Guys own rock. They throw up their fists at Black Sabbath shows. They mosh 10 years after it was cool. They bang their heads. They crank their stereos. They treat lyrics like a call to arms. They resort to large stacks of amps when they can’t figure out exactly how they feel. They still respect the drum solo. Face it, there’s nothing more male than rock. It’s testosterone surging through speaker wire. It’s as masculine as jock itch.
There are the riff-fests full of primal rage—break stuff! There are dragons and demons and girls who do dirty things—see Led Zeppelin II. There are lessons about life and language hidden in the mounds of hair—“Whoa, when he said cherry pie he didn’t actually mean cherry pie.” And for those moments when we want to show we’re sensitive to her needs, we can pull out a lighter during the power ballad, as if to say, “Dude, my flame knows your pain.”
Sure, there are a few women who rock—Janis, Aretha, maybe even Alanis or Courtney Love. But for the most part, the music industry seems more comfortable to let women either bare their souls with safe folk music, bare their midriffs while bouncing to shiny pop, or bare their breasts in the front row. Women who rock can be terrifying. Who knows why exactly, but when some woman can hold her own against rock overlords like Ozzy or Robert Plant, well, let’s admit it, guys just don’t know how to handle it. Call it overt feminism. Call it mental blue balls. Whatever. It cuts to the very core of our masculine being and leaves us questioning why we’re really here—if I rock in a forest but no one else rocks with me, did I really rock at all?
Tori Amos has been stupefying men for years, be it because of her frank and twisted lyrics, her dominating presence, or simply the way she works her piano bench during a show. She’s every woman wrapped in one—the temptress, the mother, the lover, the daughter, the all-powerful. She’s never been afraid to go at guys head on, attacking stereotypes as well as hard topics with a grace that leaves most men stuttering.
So it’s not surprising that after five albums, a few hits and an accumulation of fans that treat her like a literal fairy godmother, Amos would hack Lorena Bobbit-style at the most masculine thing of all: rock. Her latest disc, Strange Little Girls (Atlantic), is based on the premise of taking seemingly male songs and putting them into the female perspective. Sure, some mullet-boys will quickly cry penis envy. But there’s more to this than spinning around gender identities and issues like a bottle at junior high party.
“I wanted to take a man’s seed and plant it in a woman’s voice and see what would happen,” Amos says. “What are the secrets of men? What are the songs men play when they’re having an affair, or the day after they’ve had sex, or when they want to kill their wife? I wanted to figure this out.”
Of course picking a few songs out of thin air and saying they represent the secrets of half the population is a risky venture. Things get even more tenuous when it’s a woman doing it. So rather than have her experiment negated even before it could be heard, Amos made sure to do her research. She formed what she calls the Laboratory of Men, a collective of male friends that she both trusted and believed wouldn’t push for a Backstreet Boys track. They spent months arguing over what made a particular song dude-worthy, why it spoke to the Y chromosome.
In the end, the Lab came up with 12 songs. Some make complete sense. It’s hard to miss Amos’ meaning behind the haunting—if not a bit melodramatic—reworking of Eminem’s “Bonnie & Clyde ’97.” Or even the Stranglers’ “Strange Little Girl.” But then there are songs like Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence,” Velvet Underground’s “New Age,” or Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” tracks that on the surface don’t really fit the mold. Maybe it’s that the songs have lost some of their punch being placed out of context, both musically and historically. Or maybe it’s the fact that guys just don’t hear what’s so damned offensive—the sonic subtext that gets women pissed.
“OK, take ‘Heart of Gold,’” Amos says, pouncing to her own defense. “Look at what he’s saying: I had to leave a girl even though I really loved her because I’m a player and I can’t not pursue other women, but when I come back I don’t want it to be over. That’s bullshit. He wants a doormat. Fuck that. Do you want someone to walk all over you? Heart of gold my ass.”
One track that does seem to fit is the Beatles’ “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” A tailor-made NRA slogan, the song’s title alone smacks of drinking sixers at the firing range. But according to Amos, that wasn’t even her intended meaning in covering the classic. She instead was hoping to get at the irony behind the song.
“I found out that the inspiration for the song came when Lennon saw an ad for a gun club. He made it all sexual and interesting, and it worked at that time. But what doesn’t work for me now is that a man who was assassinated wrote it. You have to go to the morbid reality of it, the irony that the man that chuckled at that ad was killed by the trigger.”
Of course, all this gender bending has left more than a few people checking their packages. Some have called Strange Little Girls ridiculous, a bunch of PR fluff without any real merit, while others have been quick to praise Amos as one of the last feminist rockers making an impact on the world at large. For Amos, it’s gratifying to have sparked the debate, though it’s not too hard to figure which side she’s rooting for.
“I thought we were building some bridges here, but I guess I was wrong,” she says. “I don’t understand why people are getting upset about this. I guess they just can’t stand a woman who would do this and listen to these songs in her own way. But you don’t control how I listen to something. You can’t say how I should react. But you guys can’t accept the fact that a woman took your seed and made it her own. Well, too bad.”
Tori Amos with Rufus Wainwright. Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Tuesday Nov. 6, 8 p.m. Tickets available through Smith’sTix: 467-TIXX, 800-888-TIXX and www.SmithTix.com.