Treble 100: No. 98, Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes

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Tori Amos Little Earthquakes

Tori Amos cut an unlikely figure with the release 30 years ago of Little Earthquakes. It was simultaneously an elevation from the glossy, dancey Top 40 of the day and a distillation of conceits from college rock and late New Wave. But for all of its recognizable singer-songwriter tropes stretching back to Joni Mitchell, it was also loaded with the frustration and pain shared by the riot grrrl movement that was just starting to gain recognition at that same moment. There’s a bright line of female musicians whose work was so informed as to be considered nerdy in the pejorative sense, and some with styles so distinct as to draw both high praise and cruel criticism. Tori Amos transcended, giving jaunty, eloquent tones to songs of liberation from (or in) even the most extreme situations. 

From her youth, Amos showed prodigious piano talent and a flair for the contradictory and controversial. She thumbed her nose at formal training and relied on what could only be described as synesthesia; her religious upbringing below the Mason-Dixon Line didn’t stop her performance trial-by-fire in its bars. Signing to Atlantic Records as a teenager, she honed her craft on the West Coast for years until a band and first album were assembled around her in disastrous fashion. Y Kant Tori Read in 1988 muted her arrangements under half-baked synthrock, a distant echo of far superior sounds found on, say, Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion.

Stung by such an unproductive debut yet obligated to continue on her contract, Amos worked with her boyfriend and a new crew of musicians and producers on a solo album in Los Angeles and then, pivotally, London. The focus shifted to just her voice and piano expertly delivering a series of songs flying in the face of fear and subjugation. Life attempted to imitate art here, as stories suggest that big label mahoffs wanted her Little Earthquakes piano parts replaced with a lead guitar. Yet overseas markets and crowds quickly adopted her eccentricities of whisper, of melisma, of straddling her piano bench in live performance to temper her lyrical gravitas with Elton John showmanship. One of her centerpiece choruses was becoming prophecy: “She’s been everybody else’s girl/Maybe one day she’ll be her own.”

Her music was tailor-made for the rise in the early 1990s of the adult album alternative (AAA) format from programmatically liberal public radio and well-funded college stations. WXPN, the now-juggernaut of a “college” radio station out of the University of Pennsylvania, was both of these. Outlets like XPN and the World Cafe program it syndicated gave Tori Amos a platform in America that scuzzy, anarchic outposts like their neighbors at Drexel University’s WKDU couldn’t muster with the perceived stink of a major label on her. I reviewed Little Earthquakes for Drexel’s newspaper, but heard her on Penn’s airwaves first. It feels like a heavily produced album but a clean and clear one as well, one that lets us quickly identify Amos’ immediate contemporaries: the airy poetics of Kate Bush, the quirky earnestness of Björk, the blunt-force drama of Sinead O’Connor.

The rebellion embraced by Amos and her louder peers in grunge was more than just palpable, it was prescient, giving overdue oxygen to ideas and concepts we’re only collectively naming and recognizing now. This album serves as a roadmap to finding your voice, especially after it had been hidden by personal sacrifice, the decisions of others, or the patriarchy that influenced these. Amos’ “Mother” tells her, “Tuck those ribbons under/Your helmet, be a good soldier,” evidence of the long-standing conflict of being delicate and yet strong at the same time. “China” describes a battle lost in that war, lost to a partner’s secrets and isolation. And “Crucify” is an internal directive to accept that things are not her fault, that pushover is not a default status and self-hatred is not a healthy response. Hers is a story of affirmation, even if the chapters are out of order.

Little Earthquakes comprises an important example of Generation X rock attempting to unpack trauma, in particular generational trauma. Amos addresses breakups in “Tear in Your Hand” and death in “Happy Phantom,” clearly with more aplomb than your average strange little girl. Of the tracks tied to specific triggering themes or incidents, few are as stark and vital as “Me and a Gun.” Not the first rock song about sexual assault, and sadly not the last, her a capella juxtaposes the horror of her own rape with imagined, dissociative Thelma & Louise elements of revenge and escape. But it’s family, specifically Amos’ devout family, and even more specifically her “anti-Christ” of a spiteful, conservative grandmother haunting Little Earthquakes endlessly.

The title track is a study in how a pebble of disagreement can disturb the pond of a relationship, centered on Amos removing herself and her emotional labor from increasingly toxic situations. This is about as soft-focus as Tori’s snapshots get, and to reach that point you have to make your way through a tracklist front-loaded with smartly acidic critiques including the diptych of “Precious Things” and her first de facto anthem “Silent All These Years,” as much then-new statements of pride in herself as they were breaks from her past.

With an album, attitude, and sound that would soon give rise to the Alanis Morissettes and Fiona Apples of the world, Tori Amos did write one true love song here: “Winter,” for her father, embracing his advice and memories. It’s the only time on Little Earthquakes where she seems to have an ally or protector, even if he’s present only to remind her to stand up for herself and pursue her dreams. The climactic line in each chorus goes, “You say that things change, my dear,” and Amos stresses the word “change” as though her father is telling her what can happen. I’m starting to wonder if the most important word in that line is actually “you,” and it’s more his exhortation on how to make it happen. Things can change, you can handle or escape the alphas (or even the Alpha and Omega) in your life, but not without acting up in the first place. The answer to every unasked question or unspoken demand is always no. Little Earthquakes shows Tori Amos discovering how to ask, and relentlessly finding her way to yes.

Note: This article originally was published in 2022 and has been updated.

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