of me before that.  In the dream, she and I were under a blanket, a deep red one, and the image is with me as though it was an event from an hour ago, rather than a dream from over a decade gone.  “I’ve never kissed a girl before,” I said, and she took out a rose.  I licked it.  Then I woke up.  Later, I was in another friend’s bedroom and stumbled upon a book of dream symbolism she had.  Eagerly, I looked up “rose,” and freaked out internally over its listed counterpart:  vagina.  All the beautiful women I had looked up to seemed to take on a more vivid shade, a more urgent role:  what was this, my many attractions I had never thought about sexually but now couldn’t seem to stop?  I remember permitting myself to fantasize about a woman, someone I only knew in passing in New Orleans, and how I physically let go, melting from the inside just having thoughts without stopping them. And how, in a city like my native home, could I keep from noticing the power of the female form?  There were idols everywhere: a woman I was once convinced was a fairy from another world who had long, deep-blue hair down to her ankles, a torch-singing mistress of wigmaking and make-up selling who seemed responsible to my youthful head for any prettiness in the world, Tori Amos with her raw breaths, unbarred voice, and the unparalleled lips that produced the sounds, her red hair that almost made me proud of mine.  And there was my own friend, with the legs I couldn’t suddenly just not notice.

                But there was another world set apart from this realm of endless awkward.  It was a world that only seemed to be frequented by people who were not me, and in it, everyone talked who they wanted to talk to and said what they wanted to say and went where they wanted to go and reality didn’t choke on itself as a result: the world of rock concerts.  One day, my personal cosmos broke open, and I was allowed into this world.  Tori Amos came to New Orleans, and I went with — not one of my not-quite-friends at school, but someone who Knew Something about all this:  my dad’s employee, Meredith, who was in college.  I don’t remember who asked who, but I do remember talking to her about poetry and mythology in several conversations that confirmed what I had always been told but needed to know:  There is life outside of high school, a whole wondrous mess of it.

                When I think about getting dressed for the evening, I can see my bedroom as though I’m in it.  The bulletin board is still bright with magazine covers baring portraits of Gwen Stafani, and my goth sensibility is nowhere on the walls; it’s in my mind and heart, however, which have been beating to the rhythms of vintage Tori lyrics and Anne Rice storylines for a while now, and I’m well aware that my hometown’s famed above-ground cemeteries are the perfect place to, in young Tori’s words, “dance in graveyards with vampires ‘til dawn.”

                Had I ever been spiritually freer than I was in the car with Meredith, on the way to that show?  The knowledge that in just a few hours I would be several feet away from Tori Amos, and the just-as-surreal understanding that right now, I was in a car with no parents, just one supercool girl in college, who was telling me about college classes and college books you read and college relationship problems!  We had the same songs we put on repeat in hours of need!  I could to her campus poetry reading if I wanted to (and I totally did! And it was amazing!)!  Life was real.  She was real.  And Tori Amos was real.

                None of the people who shared the stadium with us looked real, though — everyone was a magnificent Gothic creation, all black tulle and shimmer, elaborate wings. I felt like I was on another planet, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life kissing its inhabitants. I remember a girl named Mika in a thick, iridescent rhinestone collar who knew Meredith, and a woman in a black ballgown with a gallantly commanding presence who joked that her cigarettes got their own chair.  Most of all, though, I remember the rapture, the audience’s as well as mine, during “Father Lucifer.”  I remember the twisting, jerking insistence of “Spark” and the cathardic, teasing pulses of “Raspberry Swirl.”  I don’t know how long it was before Tori closed with “Winter,” teaching me what it feels like when hundreds of hearts simultaneously fill to breaking.  When I went to bed that night, I had in my head the vivid image of the two-handed kisses she blew to us all, of her grin and her passion.  Yes, she was real.  And for the moment, there were no questions.  Orientation was simply grateful and alive, nothing to fear.


Quick(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #3: Shirley Manson

When I was a child, I had long, long red hair.  Elderly women in grocery stores stopped me and fawned over it.  I heard “I love your hair,” so often, but I hated it.  Hated hated hated it.  Who had red hair?  I wanted to be blond. Blonde meant sexy and fun and wanted.  I knew who Jessica Rabbit was, but that didn’t tell me anything about red hair’s relation to my own head, my own mind; every portrayal of a stereotypically sexy redhead just made me feel uglier.  Further away from woman.  Further away from worth.  Not because I thought worth meant sexy, but because I looked at myself and felt nothing.  Nothing but the wish for change.

                When I was a teenager, a band came on the scene, perfectly manufactured but I didn’t know that then and it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  They were called Garbage — apparently a reclamation of someone’s assertion that they “sounded like Garbage.”  Their lead singer was a Scottish woman, whose voice mesmerized me.  Fearless and strong, seductive and smoky.   Never had a voice taken hold of my internal organs like that, shook them and filled them with something I simultaneously feared and needed more of.  Her name was Shirley Manson, and she had red hair.

                I wanted her and I wanted not to want her and I wanted to be her and I felt like I already was; a complicated relationship, to be sure.  I thought that if I lined my eyes with thick black kohl and cast off my hideous school uniform and dressed the way I wanted to dress and moved the way I wanted to move — without hindrance, without any kind of metal assistance — I would uncover in myself something she had.  What that voice did to me when I heard it — well, I didn’t know women could do that to me.  She made me feel fierce, like I could be a Dominatrix if I wanted to (at fourteen, surrounded by goth boutiques and gay kink shops in pre-Katrina New Orleans, I was just learning what that word meant, and I liked it).  She also made me feel like I could take orders from her, and that that would be amazing, liberating, right somehow.  I toyed with these thoughts until they became too vivid, too much.  I couldn’t look at them in my own handwriting, the way I’d been unafraid to record Christian Bale fantasies of yore.  But she had red hair, and that, I never let myself forget.  My room was papered with pictures of her, suddenly, magazine covers triumphantly torn to decorate my walls and remind me what it could mean, what it NOW meant, to be a WOMAN WITH RED HAIR.  Someone asked her about it in an interview, and I don’t remember the question, but she answered, without shame, “the pubic hair is really beautiful.”  I didn’t even know people were allowed to say that!  I didn’t think anyone could think it.  At fourteen I had no basis for comparison, but I knew enough to know that it was rare and I was a freak.  Beautiful??  Is it that easy?  We can just say beautiful and allow it?

                It’s taken a lifetime for me to figure out what allowing means.  It’s not about someone else granting permission, though, something I had to accept when my ultimate self-acceptance icon did the unthinkable:  she dyed her hair blonde.   Not only that, but she spoke triumphantly about the bleaching process, just the way I might have if someone offered me the chance when I was a kid.  “There will be no more red hairs in Shirley World,” she declared on her blog, and I ripped my posters from the wall, tears of betrayal soaking the paper. 

                I understand now why people need change.  It’s not fair to ask someone else to be something you need, and feel like your world’s been shaken when they take a step in another direction.  Shirley never asked me to hate my hair or love my hair, to accept myself or not to.  She simply got in the studio and unfurled that stones-wrapped-in-silk voice onto a few records.  Whatever other people may inspire in us, they remain people.  There are no untouchable symbols, there is no unchanging ideal.  We’re all moving and unpredictable.  That is, and should ever be, our right.

Quck(ish) Bits on Youthful Loves #2: Ani Difranco

In 1997, You could count the number of male attendees at an Ani Difranco show on one hand.  When I was fourteen, I was thrilled to be at the House of Blues with one of these rarities, a friend of my dad’s emloyees who was, at the time, the only other person I knew who shared my passion for Ani Difranco’s music.

                I had discovered her through an incongruous vehicle: Seventeen magazine.  Their blurb for the newly-released Little Plastic Castle intrigued me, and I had no idea what to expect when I checked it out.  What I got was something I’d never heard before but wanted, needed more of –namely the politically-charged spoken word that had a more rhythmic, melodic feel than the limited amount of rap music I had been exposed to by that point.  It wasn’t just the choice of talking rather than singing, but all the strange, nuanced sounds her voice was twisted into as she spoke, the human voice was suddenly palpable, pliable, an instrument that I felt I had strung wrong, up until that point.  I listened to Little Plastic Castle voraciously, playing it for my younger cousin when we went to visit family friends in St. Louis.  “She’s not really singing,” my cousin said, when I played her my particular sonic obsession, “Fuel.”  “That’s the point,” I told her.  “She’s doing something better.”

                DiFranco had well established her album releases as about one per year since 1989, so even then it was overwhelming to find a place to start as a burgeoning fan.  Still, I occupied all the listening stations I could at record stores whichever city I happened to be, and when it was announced that she’d be returning to New Orleans (where she now lives) for a show at the House of Blues, I was elated.  I remember looking out into the audience and seeing a woman with angel wings inked into her back –a striking image in the era before such body art became ubiquitous.  I understood concerts as a different world from the one that caused all the frustrations outside the venue.  We were a group of people drawn to so many qualities in the same art form, and something about that revealed our human connection more starkly, more necessarily, than anything I’d yet experienced.  There was something like love understood between all of us, and no tiny screens existed to take us out of each other and prioritize the connections we already had.

                  When she unleashed the songs I’d never heard, I still felt like I knew them, like my body had found rhythms it could keep up with and really know.  It would be years before I became a regular performer myself, but on Austin stages I felt, just for a few hours a week on end, that this was in fact a power not singular to one person’s gift, but something we could all tap into if that’s how we wanted to trust our ideas.  Ani Difranco’s music, its fearlessly personal nature and its bare acknowledgement of larger systemic wrongs, taught me to trust my ideas, that there was a lot in ideas.

                When she sang “Adam and Eve,” I saw something in her face, something that that I didn’t remember ever seeing except in my dad, when he played his guitar and sang.  I wonder if what distinguishes a musician from someone who sings is, for the former, the song is a creature, a companion of sorts that needs you, and something like neglect and suffering will transpire if the creature is not shared and set free.  I am, I am, I am, truly sorry about all this, aren’t words that do their every justice on the page, but as Ani sang, I saw, felt, and momentarily became that creature: the entity that is a song.  At the time, I hadn’t heard many feminist declarations up until that point, and the lyrics: “I did not invent this game, I did not name the stakes, I just happen to like apples, and I’m not afraid of snakes” made a lasting impression.

                My best friend couldn’t get enough of Ani Difranco either.  The lines blurred between my playing her music for the first time and the immediate ignition of her obsession: she went on to catch multiple live shows, in several different cities, while amassing an album collection that, I was ashamed to say, far outnumbered the portion of her ouvre that I owned.  Still, we obsessed together, and, on our annual visits, alternated between dancing and sheer awestruck sighing.  Difranco was the first woman my best friend ever expressed real sexual attraction toward, and that was…well…what was that exactly?

                I was sixteen and living in Chicago when she decided to come visit me for the extra benefit of seeing Ani together at the Aragon ballroom.  All weekend we spoke with surprising flippancy about the possibility of finding a girl at the concert to make out with, so we would know what it was like, and all weekend, I wondered.  But I didn’t like to tell myself just what I was wondering.

                The Aragon Ballroom is a majestic venue — one of Chicago’s most beautifully preserved examples of architecture from the1920’s.  Ornate and mesmerizing stone faces adorn the façade, and the inside, with its marble columns and celestially high ceilings, is no less impressive.  Ani permitted us to join her in singing one of her oldest and most beloved songs, “Both Hands,” and the chorus had all the sweet melodic reverence of a church choir; we weren’t going to mess up this chance!

                More raucous was the encore, and, during “Shameless,” my best friend danced her heart out, beautiful legs as radiant as ever in her adventurously short black-and-white mod dress.  Difranco pounded a hand-drum as she bounced around the stage, holding it between her thighs as she kept the beat.  “I wish I was that drum!” my best friend said to me.  Whooooooah.  Just how gay had Ani turned her?

                Not gay enough to excite the gaydar of any of the girls around us.  Was she disappointed?  When we got home, we were too excited to sleep, so we decided to watch a movie.  I think I just blurted it out, telling myself that everything that takes place after midnight qualifies as a dream.  “Would you ever kiss me?”

                “Awwwwwww!”  I still remember the tone; I’m guessing that many a teenaged boy has been simultaneously endeared and frustrated by such surprise, such flattery that you’ve been thinking about something that the person you’re talking to has never considered. 

                “Yes, I would kiss you,” she said at last.  “You’re cute.”

                “Well…like…maybe…I mean, since, you know, this was supposed to be the weekend we did that, with someone, and we didn’t…so…maybe we should?  Like, just so we could say that it happened?”

                There was a pause, surprisingly void of tension, though my stomach twisted anyway.

                “The only reason it would be too weird is because we’re such good friends,” she said.


                And the movie began.  (I can’t say the Miramax logo doesn’t still make me just a teensy bit nervous.)  But I remember the ride to the airport when she left, that we locked hands in a way we never had before, making gratuitous and comfortable physical contact that helped us declare the miraculous.  Nothing has been made weird by this.  We parted on a note of such ease and love, it’s a wonder I ever feared honesty again.